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Ex-biotech worker cool on GM products

(Sunday, Nov. 3, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

Karen Briere, Western Producer, 10/31/02: Farmers were never asked if they wanted genetically modified crops, yet the acreage is increasing at an alarming rate, says a university professor who used to work in the biotech industry.

Elizabeth Abergel, assistant professor of multidisciplinary studies at York University, said innovations came from labs staffed by people like her, who know nothing about farming < work.

"We never asked farmers what they need," she said recently at the University of Regina. "We don't actually give them a choice."

But North American farmers planted millions of acres of GM crops this year, compared to none just six years ago, she said.

Abergel, who grew up in France, pointed to a report released by the British Soil Association in September, which said GM crops have been an economic disaster in the United States and Canada.

"It said North American farmers were not reaping the benefits of biotech and concluded that GM crops have been a practical and economic disaster," Abergel said.

The report said GM soybeans, corn and canola cost the U.S. economy $12 billion since 1999 in subsidies, lower prices, loss of exports and product recalls.

It also urged British farmers suffering from an economic crisis to not be tempted to seize new technology.

"GM was introduced to the U.S.A. when farmers were financially vulnerable," said the soil association's policy director, Peter Melchett, in a news release.

"The biotechnology industry's claims that their products would bring benefits were widely accepted, but GM crops have now proved to be a financial liability."

Abergel said farmers shouldn't be blamed for growing these crops. Canada's flexible regulatory system allows them to be fast-tracked to become commercially available.

"We don't know if they are safe environmentally," she said. "There is no transparency in our regulatory system at all."

Abergel said GM crops that ended up as food aid have been refused in some countries, even though agencies such as the World Health Organization have endorsed them as a way to feed the hungry.

She also decried the lack of independent scientists, saying unbiased information is unavailable.

"The ones that are daring to challenge the scientific basis on which these crops are approved are marginalized."

Abergel said there is too much evidence that GM crops are not the "messianic" crops they were purported to be.

Problems with herbicide resistance and segregation are occurring.

"Farmers and consumers have the burden of proof," she said. "Farmers are now held responsible for gene escapes < genes that they did not want in their crops."