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False dawn, GM future

The Australian community and state and federal government are being seriously manipulated by the GM industry into rushing unthinkingly into the brave new world of GM food. Despite pumping millions of dollars into research on genetically manipulated crops, government has not properly questioned the industry's claims, looked at the facts or put in place an appropriate regulatory system.

The safety of GM crops and GM foods has not been established. In fact there is considerable scientific evidence of GM health risks. And yet there are inadequate safeguards to ensure that we are not exposed to such risks. In surveys over decades, Australian consumers have repeatedly stated that they do not want to eat GM foods and have called for labelling so that they might avoid GM ingredients. Unfortunately, our GM food labelling laws fall well short of those of the European Union and there is virtually no policing of the laws we do have.

The regulatory body that assesses the health effects of eating GM foods is Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). FSANZ does no safety experiments itself, relying on paper-based assessments of information provided by the companies themselves: that is, research the companies themselves commission, oversee and pay for. FSANZ does not require human or animal safety studies to be carried out. Nor does it have a process to review the safety of GM crops if adverse health effects are found after approval.

In particular, the oils from GM crops are not labelled, even though approximately 300,000 tons of cottonseed oil, most of which comes from GM cotton, is carried into Australia's food supply annually. It can be diluted into a market that could remain uninformed of its existence. Recently, both the Victorian and NSW state governments dropped their moratoria against growing GM canola. This means a large quantity of oil from GM canola can also be expected to enter the Australian food supply -unlabelled and quietly filtered into other food supply chains. The massive loopholes in the labelling standards for GM foods result in consumers being completely unaware that they are eating GM foods.

Surely the least that we can expect is the opportunity to weigh up the risks and make informed decisions about our possible intake of GM foods. We already expect, and currently have similar requirements for food labelling and safety controls relating to allergies, dietary requirements and other health concerns.

Jeffrey Smith, in his recently published book Genetic Roulette, identifies sixty-five GM health risks. A recent example of just how things could go wrong comes from our own CSIRO, which developed a GM pea and carried out allergy studies on it when it was fed to animals (note that such trials are not usually carried out in Australia). The pea was found to cause immunological responses in animals, which means it could well cause allergic reactions in humans. Fortunately, this particular pea has not been released commercially. There are other examples overseas of links between allergic reactions and GM foods but to date no country that allows GM foods has a surveillance system to monitor their health effects.

The GM industry now runs the line that Australia is behind the rest of the world in GM development and that we will lose billions of dollars if we don't jump on the GM bandwagon. What a load of nonsense. For a start, this assessment is based on biased industry-supplied data and assumes a 100 per cent take-up of GM crops throughout Australia. Secondly, GM crops make up just 1.3 per cent of the world's productive land, and 95 per cent of GM crops are grown in North and South America for animal feed.

The GM industry would also have us believe that GM crops produce more yield and will solve supply problems like those associated with drought. To date there are no commercial GM drought crops grown anywhere in the world. More importantly, the final report of the United Nations' International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, a major project looking at how to feed the world's expanding population, found no conclusive evidence that GM crops increase productivity.

The report by more than 4000 scientists said that several studies had found GM soybeans and corn to suffer a 5-10 per cent reduction in yields. It found there were no other GM crops close to commercial use that might increase yields or resist droughts. It concluded that GM crops could not play a substantial role in solving the key problems of climate change, biodiversity loss, hunger or poverty.

Also of concern is who owns GM seeds. To date Monsanto owns 90 per cent of all GM crop seeds, making it illegal for farmers to collect and replant seed, which means they are required to keep buying it year after year. This is bad for farmers and bad for our food. If more GM crops are developed, these too will be owned by private companies. I can't see this being of benefit to Australian farmers or consumers, or to developing nations.

Small trials and some commercial plantings have occurred in Australia that have resulted in contamination. If Australian GM-free farms are contaminated and lose markets, farmers have no legal protection or ability to seek compensation. The federal government has said that farmers whose land is contaminated by neighbours' GM crops will be protected by common law, but the experience of canola farmers in Canada should serve as a warning. Far from enjoying common law protection, Canadian canola farmers have been sued by aggressive bio-tech companies claiming unlawful use of patented plants!

One such Canadian farmer, Percy Schmeiser, was brought to court by chemical company Monsanto for growing its patented Round-Up resistant canola seed without consent. Schmeiser argued that he had only used seeds harvested by him, and that the GM seed must have blown in from neighbouring farms. Monsanto claimed he had deliberately avoided payment to Monsanto. He was ordered to pay more than US$100,000 in costs, resulting in a precedent being set for the protection of biotech corporations

The Greens believe that the biotech companies pushing this technology onto the community should be legally responsible for losses that GM-free farms suffer as a result of contamination. GM crops can be freely carried by natural elements into areas that have been purposely kept GM-free, against those farmers' wishes or controls.

This is just a small sample of the issues of concern around GM crops and GM food. I have not touched on the environmental issues: the spread of weeds, development of super weeds, over-use of pesticides and herbicides, or the impact on the marketing of Australia's clean green image. All these issues need to be addressed before we rush headlong into embracing GM foods.

Published by Arena Magazine

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