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GM Contamination

Community Affairs Wednesday 23 February

Senator SIEWERT—You are probably aware of Mr Marsh’s case in Western Australia. It has certainly been a hot topic of conversation for many people in WA. Have you relooked at your processes or what level of involvement you have had since that case has come to light and since part of Mr Marsh’s property has been decertified?

Dr Smith—Perhaps if I take a step back in the process of the approval of the commercial release of this particular Roundup Ready canola. In 2003 it was licensed for commercial cultivation by the Gene Technology Regulator. I think I need to emphasise here that the responsibilities fall under the Gene Technology Act versus the responsibilities of the industry and the states and territories in this situation. The Gene Technology Act focuses specifically on risks to health and safety and the environment arising as a result of gene technology and whether those risks can be managed.
When that decision was made it was made on the basis of the Gene Technology Regulator concluding that genetically modified Roundup Ready canola was as safe for human health and the environment as was conventional canola. That was the basis on which the decision was made. On that basis there was also no rationale or no justification for putting in place under the Gene Technology Act limitations or restrictions on where it might be grown.

Quite separately under the national regulatory scheme for gene technology each state and territory reserves the right—and there is a policy principle established by the Gene Technology Ministerial Council embedding this in the legislation—to take their own decisions on the basis of trade or marketing considerations, economic considerations. They are not matters which the Gene Technology Regulator can take into account. To cut through all of that, between 2003 and most recently in 2010, as you would be aware, commercial cultivation of GM canola was allowed for the first time in Western Australia by the Western Australian government. This was after they had looked closely at various measures that they needed to be satisfied of in that regard. So the issues around Mr Marsh’s current situation are issues that relate to segregation and marketing and coexistence issues of commercially approved Roundup Ready canola. So they are more matters for the state of Western Australia and the industry involved.

Senator SIEWERT—Is it your opinion that it is segregation that has caused the problem and not contamination from other sources, as in blowing from next door?

Dr Smith—I am not privy to the detailed report that has been provided. I understand that the Western Australian Department of Agriculture has looked into this issue and provided a report but I have not seen the report so I cannot comment on the conclusions that they have reached.

Senator SIEWERT—The point that I am trying to get to is: if it is dependent on how Mr Marsh’s property was contaminated—and I appreciate there is going to be legal action around that—does it raise concerns about potential for environmental contamination? We have also seen contamination on roadside verges and so on. Does that pose a potential risk to the environment?

Dr Smith—I would like to go back to my original comment. There was an extensive assessment of the risk to the environment posed by this particular genetically modified canola, and the conclusion, after that very extensive assessment, was that it posed no greater risk to the environment than conventional canola, and that conclusion is still valid.

Senator SIEWERT—Despite the fact that you have not seen the report?

Dr Smith—I think the report is covering different matters. It is looking at how Mr Marsh’s property came to be contaminated. It is not looking at issues of risk to the environment.

Senator SIEWERT—Surely they are interlinked, depending on how Mr Marsh’s property was contaminated. Given the properties of genetically modified canola, does that pose a greater risk to the environment, depending on the method of contamination? How do you know it is not going to spread further into the environment?

Dr Smith—Whether it is genetically modified canola or not, if seeds drop somewhere or if it has blown around it will cultivate or germinate, but that is not to say that those particular germinated plants are posing a more significant risk to the environment than non-genetically-modified canola.

Senator SIEWERT—How do you destroy it if it is in the environment?

Dr Smith—There are a number of ways to destroy it. You could destroy it by mechanical methods, by slashing, and by using other chemicals.

Senator SIEWERT—Can you use Roundup on it?

Dr Smith—No. Obviously that is the intention of the genetic modification.

Senator SIEWERT—Exactly. So it is not the same as spreading non-genetically-modified canola.

Dr Smith—That is true, but in terms of the risk to the environment, where you look at issues such as weediness and persistence, which are the sorts of things that you consider in an environmental risk assessment, this Roundup Ready canola is as safe for the environment as conventional canola.

Senator SIEWERT—Thank you.

Senator XENOPHON—As a result of the incident involving Mr Marsh’s property, will the OGTR review the whole issue of buffer zones and appropriate distances?

Dr Smith—There are two issues in terms of buffer zones. In relation to commercial release, where a conclusion has been made, as I mentioned before, that it is safe to the environment and to health and safety, which is the focus of the Gene Technology Act, as non-genetically-modified canola there is no basis, nor were any buffer zones or isolation zones put in place, when the original decision was taken to commercially license the cultivation of that genetically modified crop.

Where the Gene Technology Regulator’s responsibility comes into effect in relation to buffer zones is in respect of the conduct of field trials, or what we call limited and controlled releases. After we have done a risk assessment on those things we will set in place very stringent requirements for measures to restrict and contain the potential spread or persistence, such as significant isolation zones, pollen traps and so on. To answer your question, we are continually reviewing our procedures and our approaches to the setting of buffer zones.

Senator XENOPHON—Will you as a result of Mr Marsh’s case?

Dr Smith—We will take that information into account. Again, I emphasise that it is a different situation from where our responsibilities lie.

Senator ADAMS—Have you looked at flash flooding? I actually come from Kojonup, where this property is, and they have had quite a lot of rain, so the whole thing has just gone right through anyway. It is not going through the environment; it has gone through the stubbles.

Dr Smith—Again, in relation to commercial release it is a different matter here because there were no restrictions put in place, nor was there a basis to put them in place. When we are looking at approval of field trials, for example, we try to take into account in our risk assessment, as much as possible, the weather conditions around the place. Obviously you cannot predict everything that might occur in extreme weather events, so you need to be realistic. We have requirements in our licences, for example, for contingency plans for that sort of thing to occur. Those contingency plans include immediately notifying the regulator, and we work with people to deal with situations should they arise.

CHAIR—I thank the officers from the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator.

Senator SIEWERT—I wanted a bit more clarification on the charges. Now that I have them in front of me it is easier for me to ask. With the charges that you scoped, that were negotiated down to 800-and-something thousand, do I correctly interpret this to say that they then paid $367,000?

Ms Halton—I will have to check.

Senator SIEWERT—I just want to be really clear. What they wanted actually cost $800,409.58.

Ms Halton—Yes.

Senator SIEWERT—And it says, ‘Before agreement was reached a request with estimated charges of $367,000.’ It cost $800,000, but they paid $300,000. I am trying to get my head around that.

Mr Cotterell—The original scope of the request cost $1.4 million and then we had a negotiation that brought it down to $800,000 and that cost was still not agreeable. We had another negotiation to reduce the scope further and we landed at $367,000.

Senator SIEWERT—It is the same for the other one?

Mr Cotterell—That is right.

Senator SIEWERT—Does that include all the negotiation time?

Mr Cotterell—No.

Senator SIEWERT—Would you have a ballpark figure for how much that was?

Ms Halton—An awful lot.

Senator SIEWERT—It does not include, for example, those extra six to nine staff that you have had on at various times?

Ms Halton—No.

Senator SIEWERT—I just wanted to be really clear on that. Thank you.

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