The high cost of opening the door to GM crops (11/6/2007)

The high cost of opening the door to GM crops
Bob Phelps
The Age, June 12, 2007

AN INTERNATIONAL coalition of independent scientists is gathered today in Brussels to present evidence for a worldwide ban on genetically manipulated crops. They will present "damning evidence piling up against the safety of GM food and animal feed" to the European Parliament.

While Europe considers new gene technologies that offer advanced alternatives to GM, Victoria is looking backwards. Government and industry powerbrokers want to lift the bans on commercial GM canola. If they allow GM food crops into Victoria, our clean, green, GM-free food bowl will end. All Australian canola-growing states banned GM crops in 2003. Victoria may be the first domino to fall if the Bracks Government decides to lift the ban next February.

Victorian shoppers and businesses can speak up for GM-free. Australian chefs, scientists, farmers and concerned citizens are already coming out in force, including chefs Margaret Fulton, Charmaine Solomon, Maggie Beer and Stefano Di Pieri; nutritionist and biochemist Dr Rosemary Stanton, epidemiologist Dr Judy Carman, medical scientist Professor Stephen Leeder, and soil scientist Dr Maarten Stapper.

Farmers are also resisting, as gene contamination would inevitably cross state borders.

Big agribusiness has thrown its money and political muscle behind a campaign to overturn the bans. The first debate will be at a United Dairy Farmers of Victoria meeting next week. They will review their five-year support for the ban. More than 70 per cent of farmers consistently tell pollsters they don't want GM. But UDV leaders are eager to allow animal GM feed into our dairy supply. They say it's about farmers' choice, but US and Canadian experience shows that GM crops end choice for farmers and shoppers. Gene contamination proved inevitable and attempts at segregation were costly and failed.

There is no effective labelling of GM products in Australia, so a choice of GM-free in the supermarket isn't always easy.

Repeated polls show the vast majority of shoppers don't want foods made using GM, and don't want dairy cows eating GM feed either. Most dairy companies already have non-GM policies as they know it would be harder to sell their products made using GM, both in Australia and around the world. If the state ban ends, their policies will be more expensive and difficult to implement. New Zealand and Europe — far bigger players than us in global dairy markets — are both non-GM and waiting to pounce on our market share.

US agronomist Dr Charles Benbrook warned last year: "Australia should avoid the problems and market losses that the US experienced with GM."

In the United States, Starbucks and Walmart both recently refused to sell milk products from cows treated with GM growth hormone. Canada lost its EU canola market to Australia in 1999 a market we still supply, at premium prices. Australia is set for a record crop of GM-free canola this season, so risking our competitive advantage makes no sense at all.

The GM companies and their lobbyists are fighting people power with empty promises. There is no market demand for GM foods anywhere in the world so they claim that GM crops will solve problems of drought, famine, malnutrition, synthetic chemical use, and soil salinity. How many drought-tolerant GM crops have been commercialised or trialled in Australia? None.

Australia's state bans on GM food crops were introduced for marketing reasons. The Australian Wheat Board, the Australian Barley Board and dairy companies clearly saw that sales of clean, green Australian food would be jeopardised, in Australia and abroad, and backed the bans.

Leeds University geneticist Professor Richard Lacey sums it up: "The number of scientists who are not convinced about the safety of genetically engineered foods is substantial enough to prevent the existence of a general recognition of safety. I am not aware of any study in the peer-reviewed scientific literature that establishes the safety of even one specific genetically engineered food."

Among the few GM foods that have been adequately tested, some are clearly unsafe. CSIRO's GM field peas caused serious adverse effects in mice. UK toxicologist Dr Arpad Pusztai found the immune systems of rats fed GM potatoes were damaged and their organs were more vulnerable to disease than control animals.

But many GM foods have been declared safe and are approved by Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

By extending the bans for another five years, we can keep our options open, and still continue to reap the rewards of being GM-free.

Bob Phelps is executive director of Gene Ethics.

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