Scientist attacks politician comments on GM

News in Science, ABC online  

Monday, 2/8/99

A New Zealand expert on evolutionary genetics has attacked comments made by one of the few Australian health ministers to support labelling of genetically modified foods.

Dr Peter Wills, a theoretical biologist from the University of Auckland, attacked comments by the Queensland Health Minister, Wendy Edmond (ALP), that genetic engineering was an extension of traditional breeding practices. The comments come on the eve of a ministerial meeting in Canberra to discuss the issue.

"That extrapolation is rubbish," Dr Wills told The Lab. "The whole point of genetic engineering is to overcome the restrictions of sexual reproduction."

"Evolutionary theory dictates that such barriers are essential for species to remain stable. So crossing them is a very significant event."

Ms Edmond said that she would be supporting the labelling of genetically engineered food at a health minister’s meeting in Canberra tomorrow but indicated she thought people misunderstood the nature of genetic engineering.

"I think people don’t often realise that cross-breeding that we’ve done in the cattle industry to get strains of cattle that give us tender meat which is still lean, that’s genetic modification," she said.

"Similarly, to get sweeter easy-to-peel mandarines, things like that. What genetic modification in the laboratory does is speed up that process."

But Dr Wills disagrees.

"Cross-breeding does indeed speed up natural processes but it is a fundamentally different technique from genetic engineering," he said.

"In the long term, use of genetic engineernig runs the risk of completely blowing ecological stability as we know it. This is the most important risk that the health ministers should be taking into consideration tomorrow."

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