A Bitter Harvest
Herald Sun [Australia], November 20 2007 http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,22784979-5000117,00.html
WHATEVER [[Victoria's] Premier John Brumby decides after a four-year moratorium on genetically-modified crops is certain to reap a whirlwind.
The moratorium ends on February 29 and those in the know believe the Government is positioning itself for life in a GM world.
The Premier could decide to extend what has been effectively a ban, but more likely farmers will be allowed to start planting GM canola.
Earlier this year, the Government set up an independent panel to review the ban.
Headed by Sir Gustav Nossal, the state's chief scientist, the panel was asked to examine the trade implications for Victorian farmers and food exporters if the ban was lifted.
The review centred on trade issues and not the possible health risks associated with GM foods because this was not part of its brief.
It submitted its findings to Agriculture Minister Joe Helper earlier this month and he is expected to announce the Government's position shortly.
The Victorian Farmers Federation wants the ban lifted. It believes farmers will gain significant financial benefits growing canola crops that promise herbicide tolerance and increased yields.
But opponents of GM foods are starting to gather significant allies.
Goodman Fielder, the nation's largest Australian-owned food company, sent a letter to Premier Brumby saying consumers were becoming increasingly concerned at the possible health risks associated with GM foods.
It asked for the moratorium to stay.
Last week, Tatiara Meats, Australia's largest lamb exporter, said lifting the moratorium would compromise Australia's green image and reduce prices for Australian lamb in Europe, the US and Japan.
Meanwhile, one of the world's leading critics of GM food, US author Jeffrey Smith, has arrived in Melbourne to add his weight to the debate.
Smith, who has written two books on the issue, believes the rush to embrace GM foods has exposed everyone to serious health risks.
Supporters say GM foods are being consumed around the world and there is no proof of any side effects.
But Smith says there has been very little independent testing on the possible health impacts of eating GM food.
Instead, it has been left to the companies creating new strains of GM food to offer assurances.
Hardly independent and it begs the question, why didn't the State Government add health issues to the review conducted by Sir Gustav Nossal?
Why was it limited to trade?
And why is Agriculture Minister Helper refusing to meet Smith to discuss concerns raised by scientists around the world?
Smith is guest speaker at a public forum at Parliament House at noon today. It wouldn't take much for Minister Helper to wander in and hear what he has to say.
Significantly, Helper's counterparts in Western Australia and Tasmania have already done so. And the signs are they intend to keep their moratoriums in place.
Genetic technology, which has the potential to do much good in the world, is being driven by multi-nationals, which stand to make a great deal of money out of GM.
These companies should be allowed to profit from their technology, but only after it is proved to be safe.
In his latest book, Smith outlines 65 possible risks to human and animal health from scientific studies and medical research from around the world.
It's sobering stuff and makes the need for more research from independent organisations vital.
Until that takes place, the moratorium should stay.
Farmers are only one part of our food chain and Premier Brumby would do well to consider that before he commits to a brave new world where at least two other states fear to tread.
Peter Flaherty is Herald Sun environment editor
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