Proposed laws 'to release untested GMOs'
Sidney Morning Herald, April 23 2007
The federal government will be able to release untested genetically modified organisms into the environment under proposed new emergency response laws, activists say.
Greenpeace and Gene Ethics told a parliamentary inquiry in separate submissions they were concerned that the broad terms of proposed legislation could allow governments to release potentially dangerous biological agents for almost any reason.
The inquiry is considering legislation that amends gene technology regulation.
A clause in the proposed amendment would allow the minister to speed up the release of a genetically modified organism (GMO) in response to an emergency.
'Gene technology holds great potential for Australia and there may be circumstances where a genetically modified organism is uniquely capable of dealing with a health or environmental emergency,' Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation Minister senator Eric Abetz said when he introduced the legislation to the Senate last month.
Under the proposed changes, the minister could give the go-ahead for the release of a GMO if he considered it necessary to deal with an imminent threat.
But Louise Sales from Greenpeace said the clause bestowed a broad and sweeping power on the minister as it did not explicitly define what would be considered a threat.
The drought could be considered a sufficient threat to justify the release of plants genetically modified to resist dry conditions with no investigation, Greenpeace said.
'It's basically left to the minister's discretion with no need to prove a threat exists,' Ms Sales said.
'The current wording... is so broad it could include current pests and disease you see in agricultural property systems all over the country.
'The risks associated with GMOs are not properly known and do need to be assessed.'
Cane toads were an example of biological controls gone wrong, Ms Sales said. The toads - introduced to eradicate another pest but now a plague in their own right - were an example of why a full safety assessment should be done before any biological agents were released into the environment, she said.
Bob Phelps from Gene Ethics, a lobby group critical of genetically modified crops, said the clause was an invitation for an experimental organism to be released without any assessment process.
'We find that totally unacceptable,' he said.
But Health Department deputy secretary Mary Murnane said guidelines had been written to control the administration of the emergency power.
Safeguards in the guidelines included consultation, she said.
Ms Murnane said the powers could only be used if the country faced an imminent and serious threat that put the population or economy at risk.
'It can't be something to leverage a preferred policy position on the part of somebody,' she said.
The courts could impose 'severe consequences' if the power was used for something that was not an imminent and serious threat, she said.
The health department also disputed Greenpeace's claim that the change could lead to genetically modified plants being released to cope with drought.
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