GM crops and foods: promises, profits and politics
The National Forum, 1 August 2011
High profile law firm Slater & Gordon will take up the case of decertified organic farmer Steve Marsh, who grows wheat and barley near Kojonup in Western Australia. Marsh confirmed this week that he will sue the neighbour who grew genetically manipulated (GM) canola which blew over his fence and contaminated 60% of his farm in November, 2010. Going to court is the only way to recover his losses, extra costs and damage which may continue for up to ten years. In an act of supreme indifference, the neighbour is again growing GM canola this year.
Marsh lost his National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA) organic certification and his premium grain markets because of the GM contamination. GM giant Monsanto, which owns the patented GM canola seed, will back the GM grower and the WA Pastoralists and Graziers Association has set up a GM support fund.
GM canola was just 8% of the Australian canola crop in 2010 but contamination has already imposed many extra costs and risks on all farmers. Yet governments refuse to pass farmer protection laws that would make the owners and licensees of GM crops strictly liable for GM contamination and damage. Farmer protection would ensure that growers like Marsh were automatically compensated from a pool of funds levied on the sale of GM seed, instead of having to go to court.
GM segregation has consistently failed everywhere, yet WA Agriculture Minister Terry Redman said, when ending the state's GM canola ban in March 2010: "Trials proved GM and non-GM canola can be segregated and marketed separately. The report on the trials indicated there were 11 minor events (on 18 sites) and all were managed appropriately and segregation from paddock to port was achieved."
Now that GM contamination is a reality, many communities are demanding to be protected through the declaration of GM-free Zones, but Redman backflips and says: "... zero per cent thresholds (of GM in organics) are unrealistic in biological systems" and he wants the organic industry to allow GM contamination in its supply chains. He ignores the domestic organic standard AS6000, agreed by all governments and the organic industry, which sets zero tolerance for any GM contact with organic food.
He also ignores the aspirations of a majority of Australians who want to remain GM-free. For example, the Swinburne National Science and Technology Monitor found in 2010 that over half of the 1000 people questioned were uncomfortable with GM plants and about two-thirds expressed similar unease about GM animals being used for food.
GM-free competitive advantage lost
By allowing commercial GM crops, state governments are shirking their legal responsibility to protect farm produce markets for all growers. The demand for Australia's GM-free canola is now so strong in Europe that Co-operative Bulk Handlers marketing manager, Peter Elliott, says Europeans will buy 90% of WA's non-GM canola production at a 5% premium over GM canola this year. "When you're growing GM, at the moment you need to compete against Canada, but when you've got non-GM you get a free kick into Europe and some markets in Japan. There's a massive advantage to be growing non-GM this year, because Europe has been so aggressively buying up all the non-GM tonnage."
The GM market is so weak that several grain buyers will not buy GM canola at all while others will accept it only at a discount of up to $50/tonne compared with non-GM canola prices. CBH says the discount created by lack of demand for GM canola is likely to persist for at least five years. The 49,000 tonnes of GM canola produced in WA in 2010 remains in silos, unsold.
In stark contrast, in GM-free South Australia Kangaroo Island Pure Grain is just one company benefiting from strong local and international demand for its non-GM canola and non-GM canola honey for which its growers are also earning premiums.
Australia is fast losing its unique competitive advantage as the only large-scale seller of GM-free canola into world markets and Australian governments are complicit. They are under the direct influence of our GM competitors, the USA, Canada and their corporations.
Of the 20 countries that grew canola in 2006, 18 required GM-free local production and preferred GM-free imports. Australian canola exports accelerated in 1999, when Canada lost its European market as a result of growing GM canola. Explaining our favoured position as a GM-free exporter, Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation says: "In 1990, Australia hit the global stage as an exporter of canola seed, and rapid growth led to our exports exceeding two million tonnes in 1999/2000. Our annual exports have now stabilised at around one to 1.5 million tonnes, and our main export markets are Japan, China, Pakistan, Europe and Bangladesh."
Instead of serving the needs of our local, Asian and European customers, our governments generally align with US policy on biosafety, food labelling, GM crop assessments and other key policies. Neither Australia nor the USA has signed or ratified the Biosafety Protocol, the first and only protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which attempts to ensure the safe international transfer, handling and use of GM organisms.
The West Australian Government also embraced foreign corporate interests when it allowed Monsanto to acquire 19.9% of WA public plant breeder, InterGrain, for $10.5 million. InterGrain produces 40% of Australia's wheat seed, bred over decades by Australian farmers and governments. This deal would allow Monsanto to insert its GM traits into the best Australian wheat varieties and claim ownership of the GM varieties. The Office of the Victorian Premier and the Queensland government are both members of the Biotechnology Industry Organisation a US-based organisation that promotes its corporate members' GM products around the world. The Victorian government aspires to be the largest hub of GM research and development in the Asia Pacific region and signed a public private partnership with Dow AgroSciences at the BIO trade show in Atlanta Georgia, in 2009. The Queensland trade commissioner to the USA makes a priority of biotechnology promotion.
Australian governments uncritically back GM crops and foods as the way of the future. For instance, the federal government funded Biotechnology Australia to promote GM products from 2000 until 2008, then established the National Enabling Technologies Strategy in 2008 with a $38.2 million budget, to back GM and nano-technologies.
Hidden GM risks and hazards
No holds are barred in the corporate quest for GM domination of farming and food. The Scientific American journal and Nature Biotechnology report that GM companies prohibit independent researchers from accessing the GM material needed for environmental and health research, and censor adverse findings. Despite the hurdles, several published papers show some GM soybean, corn, canola and other food crops harm experimental animals and may therefore pose risks to people who eat them.
For instance, an Australian National University team found that CSIRO Plant Industry's GM field peas, containing a gene from a bean, made foreign proteins that provoked immune and inflammatory responses in mice. French researchers also concluded that rats fed three different kinds of GM maize showed 'significant' signs of liver and kidney damage. The Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering revealed a lack of scientific consensus on the food safety assessment studies used in the approval process for MON810 GM corn. And Stanley Ewen and Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Institute, Scotland, also found damage to the intestines and immune systems of rats fed GM potatoes. Now Canadian gynaecologists Drs Aris and Lablanc have reported in the journal Reproductive Toxicology that they have found Bt insect toxins from GM plants in the blood of pregnant women and their foetuses.
Some brave scientists publicly voice their concerns about GM and publish data that challenges the safety of GM food and crops. They are often vilified or shunned by members of the scientific establishment associated with the GM industry who sow doubts about the expertise, credibility and motives. The loss of their professional standing, jobs and careers is a warning to others who may disagree with the corporate sponsors of science.
Celebrated science historian, Naomi Oreskes asserts the need to "roll back the rug on this dark corner of the American scientific community, showing how ideology and corporate interests, aided by a too-compliant media, have skewed public understanding of some of the most pressing issues of our era." Oreskes argues, for instance, that campaigns against government action on global warming use the same tactics as the tobacco lobby and are run by the same small coterie of influential senior scientists. These scientists assume the mantle of general experts, to isolate and ostracise scientific dissenters and whistle blowers.
Occasionally the GM critics are vindicated in court. On January 18, 2011 Dr Gilles-Eric Seralini won his action for defamation against the French Association of Plant Biotechnologies. Seralini was subject to a smear campaign in response to several scientific papers published by his group, which found serious statistical and other faults in Monsanto research. AFVB chairperson Marc Fellous had accused GM's scientific critics of being 'ideological' and 'militant' but the trial revealed that his claim to be a 'neutral' scientist was tainted by his ownership of GM patents. Other AFBV members were also shown to have links with agribusiness companies.
Science corrupted by corporate motives and influence is an unsound basis for the licensing of novel GM organisms for commercial release into open environments. As an antidote, responsible governments and regulatory systems must apply the Precautionary Principle that places the burden of proof for the safety and efficacy of GM products onto GM proponents, not on the critics, regulators or the general public.
Our regulatory systems should disallow commercial confidentiality. Unlike the patent system, which requires protected information to be made publicly available so other researchers can also engage in innovation, regulatory regimes allow key data submitted with commercial GM applications to be hidden from challenge, discussion and critical evaluation.
Credible peer-reviewed research data that strictly conforms to scientific principles should be required to back up commercial GM applications. Instead, governments influenced by the ideology of minimal surveillance and self-regulation establish weak 'science-based' and 'case-by-case' regulatory regimes that do not comply with the core tenets of the scientific method and sound scientific inquiry. Regulatory systems should set benchmarks and standards in advance, by regulations, for the quality, duration, scale and scope of the scientific evidence required for the assessment of new GM products.
Independent centres of excellence on biosafety research should also be set up to produce robust, replicable and refutable data. The Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety at the University of Canterbury New Zealand and its Biosafety Assessment Tool may serve as a useful model for Australia which lacks any such programs.
GM crops cannot deliver on their false promises of plentiful food and fibre. Despite the expenditure of over $45 billion of public and private money over the past 30 years, the promises of commercial GM crop varieties with increased yield, drought-tolerance, salt-tolerance, enhanced nutrition, a nitrogen-fixing grain, longer shelf life or other traits have not come true. These empty claims divert scarce research and development resources from the key task of creating sustainable, ecological farming and food production systems that can feed, house and clothe everyone well, in perpetuity. With oil and phosphate reserves diminished and global climate changing, amending industrial agricultural practices and securing food sovereignty must be a national and global priority.