Parliamentary attack on Prakash, Wambugu and deceptive corporate sector
"Imagine if you will the Minister standing in this Chamber 40 years ago strongly defending James Hardie's right to mine asbestos and to build fibro homes all over New South Wales. Imagine him saying that James Hardie was providing much-needed jobs for workers and building cheap and affordable homes for lower-paid people. Imagine him saying further, "Fibro-using asbestos is a breakthrough technology and you greenies are just Luddites in opposing the use of asbestos." The Minister would have accused us of being anti-business and anti-jobs. This Minister says much the same about those of us who express concern about the unknown health and environmental risks associated with GE. It took decades before we discovered the true and horrific cost of asbestos."
For more on the report referred to showing how little was previously realised about the extent of damage to the genome from the process of genetic engineering, see http://www.econexus.info
Gene Technology (GM Crop Moratorium) Amendment Bill: Second Reading
Hansard from the New South Wales (Australia) Legislative Council. Date: 19 November 2004
Debate resumed from 9 November
Mr IAN COHEN [2.39 p.m.]: When debate on this bill was adjourned on 9 November I was quoting the Lancet, a highly reputable medical journal. It reported:
"All policymakers must be vigilant to the possibility of research data being manipulated by corporate bodies and of scientific colleagues being seduced by the material charms of industry. Trust is no defence against an aggressively deceptive corporate sector."
The truth is that Monsanto and Bayer have one interest and one interest only””making as much money from their investments as possible in the shortest time possible in the interests of their executives, who are on multimillion-dollar salaries, and their shareholders. Is the Minister aware of a recent independent scientific report entitled "Genome Scrambling””Myth or Reality? Transformation- Induced Mutations in Transgenic Crop Plants", written by Alison Wilson, Jonathan Latham and Ricarda Steinbrecher? The report is based on peer-reviewed scientific literature and United States of America [USA] Department of Agriculture documents. It examines the consequences of genetic modification events for the integrity of transgenic plant genomes and alarmingly suggests that significant damage can arise. This is a highly technical issue, but I hope the Minister will listen and comment because these findings raise serious concerns.
The researchers found that unknown genetic changes can occur as a result of genetic modification such as large-scale genetic rearrangements of host DNA at transgene insertion sites, resulting in hundreds of mutations scattered throughout the genome of each new transgenic plant. Since the food safety of edible crops relies crucially on genetic stability and predictability, these findings raise significant concerns about the safety of GM food crops. Mutations in transgenic cultivars are not investigated by regulatory authorities so they would not have a clue that that is happening. The Minister should also be aware of a scientific study entitled "Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: the First Eight Years", which was carried out by Dr Charles Benbrook, Executive Director of the Northwest Science and Environment Policy Centre and formerly with the National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture. The study was conducted at the request of the Union of Concerned Scientists in November 2000.
The study draws on official USA Department of Agriculture data on pesticide use by crop and State to calculate the difference between the average pounds of pesticide use applied on the 550 million acres planted to GM crops compared to the pounds applied to similar conventional crops. Benbrook looked at levels of pesticides used on GM corn, soya beans and cotton in America. This was the first comprehensive study of the impacts of all commercial GM crops on pesticide use in America. The study found that during the first three years of commercial sales, from 1996 to 1998, GM crops appear to have reduced pesticide use. However, in the last three years, more than 73 million more pounds, or 33,000 tonnes, of pesticides were applied on GM acres. Substantial increases in herbicide use on herbicide-tolerant crops, especially soya beans, accounted for the increase.
The report found that many farmers need to spray incrementally more herbicide on GM acres in order to keep up with shifts in weeds toward tougher-to-control species, coupled with the emergence of genetic resistance in certain weed populations.
Criticism has come from various quarters about the narrow focus of the risk assessment process that the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator [OGTR] undertakes on the environmental and health risks associated with GE food crops. The OGTR does not, for instance, assess insect resistance or chemical regimes associated with GM crops. The negative effects of the GE traits to native flora and fauna also are not investigated.
Despite the Minister consistently deferring to the OGTR that all is well with the technology on the health and environmental front, there are serious and unanswered questions about the potential for long-term, irreversible consequences that reputable scientists have raised. In New South Wales there is the potential for gene transference to indigenous flora and contamination of this State's genetic resources both inside and outside national parks. Has the Minister assessed those risks?
Proponents of the technology also claim that with new GM varieties they will be able to farm in more marginal areas. This sends shivers down my spine. Previously protected areas of native vegetation, because they were not suitable for agriculture, may now be under threat. It is not a bright idea to push agriculture into more ecologically marginal areas; they are under enough threat as it is.
Michael Meacher, a concerned British member of Parliament, made the point on Landline on 7 November 2004 that independent science is not there simply to support claims that GM food crops are safe in the environment and for human consumption. No long-term studies have been done that show without a doubt that GM food crops are safe. Fundamental questions about the safety and need for GE food are simply not being asked by this Government. There is no compelling reason to grow GM food in New South Wales. The community does not want it, consumers reject it, farmers are worried about it, and the touted benefits to farmers have not emerged. Certain markets are responding to what customers really want””clean, green organic food. Food retailers are not opening up new aisles for genetically engineered foods, are they? GM ingredients sneaked in. They are not labelled so they are introduced to the unsuspecting public by stealth.
The Minister said in his second reading speech that almost one-third of the increased area grown to GM crops was in developing countries, where the uptake of GM crops continues to be strong. Has he ever wondered why that is, and does he question whether it is a good thing? Is it because the multinationals meet with poorly resourced resistance there and because they certainly do not have the same regulatory hurdles to jump through? A recent quote by Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel
Peace Prize winner, sums it up well:
"Biotechnology and patenting life forms is the new frontier for conquest, and Africa ought to be wary because a history of colonisation and exploitation is repeating itself."
Many have bought the feed-the-world myth perpetuated by the GM advocates, but a closer examination reveals that it is a lie. One of the key proponents of this myth, and one who has gained global publicity, is Monsanto-trained Kenyan scientist Dr Florence Wambugu. She claimed that GM crops were the key to eradicating poverty and hunger in the Third World. She told the New Scientist: "In Africa GM food could almost literally weed out poverty."
In the Nature journal she claimed that GM food could not only solve poverty but also take care of famine and environmental degradation. All of these claims were built on the Monsanto-created GM sweet potato. Wambugu claimed in the world's press that yields of the GE sweet potato, which were trialled in Kenya, were double that of the regular plant, with potatoes bigger and richer in colour. She went even further to claim that the GM sweet potato increased yields from four tonnes per hectare to 10 tonnes. All of this was an outright lie. When the results of the three-year trial were published in
January 2004 they showed that, far from dramatically out-yielding the non-GM sweet potatoes, the exact opposite was the case. The report indicated that during the trials non-transgenic crops used as a control yielded much more tuber compared to the transgenic. The GM crop was also found to be susceptible to viral attack””the very thing that it had been created to resist.
The New Scientist reported the GM sweet potato's failure under the heading "Monsanto's showcase project in Africa fails" on 7 February 2004. A successful conventional breeding program in Uganda had produced a new high-yielding variety, which was virus resistant and raised yields by roughly 100 per cent. Yet the GM sweet potato was a total flop.
How many people still believe the feed-the-world myth? Evidently the Vatican does. Many Catholic bishops and religious leaders in Africa, Asia and Latin America strongly opposed the Vatican's endorsement of GM food crops. Bishop Gutierrez of Marbel in Mindanao campaigned to prevent the planting of BT corn in the Philippines. He felt that Vatican endorsement would strengthen the hands of multinationals, which are browbeating developing countries into accepting GM foods.
Following a massive lobbying exercise by pro-biotech interests to persuade the Vatican to adopt a pro-GM stance, the question of feeding the world with GM food was discussed on 15 October last at the annual general meeting of the Catholic Institute for International Relations. Columbian missionary Father Sean McDonagh pointed out that many countries where poverty is endemic are food exporters. Brazil is the third-largest exporter of food in the world, yet one-fifth of its population - 32 million - go to bed hungry every night. He added:
"GE crops are patented so the Catholic Church, which presents itself as a pro-life institution, should recoil in horror at the arrogance involved in patenting life. Like slavery in past centuries there is no good patenting regime. It is totally at variance with the Biblical teaching that life is a gift of God to be shared by all. Christians believe that God, and not Monsanto, creates life."
One of the key advocates of the feed-the-world myth is Professor C. S. Prakash, who is Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at the Tuskegee Institute in Texas, and a roving GM ambassador for the US State Department. He lied to members of the Tanzanian press last summer when he told them that GM "doubles production", while in the Philippines he told a press conference the lie that "most genetically modified crops have longer shelf life". These lies come packaged with manufactured smears. Prakash told a press conference in Manila that Greenpeace could be getting money for opposing GM crops from "some companies that think their business operations will be greatly affected by widespread use of genetically modified crops". According to the Philippine Star, "Prakash would not say if pesticide companies are financing the operations of Greenpeace" Professor Prakash poses as a third-world scientist rallying support from fellow academics. He is backed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is a far-right, industry-supported American think tank. One only has to glance at its web site to see how extreme it is. This institute campaigns against environmentalists. It attempts to debunk global warming, opposes controls on smoking, opposes the Kyoto Protocol and believes in complete deregulation of GM crops.
Professor Prakash accuses critics variously of genetic engineering, fascism, communism, imperialism, nihilism, murder, corruption, terrorism, and even genocide””not to mention being worse than Hitler and on a par with the mass murderers who destroyed the World Trade Centre. Professor Prakash has been heavily into dirty tricks campaigns against GM sceptics, but I will not take the time of the House to detail those here.
Talking of deception and untrustworthy scientists, just how do Monsanto and Bayer deal with their critics or anyone who speaks out? One alarming example was detailed in an article published by Jeffrey Smith of the Institute for Responsible Technology on 1 November 2004 entitled "Are You Critical of Genetically Engineered Foods? Watch Out." The article reports how, Arpad Pusztai, a top pro-biotech scientist who has 12 books and 300 articles to his credit, discovered that young rats that were fed a genetically engineered potato developed extensive health problems. Some had smaller, less developed brains, livers, and testicles, as well as partial atrophy of the liver. Some suffered damaged immune systems and organ damage. And there was excessive cell growth in the stomach and intestines.
Arpad accepted an invitation to be interviewed on television and to express his concerns about GM food. For two days he was a hero at his institute. Then, on a Tuesday afternoon, two phone calls from the Prime Minister's office were allegedly forwarded through the institute's receptionist to the director. On Wednesday morning Arpad was fired after 35 years, and was silenced with threats of a lawsuit. The 20-member research team was dismantled and the United Kingdom Government abandoned its plans for long-term safety study requirements for GM foods. In spite of his work being cut off in the middle, his rat study remains the most in-depth animal feeding safety study ever published on GM foods. Tragically, no similar studies have yet been applied to the GM foods on the market and no-one is monitoring to see if the organs, immune system, and cells of humans who eat GM foods are being similarly influenced.
At the 2001 New Zealand's Royal Commission of Inquiry on Genetic Modification epidemiologist Judy Carman testified that the few animal feeding studies on GM foods are too short to adequately test for cancer or for problems in the offspring, and are not evaluating "biochemistry, immunology, tissue pathology, gut function, liver function and kidney function". Carman, who has investigated outbreaks of disease, said that health problems associated with GM foods might be impossible to track in the human population or take decades to discover. Carman is repeatedly attacked for her critical stance One pro-GM scientist threatened disciplinary action through her vice-chancellor.
Geneticist Michael Antoniou, who works on human gene therapy, told the New Zealand commission:
"Genetic engineering technology, as it's being applied in agriculture now, is based on the understanding of genetics we had 15 years ago, about genes being isolated little units that work independently of each other."
He explained that genes "work as an integrated whole of families" In 2003, Antoniou represented non-governmental organizations on the UK's supposedly balanced GM science review panel, which was part of the nationwide "GM Nation?" public debate. He was shocked to find scientists there still supporting obsolete theories of gene independence, even claiming that the order of genes in the DNA was entirely relevant. But Antoniou was outnumbered by 11 scientists representing either the biotech industry or appointed by the pro-biotech UK Government. His well-supported arguments fell on deaf ears. Since the debate new studies have further verified Antoniou's position by showing that genes are not randomly located along the DNA but clustered into groups with related functions.
Virologist Terje Traavik testified that GM crops "might be the basis for real ecological and health catastrophes". Three years later, in a February 2004 meeting with delegates to the UN biosafety protocol conference, Traavik presented preliminary evidence from three studies that might fulfil his earlier prediction. Filipinos living next to a GM cornfield developed serious symptoms while corn was pollinating. Promoters' genetic material routinely inserted into GM crops were found to transfer to rat organs after a single transgenic meal, and key safety assumptions about genetically engineered viruses were overturned, calling into question the safety of using these viruses as vaccines. Traavik, naturally, was attacked. Biologist Phil Regal told
"I think the people who boost genetic engineering are going to have to do a mea culpa and ask for forgiveness, like the Pope did on the inquisition; you know, 'we made a mistake, let's start over.' "
Those who express concern at GE food are invariably attacked by vested interests and labelled Luddites””along with many other epithets. They are accused of retarding the growth and progress of the agricultural sector. Imagine if you will the Minister standing in this Chamber 40 years ago strongly defending James Hardie's right to mine asbestos and to build fibro homes all over New South Wales. Imagine him saying that James Hardie was providing much-needed jobs for workers and building cheap and affordable homes for lower-paid people. Imagine him saying further, "Fibro-using asbestos is a breakthrough technology and you greenies are just Luddites in opposing the use of asbestos." The Minister would have accused us of being anti-business and anti-jobs. This Minister says much the same about those of us who express concern about the unknown health and environmental risks associated with GE. It took decades before we discovered the true and horrific cost of asbestos. The same may well become true of GE foods. It may already be too late for many in the United States who have been unknowingly eating GE food, as it is now too late for so many thousands of people in Australia who are developing mesothelioma.
The Government is now trying to force James Hardie to pay compensation to thousands of workers who are dying from its products. James Hardie has moved offshore and is essentially out of reach of the Government. Monsanto and Bayer are also offshore. If in 30 or 40 years time a subsequent Labor or Liberal government needs to pursue Monsanto or Bayer for millions in compensation will it be able to? Will Monsanto indeed still be there? Monsanto is struggling to stay afloat. After huge losses last year Monsanto last month announced a net loss of $56 million for the fourth quarter, causing a 3.2 per cent single-day drop in its share price. It is losing two-thirds of its market share of glyphosate to cheaper Chinese generics. It is desperately trying to lock farmers in to using only Roundup formulations with its GE contracts in an attempt to hold on to market share, and it needs the Minister's help to do it.
James Hardie, which is having to pay billions in compensation and whose products are the subject of boycotts all over Australia, has hitherto been regarded as a respectable Australian company. The same cannot be said of either Monsanto or Bayer, both of which have very murky pasts. As honourable members would know, Monsanto is the manufacturer of Agent Orange, the defoliant used to destroy the forests of Vietnam, and which has caused and still is causing untold suffering to millions of Vietnamese and Americans. It is also the producer of DDT, so well documented in Rachel Carson's 1962 groundbreaking book Silent Spring. The company manufactured polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which have caused birth defects all over the globe as well as cancers and multiple other health problems. According to a Japanese study, thanks to Monsanto, PCBs are now found in every fish caught in the Pacific Ocean.
And what of that venerable company Bayer? Go to the Bayer web site and you will find mention of the Fritz ter Meer Foundation, set up by Bayer in 1964. What the company does not tell you is that Fritz ter Meer was gaoled for war crimes for directing IG Farben's horrendous experiments at Auschwitz. He supervised Dr Josef Mengele's scientific drug experiments on Holocaust victims. It does not mention that Fritz ter Meer supplied the Zyklon B gas that killed millions of Jews. These are the companies whose interests you are protecting, Minister. These are the companies for whom you have made this amendment so that those who have legitimate concerns about the risks of GE foods will be silenced.
If you make a mockery of the moratorium by allowing huge so-called coexistence trials, as these companies are demanding, you will be opening the floodgates, and there will be no turning back. Next will be GE grapes, GE pineapples, GE pawpaw, GE
sugar and so on. They are all waiting in the wings. Huge chunks of Australian agriculture will be effectively controlled by giant overseas corporations, turning Australian farmers into mere bioserfs. The Minister must listen to the farmers. He must ensure that the companies carry the whole cost of liability, and not the farmers. Better still, do not let the genie out of the bottle. He has it in his hands to prevent a James Hardie style disaster. So much depends on his integrity. Do not blow it, Minister. It is interesting to speak in the House and not be listened to at all.
It is high time the Government supported the real revolution in food and farming that meets the needs of local communities and farmers, protects the environment and is what people want: that is, biological farming methods and organic food. There is a fast-growing global market for genuine clean green food that people know is safe. They do not want to be forced to eat GE food against their will. The Minister should not be supporting people who are trying to overturn millions of years of evolution with totally unknown consequences. We know that there are markets for GE-free produce. We should be supporting producers of those foods, not multinational companies with appalling histories. The Greens oppose the Gene Technology (GM Crop Moratorium) Amendment Bill.