whatdidyouexpect
 

GE Debate on the Web

Helen Varley Jamieson, 22 July 2002

As GE continues to dominate the build-up to the election, the biggest problem facing the punters is where to find reliable, objective information about the long-term consequences of lifting the moratorium on releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment. Are the answers to be found on the web?

One organisation that purports to be "an independent and objective source of credible information on agricultural biotechnology for the public, media and policymakers" is the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology (pewagbiotech.org), established by Richmond University (USA).

The site is well-designed and very up-to-date (carrying the Seeds of Distrust story the day it broke) and though based in the United States, it has a global focus. There is a comprehensive links section, stretching from the Organic Consumers' Association to seed companies Monsanto and Novartis. The Pew Initiative aims to encourage debate and dialogue around the issues through its online polls, e-mail lists and discussion forums.
Physicians and Scientists for the Responsible Application of Science and Technology (PSRAST) has developed a website (www.psrast.org/indexeng.htm) "written so that everyone can understand the potential problems without prior knowledge about genetics" and designed to be accessible to people no matter what Internet connection they have.

Yes, it's text-based and reasonably fast, but little thought has been given to creating user-friendly navigation and the long pages of text are quite off-putting. However, if you are really interested in understanding the issue, the content is worth delving into, and the second page has a succinct and readable summary of this group's conclusions.
Meanwhile, back in clean, green Aotearoa, our Government has thoughtfully provided its citizens with a GM information site (www.gm.govt.nz). A large amount of the home page is wasted space – even with my browser window filling the screen, I had to scroll down to find the navigation. The copy has been written for 12-year-olds, and statements such as "New Zealand has a strict system for controlling genetic modification and managing potential risks" are hardly reassuring in light of recent events.

If this site is too simplistic for you, try the report of the Royal Commission on Genetic Engineering (www.gmcommission.govt.nz). This is available online as a series of PDFs, or you can buy the definitive report in print for bedtime reading, or in CD-Rom format. Commentary on the report from both sides of the debate is available at sites such as the Green Party (www.greens.org.nz) and the New Zealand Institute of Food Science and Technology (www.nzifst.org.nz/gmfoods.htm).

Once you start digging, there's no end of interesting information to find on the web. For instance, when I searched on Google for "consumer demand for GE free", top of the results was a media release from June 2000 announcing that Novartis (the company behind the possibly-contaminated corn of "Seeds of Distrust") was bowing to consumer pressure and no longer using GE ingredients in its food products (including Ovaltine, baby foods and health products). Clearly there's a market for GE free food; yet the company still continues to produce and sell genetically modified seeds ...

We have more than enough information at our fingertips. It's not a matter of public ignorance or confusion – the simple fact is that at the end of the day, no-one - no scientist or politician or clairvoyant – knows absolutely what the long-term consequences of releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment might be.

We didn't know the consequences of 245T when it was sprayed around the country; we didn't know the consequences of thalidomide when it was prescribed to pregnant women; we didn't know the consequences of nuclear bombs when they were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We do now.

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