Australian Approval of GM Canola Stalled by States

By Bob Burton

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 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, 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 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,” 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.


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