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New US biofood study tainted by industry ties-lawmakers

Date: 05-Apr-00
Country: USA
Author: Julie Vorman

The report will wade into the debate between sceptics and advocates of
gene-spliced crops, attempting to offer a purely scientific view of whether
existing U.S. rules balance the risks and benefits of biotech crops.

It comes at the same time the food and agribusiness industries are launching a
$50 million public relations campaign to persuade American consumers that
gene-spliced foods are safe.

The companies aim to prevent a repeat of the European backlash against biofoods
by emphasising how genetically altered crops can reduce pesticide use, offer
enhanced nutrition and help feed a burgeoning world population.

The study is likely to influence the policy debate among U.S. food companies,
lawmakers, agribusiness and consumer groups who disagree on whether biofoods need
more stringent regulation.

LAWMAKERS CLAIM CONFLICT OF INTEREST

The National Academy of Sciences document, prepared by a panel of well-known
scientists, has already been attacked as "tainted" by Representative Dennis
Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat, and Representative Jack Metcalf, a Washington
Republican.

The lawmakers contend the report should be scrapped. The academy should start
over with a new panel of scientists free of any ties to the biotech industry and
take another look at whether the federal government has adequate biotech
regulations in place to protect human and environmental safety, they said.

"Any conclusions in the Genetically Modified Pest Protected Plants study are
tainted by pervasive conflicts of interest among its authors," the two lawmakers
said in a letter to the scientific group which ranks as one of the nation's most
respected and authoritative.

The report's conclusions were kept secret until its public release on Wednesday
morning.

The study grew out of a heated battle over the Environmental Protection Agency's
attempt to regulate plants engineered to protect themselves against destructive
bugs. Typical of the new breed of plants is Bt corn, a variety that has a gene
inserted to resist the destructive European corn borer.

The issue became even more controversial last summer when Cornell researchers
found pollen from Bt corn can be deadly for the monarch butterfly. Further
research is now underway.

Kucinich and Metcalf favour stricter regulation of biofoods. They introduced
legislation this year calling for mandatory labels on foods made with
gene-spliced soybeans, corn and other crops as well as an overhaul of how the
federal government approves biotech foods. Neither bill is expected to win enough
support for passage this year.

The lawmakers criticised the academy's staff officer in charge of the study,
Michael Phillips, who resigned last summer to accept a job with the Biotechnology
Industry Organisation. The trade group is funded by food, seed and drug
companies.

Phillips "was presumably negotiating with BIO for a job while he was still the
responsible staff officer at the National Academy of Sciences and exercising
considerable influence over the report process," the lawmakers said.

The Biotechnology Industry Organisation defended Phillips, saying he left the
project months before it ended and had no part in authoring the report.

ACADEMY TO LOOK AT OTHER BIOTECH ISSUES

The congressmen also criticised four other members of the panel - scientists at
the University of Nebraska, Washington State University, North Carolina State
University and Ohio State University - for accepting research funds from the
biotech food industry.

The head of the National Academy of Sciences, E.W. Colglazier, said the biotech
report did not reflect any bias, based on rigorous peer review by other
scientists.

"The process by which we conduct studies ensures our independence from potential
outside influences, including political pressures from government officials,
lobbying groups, or others," Colglazier said in a letter to the lawmakers.

The academy's study, now four

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