Farmers hit out at GM seeds bungle (9/5/2004)

1.Farmers hit out at GM seeds bungle
2.In Canada, GE farming goes against the grain

1.Farmers hit out at GM seeds bungle
By William Birnbauer
May 9, 2004

[Empty paddocks where the GM canola crops were pulled out. Picture:Zoe Elliot]

One thousand genetically engineered canola seeds were planted in western Victoria after being sent by mistake to the Department of Primary Industries by a Canadian seed producer, State Government documents show.

By the time the bungle was discovered, the seeds had sprouted to the three-leaf stage. They were immediately pulled from the ground by department staff and destroyed amid concerns that they might contaminate surrounding crops.

One of the families whose farm was used by the department was astonished when told it was growing genetically modified plants, which is banned in Victoria and most other states.

"You get a bit of a shock initially, there's so much controversy about it," the landowner said. "You wouldn't have thought that mistake could happen."

Another farmer whose property was involved wasn't concerned, but said that the incident had been "very, very embarrassing" for the department.

Victoria's protocols for importing seed were tightened after the incident, but critics say it demonstrates how easily accidents involving genetically modified seeds can occur.

Bob Phelps, from the GeneEthics Network, said the incident was the latest in a series of unauthorised releases and showed that genetically engineered canola "is impossible to contain".

There had been at least 14 unauthorised releases of GM organisms in Australia, and other contamination may not have been reported due to inadequate monitoring, he said.

Geoffrey Carracher, from the Network of Concerned Farmers, said the Canadian company that sent the seed, Cargill Pty Ltd, should be prosecuted over the incident.

Documents obtained by The Sunday Age under the Freedom of Information Act show that the seeds were posted to Australia on May 23 last year as part of a 2500-packet shipment of seeds that was incorrectly marked "non-GMO" on the FedEx waybill and invoice.

By the time the bungle was discovered, the seeds had sprouted to a "three leaf stage".The seeds were sown by Horsham-based Department of Primary Industries staff at Wonwondah, south of Horsham, on June 26 and at Lake Bolac, west of Ballarat, on July 9, as part of a conventional canola breeding program conducted by Cargill and the department. They contained genetically modified material designed to control weeds and fungus, belonging to Bayer and Monsanto.

When Cargill alerted the department to the error on August 8 last year, it was almost as an aside. Cargill's email says: "By the way, you also need destroy two plots canola each at Lake Bolac and Wawandah (sic)... put them in the trials that I did not notice until last week."

However, after communicating with the Department of Primary Industries, Cargill's senior management expressed stronger concern and an official wrote that the incident "took the wind out of me for a bit". He offered to fly to Australia "to do what we need to do. We take this seriously, as do you, and Cargill will do the right things with you" the official wrote in an email.

The company later apologised for the error.

Over the next few weeks Cargill admitted it had no written protocols for overseas shipments of seed. The mistake had occurred when a breeding manager who normally sent the seeds passed the responsibility to his assistants.

Department staff pulled out the GM plants, double-bagged them and destroyed them at a research station. They also cleared adjacent rows to reduce the risk of seed contamination from planting machinery.

A risk assessment by the Office of the Gene Regulator commended the department's actions and concluded that there was little risk of health or environmental harm. However, it found there was a low risk of seed persisting due to late germinations from the residual seed bank or seed from the GM canola plants.

The regulator's incident report recommends long-term strategies including monitoring the site over three years.

2.In Canada, GE farming goes against the grain

Politicians are often accused of having too much dough; Canadian prime minister Paul Martin has the bread crumbs to prove it.

AFP reports that Martin has become the target of a quirky campaign by anti-biotech activists against genetically engineered (GE) wheat.

Canadians are being urged to mail a slice of bread to the prime minister's office in Ottawa.

"Were hoping that a huge pile of bread sitting in his office will finally force Martin to act in accordance with the will of the public on this issue," said Anne-Marie Turmel of Friends of the Earth of Quebec.

"The government must not introduce GE wheat in Canada."

Nadege Adam of the Council of Canadians, the other group pushing the protest, added: "This is a warning to Martin as he plans for an election." In other words, Martin's re-election hopes could become toast.

The Canadian government is debating whether to permit GE wheat in the country, despite polls showing most Canadians oppose the idea.

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