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 modified.
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
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, said Tager.
"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 be used.
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 grain crop.
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 committee.
The Western Australian Parliament’s Environment and Public
Affairs Committee released an even more damning report a few days
“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,” they wrote.
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 Reserved.