CANBERRA, Australia, July 25, 2003 (ENS):
The Australian government has given the green light
for the commercial release of genetically modified canola,
but intense opposition from farming and environmental
groups has resulted in all but one state government
imposing moratoriums on the planting of this crop.
Today, Dr. Sue Meek, director of the Office of the
Gene Technology Regulator, announced that after a “rigorous
independent assessment of health safety and environmental
impacts,” the application by Bayer Crop Science
for the commercial release of its genetically modified
(GM) canola Invigor had been approved. Invigor, Meek
claimed, is “as safe to humans and the environment
as conventional canola,” that is not genetically
The crop, also known as oil seed rape, produces food
oil for human consumption and oil seed meal for animal
feed. Inedible canola products include cosmetics, industrial
lubricants, pesticides, and printing inks.
Campaigner for Greenpeace Australia on genetic engineering,
Jeremy Tager, argues that the absence of peer reviewed
studies on the health and environmental impacts of GM
canola should have been sufficient to cause Meeks to
reject the application. “Claims of safety are
based on woefully few tests and studies that have actually
been conducted,” he said.
By assuming that genetically modified food products
are substantially equivalent to non-GM foods, the government
has shifted the onus of proof back on to the community,
"In their view, three studies are enough to say
that there is no evidence of harm, but in our view it
is not evidence of the absence of harm,” he said.
Meek announced that despite her office's draft risk
assessment which attracted 256 public submissions, most
of which opposed the approval of genetically modified
canola, “no management conditions” were
required to address their concerns.
Public concerns raised about the genetically modified
crop include increased herbicide resistance, the transfer
of introduced genes to other organisms, and increased
risk of allergenicity to humans.
Under the provisions of the Gene Technology Act 2001,
the Commonwealth Gene Technology Regulator has responsibility
for determining the environmental and health risks of
applications to grow gentically modified crops. If these
applications are approved, states have control over
whether and where genetically engineered organisms can
While the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator said
that it formed no view on the “market impacts
for the agricultural industry” of GM canola, it
pointed to favorable Commonwealth government and industry
assessments, but omitted any reference to the more critical
state government assessments.
Meek did not respond to a request from ENS for an interview.
In the last six months, the state governments of South
Australia, Victoria, Western Australia and New South
Wales have all announced moratoriums, with varying degrees
of strictness, on the commercial release of canola.
While Queensland is the only state not to have announced
a moratorium, Bayer’s GM canola is not appropriate
for the Queensland climate. All the state governments
are demanding answers on critical issues such as the
segregation of GM crops from non-GM crops and liability
for contamination of non-GM crops.
Driving the state governments' change in policy is
opposition to GM canola by farming interests including
the Australian Wheat Board, the Australian Barley Board,
Pulse Australia and even the grower of genetically engineered
cotton, the Tynams Agricultural group.
Their opposition reflects the insistence by customers
that their grain meet strict standards. Saudi Arabia,
the world’s largest importer of barley, has indicated
that they may refuse to trade barley with Australia
if it produces any commercial genetically engineered
The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator is optimistic
about the compatibility of GM and non-GM crops, and
the office even included a link in its announcement
on Invigor to voluntary protocols developed by the pro-GM
lobby group, Avcare.
But two state parliamentary inquiry reports released
this month have challenged the practicality of coexistence.
In May, David Thomas, executive manager of corporate
relations of the Australian Bulk Handling Association,
told the South Australian parliamentary Select Committee
on Genetically Modified Organisms that it was impossible
to meet the Australian Wheat Board request for zero
tolerance of GM contamination.
The Australian Wheat Board (AWB), a commercial marketing
agency, sells approximately $US3.3 billion of wheat
in a good year.
"There is no way that we could guarantee absolutely
a nil tolerance if GM crops are widely grown and we
create separate supply chains within our system, no
matter how good our systems are,” Thomas told
The Western Australian Parliament’s Environment
and Public Affairs Committee released an even more damning
report a few days later.
“The Committee has formed the view, based on
the information presented repeatedly during its meetings
in Canada and the U.S., that contamination of non-GM
crops by GM crops is inevitable, segregation is not
practical, and that identity preservation can be achieved,
but at significant cost,” the Western Australian
committee stated in its final report.
The committee recommended that the current moratorium
on GM crops in Western Australia (WA) should continue
until at least 2006 and warned that GM crops could damage
the standing of all agriculture in the state.
“The commercialization of a single GM grain crop
may tarnish WA’s overall reputation of being a
clean and green non-GM producer and thus have implications
for the marketability of other WA agricultural products,”
While the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator's
decision only affects Bayer’s application, a separate
application from Monsanto for a Roundup resistant canola
is also being considered and likely to receive approval
later this year.
Tager argues that where state governments previously
supported GM crops on the assumption they were compatible
with maintaining access to non-GM markets, they are
not realizing they may have to choose between the two.
“It is now absolutely clear to state governments
that the option of ‘we can have the best of both
worlds’ is not to be,” he said.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2003. All Rights