GM risks loom for wheat industry
The Canberra Times, 6 December 2011
Australia is heading at breakneck speed towards the commercialisation of genetically modified wheat. According to CSIRO, 2015 is a realistic date. This means within five years, consumers face the possibility of eating genetically modified bread, whether they like it or not.
This year, West Australian organic farmer Steve Marsh lost his organic accreditation after his neighbour's GM canola seed blew on to his property. This month, another WA farmer in Cunderdin fears his crop is contaminated after a recent thunderstorm washed tonnes of his neighbour's GM canola on to his farm. He stands to lose his GM-free canola premium if this is confirmed. There is nothing in place that will protect these two farmers or others for the loss of income that may result.
In Canada, GM canola was first cultivated in 1995. Within a decade, it reached 80per cent of the acreage in western Canada and today, almost all Canadian canola is contaminated and organic canola is simply not available.
Even GM trials are not safe. During 2006 and 2007, traces of unapproved GM rice owned by Bayer CropScience were found in US exports to more than 30 countries. Total costs to the rice industry are likely to have been more than $1billion. Contamination was traced to a trial site around the same size as those being used for GM wheat in the ACT.
This is the reality, once GM is released into the environment, contamination removes farmers' choice about what they grow. This week, even Australia's peak chemical and biotechnology industry body, CropLife, described such contamination as "expected".
And if farmers have no choice about what they plant, we have no choice about what we eat. This is compounded by lax labelling laws. For example, under current legislation, bakers would not be required to label GM bread. And last year, a Greenpeace investigation revealed baby formula containing unlabelled GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
But GM is more than just a threat to our right to choose. In April this year, Australia's peak grains industry body, GrainGrowers, gave the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries a report showing that more than 80per cent of Australia's wheat market by value is not ready to buy GM wheat. What the world wants from Australian wheat reports results of industry surveys showing that $3.3billion worth of Australia's wheat market rejects GM wheat.
Perhaps this is why the US, Russia, Canada and the EU have already rejected GM wheat in their own countries.
So the economics benefits don't stack up, but what about health? An editorial in The Canberra Times on November 25 ("Discomfort food", p18) , stated that the evidence GM crops are potentially harmful to humans is not "overwhelming". But the risk exists. GM plants are prone to unexpected and unpredictable results and wheat lines with RNA interference constructs being cultivated in Canberra have not even been considered in the risk assessments done by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator. GM has never been proven safe for human consumption.
Greenpeace attempted to introduce some transparency into these trials by submitting three separate Freedom of Information requests to CSIRO – asking for some very basic information concerning the health and safety protocols it planned to use. All three have been rejected. A request concerning planned human feeding trials has been turned down on the grounds that the information is "commercial in confidence".
The editorial also claimed that increase in crop yields is "incontestable".
On this, the jury is firmly out. In 2008, the United Nations/World Bank assessment of agriculture, brought together 400 scientists from more than 100 countries. They carefully examined the question of whether GM crops increased yields and could not come to a firm conclusion, stating that, "the pool of evidence of the sustainability and productivity of GMOs in different settings is relatively anecdotal."
It adds "in developing countries especially, instruments such as patents may drive up costs, restrict experimentation by the individual farmer or public researcher while also potentially undermining local practices that enhance food security and economic sustainability."
Any doctor will tell you, risk should be judged on the precautionary principal. That's to say, an action should not be taken if the risk embodied is too great to be borne.
The risk to the environment, our health, the economy and even to our right to choose is clear. But beyond handsome profits for the companies who patent wheat, the benefits are rather less obvious.
Helen Gibbons is chief executive of Greenpeace Australia Pacific.