The Sunday Age ~~ Melbourne ~~ May 13 2007
Remember GM is bankrolled by Big Agribusiness GENETIC modification. What is it and will it hurt us? That question has suddenly come closer to home with the news that Victoria is set to break ranks with other states by ending a moratorium on GM.
First, a definition: GM is the insertion of a gene from one species to another. This is not the selective or cross-breeding of plants and animals, practised for eons. Rather, it is the radical re-arranging of the genetic building blocks of life. Such research is at the frontier of knowledge, and includes huge advances like decoding the human genome undoubtedly a milestone in curing illnesses.
But that's not to be confused with what is happening down on the farm. The proposed end of the GM ban in Victoria is about agriculture. Cultivating canola or cabbages might seem dull compared with human genome research but, in fact, it is more contentious because ultimately it's about the food we eat the right to choose whether to eat genetically modified food or not.
The debate is also about which corporations will control the world's food. Even if we ignore the ethical and health issues that GM's opponents raise, there could be sound commercial motives for keeping Australia GM free.
If overseas markets are prepared to pay dearly for GM-free food, Australia is in pole position to exploit its "clean green" image. The claimed advantages of GM crops have been well-aired. They include higher yields and oil content and herbicide resistance.
Now the pro-GM publicity machine is highlighting the potential to create crops that use less water.
Such claims might prove true but we should be clear about one thing: GM is bankrolled by huge multi-national corporations that stand to make huge money. That is why they can afford the best spin doctors and lobbyists that money can buy. To ask Big Agribusiness about GM is a little like consulting Big Tobacco about the risks of smoking.
The Sunday Age ~~ Melbourne ~~ May 13 2007
GM food in Victorian shops soon
VICTORIA is set to lift its ban on planting genetically modified food crops as early as February next year, paving the way for a rush of new food varieties on supermarket shelves.
Under pressure from the Federal Government and farm groups, the Bracks Government is preparing to scrap the moratorium that stops farmers using genetically modified products.
Other states are expected to follow Victoria's lead, which GM supporters predict could cause a surge in agricultural productivity, with farmers able to plant crops resistant to weeds, insects and salinity and that need less water.
Federal Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran has told The Sunday Age it is time for Australia to move on. "I strongly believe in the environmental and economic benefits of GM crops," Mr McGauran said.
"Farmers have much to gain, particularly in times of drought, from growing GM crops such as wheat and canola that use less water and herbicides than conventional crops," he said.
"Our farmers will endure significantly higher costs, for no greater return and consume more water than necessary if they are prevented from adopting GM technology.
"But for farmers to benefit, Victoria must lift its moratorium on GM crops."
Sources close to Premier Steve Bracks say the government is satisfied there is almost zero risk associated with GM crops and the ban "will be allowed to expire next year".
Victorian Agriculture Minister Joe Helper told The Sunday Age that the moratorium would expire on 29 February next year and signalled publicly for the first time that the Government had an open mind when it came to genetically modified crops.
"In the coming months, as the end of the moratorium approaches, the Government will be consulting widely with industry groups and the community," Mr Helper said.
"The federal Office of Gene Technology Regulator is responsible for the regulation of human and environmental-health issues, while the states have responsibility for marketing and production issues.
"Issues in Victoria are centred on what impact the use of the technology would have on our trade markets, which requires a careful and considered approach," he said.
"The Bracks Government continues to support research that assists our farmers to remain competitive in international markets."
No state allows the planting of any GM food crops for commercial purposes, although NSW and Queensland do allow the planting of GM cotton.
Victoria, also, allows the commercial cultivation of genetically modified carnations.
But Australian scientists working under the auspices of the CSIRO and the Grains Research and Development Corporation are involved in research into ways to genetically modify plants to produce different effects. These include resistance to drought and implanting extra health benefits, such as the essential fatty acid Omega 3, into plant varieties.
The federal Minister for Trade, Warren Truss, labelled the state bans on genetically modified crops as "idiotic" and said there was "absolutely no danger to any of Australia's export markets if we allowed GM crops".
"It's often been argued by the opponents of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) that somehow or other our trade will be disadvantaged and it is nonsense," Mr Truss said.
"We were told that if we steer clear of GM crops there will be premiums and bonuses for our products around the world, but those premiums simply do not exist. It's a myth. They have never eventuated.
"Canada, the major exporter of GM canola, continues to increase market share."
Mr Truss said that while Australian farmers were being forced to stand still, "we are being left behind by farmers in India, China and North America who are enthusiastically grabbing this new technology".
National Farmers Federation chief executive Ben Fargher strongly backed the widespread introduction of GM crops.
"The integration of GM into our production systems could yield a variety of benefits and reduced pesticide and herbicide use and increase water use efficiency, drought resistance and increase crop yields," Mr Fargher said.
"We're very focused on the potential benefits and … on the issue of choice for farmers over whether they want to use the technology or not.
"The regulatory system we have … through the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator is recognised as one of the most stringent in the world."
The Sunday Age ~~ Melbourne ~~ May 13 2007
Healthy or harmful: the big debate
Genetically modified canola has been trialled in Australia and already GM canola oil is imported for Australian use. Photo: Louie Douvis
By Stephen Cauchi
HEALTHY superfood or harmful Frankenfood? That's the consumer's view of the genetically modified food debate. Farmers have their own issues. For example, is it possible to quarantine GM crops and seeds from farms that wish to grow conventionally, or is cross-breeding inevitable?
GM food is produced by taking DNA from one organism and inserting it into the genome of another, with the aim of producing new and useful traits. There's a very long list of improvements: insect-resistant maize, herbicide-tolerant cotton, long-life tomatoes, rice with boosted levels of minerals and vitamins, plants resistant to salinity and drought, rice that can double as rehydration therapy for diarrhoea to name a few. In future there could be bananas that produce human vaccines, fish that mature quickly and fruit and nut trees that yield earlier.
GM advocates say poor countries, where food is often scarce and agricultural conditions harsh, would benefit most from GM. Modified rice that has extra vitamins and minerals could alleviate the vitamin A deficiency that contributes to the death of millions of Africans and blindness in hundreds of thousands.
Although bodies such as Australia's Office of the Gene Technology Regulator carry out a thorough safety assessment of GM food, opponents say the technology is new, and there have been no studies of the long-term effects on human health.
Critics point out that food shortages in developing countries have usually more to do with politics, economics and population than hi-tech developments. Shortages of vitamin A, for example, could be addressed by growing pumpkins instead of modified rice.
That's the debate for consumers. On the production side, farmers are split on GM. Some farmers' groups such as the National Farmers' Federation support GM. Others, like the Network of Concerned Farmers, do not.
According to the NCF policy on GM, there are many reasons why farmers should reject GM. Contamination by GM crops into non-GM farms is one of the major concerns. "Contamination of GM crops into non-GM crops is considered uncontrollable and scientifically proven to be so.
"If GM crops are introduced, the non-GM farmers are expected to keep contamination out of their crop rather than have the GM farmer keep it contained."
Then there is the marketing angle. "Australia has a clean green image which we need to preserve. Many of our export markets, and much of the domestic market does not want to buy GM crops."
And, say the NCF, it is expensive to segregate GM produce from conventional produce as much as $35 a tonne, or 10 per cent of the product value. "Costs include buffer zones, time spent for rigorous cleanup regimes, separate segregation, testing … liability for product and supply chain contamination cleanup could extend to millions of dollars and may be uninsurable."
On the other side, the NFF and the Victorian Farmers' Federation point to the "clear benefits" of GM crops, which have "the potential to reduce pesticide and herbicide use, increase water efficiency, tolerate adverse growing conditions and improve yields".
And will GM endanger Australia's market reputation as "clean and green"? The NFF believe that any "price premiums" farmers could gain on the world stage by being GM-free are marginal at best. "There is little evidence to suggest that premiums will be forthcoming," say the NFF.
Greenpeace Australia spokeswoman Louise Sales said introducing GM crops posed huge dangers and Greenpeace did not support any loosening of the moratorium.
The Sunday Age -- May 13 2007
So much for growing GM crops
IN AUSTRALIA, as far as genetically modified crops and food are concerned, there is a finely tuned list as to what is allowed and what isn't.
Non-food GM crops are fine. Cotton and blue, violet, mauve, and purple carnations have been grown commercially for many years.
Not so with food GM crops. These have been grown for more than a decade in Australia, but only on a trial basis. Canola, sugarcane, barley, wheat, grapevine and Indian mustard are some of these GM crops.
Even though the Federal Government's Office of the Gene Technology Regulator has approved some commercial GM food crops such as canola, the states have vetoed this by imposing moratoriums.
So much for growing GM crops. How about eating them? Some countries produce GM food crops, notably the US, Argentina, Canada, Brazil, China and South Africa.
The US is the biggest producer of GM crops. Three-quarters of processed foods in the US have a GM ingredient. Nearly 90 per cent of soybeans, 83 per cent of cotton, and 61 per cent of maize is genetically modified.
GM soybeans, corn products, potatoes, sugar beet, canola oil and cottonseed oil are used in processed foods imported to Australia. No other vegetables, fruit, meat, fish or agricultural products sold in Australia are GM.
Cottonseed oil can be produced from Australian GM cotton, and can be found in vegetable oils and margarines.