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Natural is no Guarantee of Safety

21.nov.00, Shane Morris and Douglas Powell, K-W Record A9

This month, new research showed that the so-called natural pesticide, rotenone, may be associated with Parkinson's disease. As the news began to slowly circulate the saying by Victor Cohn (a once senior columnist with the Washington Post) that "Scientists are to journalists what rats are to scientists" came to mind.

The research in question showed that rotenone was able to produce Parkinson's disease in rats when it was administered via injected in low doses. Except that most rats - and humans -- do not willingly undertake direct injections of any sort of pesticide, natural or not. So the results and their applicability to human health remain controversial.

But, rats are one of the --albeit blurry -- windows on long-term human health effects. So are natural pesticides potentially dangerous?

In the fall of 1998, Dr. Arpad Pusztai of the U.K. told television interviewers that a handful of rats feed genetically-engineered and conventional potatoes displayed some differences; differences that soon became a mantra for many around the globe, including journalists, as evidence of hypothetical danger associated with genetically-engineered crops.

Yet all the experiments really proved were that rats don't like potatoes. On the other hand, the experiments flagging the possible dangers of rotenone, which has been marketed and used in the public domain for many decades as a so-called natural pesticide and is used (but not very widely) by organic growers and in a variety of commercial garden and animal-care products, barely stirred the interest of journalists.

Why was it that one story received so much more attention than the other? Was it that in the case of Dr. Pusztai's rats that opponents of so-called genetically modified or GM food (of who the loudest often tend to be connected to the organic food movement) pushed and promoted the story for their own cause? After all, if conventional foods are deemed safe for both people and the environment, then in the absence of a media flurry, why would consumers pay more for hypothetical benefits?

The same media forces that propelled Dr. Pusztai's rats to mainstream conversation have been largely silent when it comes to the rotenone rats. Is it possible that as the organic movement uses rotenone itself that they are choosing to remain quite on this occasion? Surely this action (or lack thereof) brings to light a severe case of double standards. For example we have yet to see the Greenpeace press release condemning organic farmers for using rotenone and demanding the immediate removal of the approximately 680 rotenone-containing products from the supermarket shelves.

The latest findings about rotenone, which need to be confirmed, underscore a fundamental approach that North American regulators have taken to a variety of products, including geneticaly-engineered foods: that is, that nature is not benign, and regardless of the process used to create new foods -- be it genetic engineering, conventional breeding, and a whole host of powerful techniques in between, the end-product needs to undergo a scientifically valid safety assessments. And natural does not automatically mean safe.

Shane Morris is a research assistant and Douglas Powell is an assistant professor with the Centre for Safe Food at the University of Guelph.