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CP Wire | October 18, 1999 | ANDREA BAILLIE

TORONTO - Canada's pre-eminent pop scientist says Canadians have become unwitting guinea pigs in a nationwide study on the effects of genetically modified foods.

"We are performing a massive experiment," Dr. David Suzuki said Sunday.

"The results will only be known after millions of people have been exposed to (these foods) for decades."

Suzuki's cautionary words wrapped up a four-day meeting of the Canadian Health Food Association, where the regulation of genetically modified foods has been a pressing concern.

It is estimated that 70 per cent of food currently sold in Canadian supermarkets is genetically modified. Despite this, there are few labels to identify which foods have been altered.

"Any politician or scientist who tells you these products are safe is either very stupid or lying," said Suzuki. "The experiments have simply not been done."

In recent months, the potential ill-effects of genetically altered foods has become a hot potato for health officials around the world.

In Europe, protesters have raided farms and lobbied restaurants, labelling the altered products "Frankenstein foods." In England, medical officials are demanding a government study to determine whether the modified foods could cause new cancers, birth defects or danger to the immune system.

Health Canada has insisted that the products approved in this country are thoroughly tested for allergenic and toxic effects, but Suzuki says there is simply not enough evidence to back that claim.

"The hazards of (these foods) are uncertain," he said. "In view of our enormous ignorance, the premature application of biotechnology is downright dangerous."

At issue, he said, are fundamental laws of genetics. Those rules are based on "vertical inheritance." With genetically modified foods, scientists are assuming that when they transfer genes to different species horizontally, the behaviour of those genes will be the same as when they follow them vertically.

"It is simply bad science to make that assumption," said Suzuki. "You have changed the context within which this new gene finds itself. Therefore what the behaviour of the new gene will be, we simply cannot say."

A Saskatchewan researcher told a bio-tech conference in Saskatoon that corporate greed, not society's needs, is driving the push towards genetically modified foods.

Lynn Oliphant, of the Prairie Institute for Human Ecology, also accused multinational companies of forcing farmers to use modified seeds.

"Saskatchewan farmers will be duped into thinking that they should go for genetically modified crops and then find out there is no one else in the world willing to buy them," Oliphant said.

Suzuki called for a moratorium on genetically modified foods until more is known about the long-term health effects. In the meantime, he wants Canadians to demand mandatory labelling for altered foods.

"I am astounded at the reluctance of the Canadian public to show its outrage at what we're doing to our air, water and food," said Suzuki.

"What we are acquiring is the brute technological power to bludgeon nature.

"Each new insight reminds us of how ignorant we remain. We need a bit more perspective."