Go GM Free in Australia
By Bhavani Prakash
Today sees an important report being released by Greenpeace Australia against GM wheat trials in the country. These trials are clearly, as the report alleges, a result of government-industry nexus, rather than for the interests of consumers or farmers. Featured here are the various GM campaigns in Australia and the people behind them as well as a video interview with two leading GM activists.
Australia is one of the leading food exporters in the world, which is all the more reason for the rest of us outside the country to pay close attention to the developments there, especially regarding the regulation or non-regulation of GM crops.
Particularly disturbing are the recent GM wheat trials which have been approved by CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia’s national science agency responsible to the Australian government.
Claire Parfitt, Sustainable Agriculture Campaigner for Greenpeace Australia filled me in on the details on my recent trip to Sydney.
According to Parfitt, “GM wheat trials have been planted in 5 locations across Australia. We expect another 4 trials to be planted in the next few weeks. The development of GM wheat is accelerating in Australia and is extending around the world. Just this week, the UK government received an application for the trial of GM wheat”
She also added in response to my query about the exposure Singapore has to Australian wheat, it “imports around 350,000 tonnes of wheat in 2010 of which the USA supplied roughly 60,000 tonnes and Australia roughly 100,000 tonnes. It is also highly likely that Australian wheat is processed in Indonesia and then sent on to Singapore as processed foodstuffs.”
No doubt it is also highly likely that GM wheat, if commercialised,could find its way into some Asian countries either directly through imports, or by their opening up borders to GM wheat trials.
Greenpeace Australia has in fact released today an important report entitled “Australia’s Wheat Scandal: The Biotech Takeover of Our Daily Food” which alleges that Australia’s national science body CSIRO is in partnership with biotech companies to commercialise GM wheat. The full-fledged report can be downloaded here.
The Greenpeace report highlights large gaps in the risk analysis on GM wheat including • Lack of specification over which foreign gene has been inserted into the wheat plants • Lack of genetic mapping to determine the number of foreign genes inserted or how stable the resulting GMO is • Lack of testing for toxic and allergic effects of GM wheat and • Failure to provide a credible plan to prevent GM wheat from contaminating in the field.
The key points in the report Australia’s Wheat Scandal: The Biotech Takeover of Our Daily Food which can be downloaded here are:
*Australia is among the world’s top ﬁve wheat exporters. GM wheat has been rejected by all of the other major wheat growing nations.
*There is a long history of the evidence of GM contamination in Australia. Details of 29 reported incidents of contamination and 169 breaches of security licenses issued by the Ofﬁce of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) are recorded.
*This year’s GM wheat trials were proposed and approved while two directors of Nufarm were serving on the board of the CSIRO. Nufarm is the exclusive distributor of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready products in Australia.
* Clearly, the Australian Government is well aware of the risks of releasing GM wheat into the environment. OGTR itself says “Gene technology has the potential to cause unintended effects due to the process used to insert new genetic material or by producing a gene product that affects multiple traits” and that “ there may be unintended effects due to random insertion of the introduced genetic material…”
*The CSIRO announced that GM wheat from this year’s ﬁeld trials in the ACT (Australia Common Territories) will be used for human feeding trials. This will be the ﬁrst time in the world that GM wheat will be tested on humans. However,there is currently no publicly available information on the parameters of these animal-feeding studies and the OGTR does not require testing for potential toxic or allergic effects. The limited public information that is available indicates that CSIRO’s tests on rats and pigs will run for just 28 days before GM wheat is tested on humans. The ﬁrst two phases of human tests will go for just one day.
*To determine if GM crops are safe to eat, Australia’s food regulator relies on the data provided by corporations invested in GM development. The lack of independent testing is cause for concern, and those independent studies that do exist have produced alarming results. Independent analysis of biotech ratfeeding data, retrieved through a court order, found signs of toxicity in the GMfed rat groups were signiﬁ cantly higher than non-GM fed groups, with greatest impact on the kidney and liver.
Two leading organisations in addition to Greenpeace Australia which are determined GM Free campaigners are MADGE Australia and Gene Ethics. I met up with Fran Murrell, one of the co-founders of the voluntary group MADGE (Mothers Are Demystifying Genetic Engineering) who, quite fortunately, was in Sydney that week from Melbourne to deliver a few talks. In the video below, she dwells on the need for better food labelling in Australia, and the campaign by Greenpeace to remove S-26 Soy, a Pfizer manufactured infant formula milk with GM content. Australian mothers had last year protested to remove S-26 soy from supermarket shelves.
Murrell also touched upon the loopholes in GM labelling in Australia. Though there is a requirement for mandatory labelling, several highly refined ingredients such as sugars, oils, starches, soy-based ingredients like soy lecithin, as well as dairy products from cows that have been fed on GM animal feed escape the labelling process.
Gene Ethics is Australia’s leading non-profit organisation promoting a GM Free Australia for the last 24 years. Vivienne Reiner, Media Officer at Gene Ethics highlighted the Steve Marsh case where an organic farmer in Western Australia had lost his organic farm’s certification due to contamination from his neighbour’s GM Canola, and is now using his own funds to bring a lawsuit against his neighbour. Steve Marsh needs financial help to carry this through, and donations are welcome through the Steve Marsh Benefit Fund.
The outcome of the Steve Marsh lawsuit could become an important legal precedent for Australia and the rest of the world. Seed companies like Monsanto can sue farmers whose crops have become contaminated by GM crops, under the pretext of infringing patent rules, despite it not being their fault. This was portrayed effectively in the movie, Food Inc.
Here is the video interview with Fran Murrell of MADGE Australia and Vivienne Reiner of Gene Ethics.
Video link here
Badly required is a “Farmer’s Protection Fund” as suggested by Greenpeace’s Claire Parfitt whom I mentioned earlier. It puts the financial liability on seed companies rather than on the individual farmer who finds his field contaminated by GM crops. Here’s an extract from Greenpeace’s write-up on the subject which explains this clearly:
“Australia currently offers no legal protection for farmers whose land is contaminated with genetically modified (GM) seed patented by multinational companies. The result is that a farmer whose crop is contaminated with GM seed that they did not plant, receives no financial compensation for the costs of contamination. The costs of contamination are significant, ranging from the loss of non-GM premiums of $50 per tonne for conventional canola and $500-$800 per tonne for organic wheat to the costs of attempting to remove GM seed and plants over a number of years. Farmers can also be forced to pay royalties to patent owners for use of their seed, even though they did not choose to plant GM seed.
Greenpeace has developed draft legislation to protect Australian farmers by placing liability for GM contamination clearly with the GM companies that hold the patents to GM seed.
By establishing a Farmer Protection Fund, to be overseen by Farmer Protection Administration Boards in each state and territory, governments can ensure that traditional farmers don’t bear all of the costs associated with GM. This approach also avoids the need for individual litigation that pits farmer against farmer.
The funding for a Farmer Protection Fund would be provided through a GM industry bond, paid by the biotech industry per acreage of GM seed sown and held by government as a deposit against potential damages caused to Australian farmlands. Similar industry funds operate in a number of sectors in Australia, the mining industry for example, to ensure that the Australian government balances Australian’s interests with the benefits of investment by multinational companies.”
It is to everyone’s benefit that we observe closely what happens with the GM campaigns in Australia as we’re all interlinked in a globalised trading regime. We can also support the various campaigns by the organisations mentioned above, by signing petitions and spreading the word around, and equally important as Fran Murrell says in the video, questioning what is in our food and how it is made.
The future of food, believe it or not, is literally in our hands, because it is alert and vocal citizens of the world like you and me who can and need to create a powerful and collective force against the relentless onslaught of global agribusiness that is driven purely by profit and profit alone. We as consumers need to stand up for the health and safety of our families, our farmers and future generations.
About the interviewer:
Further Links you may be interested in:
3. EWTT: Lim Li Ching : GMO Free
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