Health and safety before GM canola (1/12/2007)

1.Canada 'leaving Australia behind' on GM crop production
2.Clean, green prospects take a whack
3.Seeds of dissent: farmers split over GM canola move
4.Lifting the GM Ban

EXTRACT: 'There is concern in the community that the membership of the Moratorium Review Panel was always going to support lifting the Moratorium as its membership lacked balance. The Panel contained GM foods advocates, biotechnology company directors, ex-members of the pro-GM Victorian Farmers Federation executive and a member of the Southern Panel of the Grains Research and Development Corporation which promotes acceptance of GM research, development and commercialisation.' - Victorian Local Governance Association (item 5)

NOTE: Item 1 is a transcript from PM, a program broadcast daily around Australia. You can also listen to this programme online at http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2007/s2104394.htm


1.Canada 'leaving Aust behind' on GM crop production
Reporter: Alison Caldwell
ABC (PM), 28 November 2007

MARK COLVIN: Both the Victorian and New South Wales governments have argued that one of the main reasons why they are lifting the ban on GM crops is to provide farmers with choice.

Both cited farmers in Canada who they said had made millions of dollars as a result of growing GM crops, leaving Australian farmers out of the race.

Alison Caldwell reports.

ALISON CALDWELL: Australian farmers are being told that Canadian and US farmers have cornered the market when it comes to GM canola, and unless they start planting soon, they'll miss out entirely.

In Victoria alone it is claimed it could be worth $157-million to the state's farmers over four years

But there could be a downside - some farmers are worried at the risk of contamination.

Yesterday one of the country's most respected immunologists Sir Gustav Nossal suggested the fears were overstated, saying he was reasonably confident GM crops and non-GM crops could be kept separate.

In Canada however, the experience of farmers growing GM canola and their neighbours who don't isn't quite as it's been described here.

Percy Schmeiser is a 76 year old farmer from Saskatchewan in Canada's midwest.

Since the late 1990s, he's been in and out of the courts with one biotech giant, who sued him for having it's patented GM seeds in his non-GM crop.

He's astounded by the Australian decision to lift the ban on GM crops.

PERCY SCHMEISER: I really feel disappointed that they would lift the moratorium because too bad they can not profit by the experience that we have here in western Canada and in many other parts of Canada. The fact that with GMOs what it really means, it hasn't meant increased yields or a better quality or anything like that but what it has meant is a massive increased use of chemicals, more damage to our environment and also the health of human beings.

ALISON CALDWELL: Biotech companies have developed and patented GM canola seeds which are immune to pesticides.

Canadian farmers are contractually required to buy new seeds each year from the bio-tech companies. Ten years ago in Canada that was costing farmers about $70-a hectare.

In 1998, Percy Schmeiser realised that his GM-free canola property was contaminated with Monsanto's pesticide resistant canola.

The company took him to court claiming he'd illegally planted it's canola without paying for it.

Over the years, most farmers settled out of court but Percy Schmeiser didn't.

Six years later, Canada's Supreme Court ruled Monsanto's patent was valid. Percy Schmeiser wasn't forced to pay anything because he didn't profit from the presence of the GM canola in his fields.

At the time his story made headlines around the world.

He says Canadian farmers who grow GM canola have lost their traditional markets.

PERCY SCHMEISER: You used to say it was more nutritious and it was - farmers would use less chemicals. That all turned out to be false after the first, second and third year, farmers found that out.

And now, because of our loss of sales to many countries of the world and I know that Australia has taken a lot of our sales to Japan and some other countries because Australian was GMO free but now what has happened, a lot of our canola is no longer used for food or cooking oil, it is used for biodiesel.

ALISON CALDWELL: The politicians here have also warmed to the idea that eventually farmers can have drought-proof seeds.

PERCY SCHMEISER: OK, but this is what they said 10 years - well actually 1996 here but none of those things have ever happened. You know it was just a gimmick to get farmers to use GMOs.

All it has been so far, there has only been, in 1996 here there was four crops introduced GMO and that was grape seed or canola, soy beans, corn and cotton. There has been no new GMO crops introduced since 1996 here because farmers don't want it.

It basically has been a disaster because the massive increased use of chemicals. Now I assure you, if you introduced GMOs in Australian, you're increased use of chemicals will be at least three times more.

MARK COLVIN: Saskatchewan farmer, Percy Schmeiser ending Alison Caldwell's report.


2.Clean, green prospects take a whack
Nicholas Montgomery
The Geelong Advertiser, 1 Dec 07

THREE years ago, State governments around Australia placed a moratorium on GM food crops because of concerns in industry, the farming sector and regional communities about the impact on Australia's clean and green markets.

Now the Victorian GM ban has been scrapped by the Brumby Government. The NSW Government has done likewise and GM canola is set to be cropped next season. This hasn't pleased Tasmania and Western Australia, opposed to GM crops, or the Network of Concerned Farmers or agricultural giant Goodman Fielder (Meadow Lea).

The concern shown isn't based on emotive environmentalism but a series of mainstream agro-economics reports which highlight the increasing importance of premium markets for Australian farmers. Economists consistently find Australian GM-free produce commands a higher price than North American GM produce. Governmental body ABARE documents Australian canola prices regularly exceeding GM Canadian prices by some $50 a tonne. Last year, Australian canola commanded a whopping $115 tonne premium.

The Victorian Government claims overall GM canola will bring farmers $115 million over eight years. That's a very small gain for a very large risk. But it's not as small as the predicted yield gains of around 5 to 8 per cent from GM canola the Government says will outweigh any GM-free premiums.

In reality, GM may only bring a 2 to 4 per cent yield increase since GM canola crops designed for North American conditions won't fare any better than non-GM under Australian drought conditions. According to figures from biotech corporation Monsanto, some Australian trials of GM canola produced yields 16 per cent below the national GM-free average.

In the end, increasing yields won't matter much as broader market access and restriction issues determine the value of GM. The global current trends point towards evermore GM restrictions. The EU moratorium already restricts some 400,000 tonnes of GM canola from Canada but imports 38 per cent of all Australia's clean canola.

Japan is considering injecting tighter controls into already tough GM import regulations. Stricter Japanese GM laws could impact 41 per cent, (300,000 tonnes) of Australian canola exports.

The long list of risks and unknowns continues with climate change and the decreasing availability of clean and green produce. As the fallout of toxic pollution from China becomes more visible, Asian consumers are clamouring for uncontaminated food.

If Australia suddenly found itself holding some of the world's last remaining clean produce, right now it makes more economical sense to invest in promoting Australian produce as clean and green rather than investing in GM crops. Victoria should reinstall the moratorium on GM canola or the Federal Government should impose a nationwide moratorium on GM.

Nicholas Montgomery is a media adviser with Greenpeace.


3.Seeds of dissent: farmers split over GM canola move
Chee Chee Leung and Orietta Guerrera The Age, December 1 2007

[image caption: Canola grower Bob Mackley fears the loss of Victoria's 'clean image'.]

IT SEEMS an unusual comparison, but Victorian canola farmer Bob Mackley reckons the debate over genetically modified crops is 'almost like religion or politics'.

'It's an issue that's quite divisive in country communities,' says the fourth-generation farmer, north-west of Horsham. 'You just don't talk about it. It's very bad etiquette.'

But even his suggestion that GM is dividing farmers is in itself splitting opinions, with advocates playing down concerns over the technology.

'The majority of people I know are happy with it,' says grains farmer Peter Tuohey. 'The only ones I've heard complain are the ones on the wireless or TV.'

Since Premier John Brumby's announcement on Tuesday that Victoria would lift its ban on commercial GM canola, it's these opposing views among farmers that have again come to the fore.

Canola is the only major GM food crop that has approval to be grown commercially in Australia. But GM insect-resistant cotton has been grown commercially in Australia since 1996, and food with imported GM ingredients has been on our supermarket shelves since the mid-1990s.

On one side of the ongoing debate are the anti-GM growers like Mr Mackley, who fear the introduction of GM canola will tarnish the country's 'clean, green image'. With them is the nation's $400 million organic industry, which says there is a real risk GM crops will contaminate other crops.

Organic group Biological Farmers of Australia has slammed the Government for not establishing buffer zones around GM crops, a register of where GM is grown, or compensation funds for non-GM or organic farmers who may suffer contamination - an issue spokesman Scott Kinnear warns could lead to showdowns in the courts. 'It will be the wild west out there where the farmer who has got the deepest pocket and the best lawyer will probably win.'

But those backing the end of the GM ban - who often describe themselves as pro-choice - say it is about time Victorian farmers were given the same access to the technology as their competitors in other countries. This group says GM canola approved in Australia has no additional health or environmental risks than conventional canola, and could increase yields and reduce the use of herbicides.

Eric Sharkey, who has a 2000-hectare farm near Bacchus Marsh, is one who will put up his hands for GM canola seeds. While the 63-year-old says farmers have waited long enough for the GM option, he acknowledges the four-year moratorium may have been necessary. 'We probably needed the time to bring a lot of people on board,' he says. 'It's not something you want to bulldoze through. I, like everybody else, needed to be convinced.'

Among those who took time to be convinced were the state's dairy farmers, who had been instrumental in the Bracks government's decision to first impose the ban. Concerned about how GM crops would affect its $2 billion export markets, the United Dairyfarmers of Victoria passed a resolution in 2003 supporting a moratorium on the commercial release of any new GM crop that could enter the dairy cow's diet. But its members voted this year 200 to five in support of GM crops. UDV president Doug Chant said that after significant research, the industry was assured its export market would be secure. 'People have come to learn that GM is not a Frankenstein food, it has … real advantages both for the producers and the consumers.'

But CHOICE, representing consumers' interests, says there is still 'a significant body' of people who remain worried about GM crops. The argument that GM seeds could lead to increased yields might be interesting for farmers, but holds less sway with the public, says senior food policy officer Clare Hughes. They are more concerned about the ethics of the technology, the current exemptions in GM labelling requirements, and the question of long-term health consequences. 'Lack of evidence of harm is not evidence of safety,' Ms Hughes said.

Despite the considerable discussion over GM canola this week, GM seeds will not be widely available until 2010. Bayer CropScience will not have commercial quantities of the seed available next year because its breeding program was put on hold pending the Government's announcement on the moratorium.


Genetic modification is the process where genes are taken from one organism and inserted it into another to produce a particular trait, such as herbicide or insect resistance. GM can also describe the method of switching genes on or off. The two varieties of GM canola approved by the regulator are herbicide resistant.


Canola is Australia's third largest broadacre crop, behind wheat and barley. During the 2004-05 season, Australia produced 1.5 million tonnes of canola, worth $503 million to the economy. In the same season, canola production in Victoria was 342,000 tonnes, with a farm-gate value of $104.5 million.


2003 Commonwealth Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, which assesses the health and environmental impact of gene technology, approves the release of Bayer's InVigor GM canola and Monsanto's Roundup Ready GM canola, finding they do not have greater health or environmental risks than regular canola.

2004 Bracks government introduces four-year moratorium on growing genetically modified canola crops, based on uncertainty about their impact.

May 2007 Scientific panel, headed by Sir Gustav Nossal, established to consider the economic impact of GM canola in Victoria.

November 2007 Premier John Brumby's cabinet decides to remove the moratorium, despite opposition from within caucus.

March 2008 GM canola crops can be planted, but seed shortages expected to delay general use until 2010.

2008 NSW also set to lift GM canola moratorium, despite urging from Western Australia and Tasmania to maintain bans.



4.Lifting the GM Ban
by Senator Rachel Siewert
GreensBlog - the official blog of the Australian Greens Senators, December 1 2007

The decision by the Victorian and NSW Governments to lift the ban on genetically modified canola crops is of great concern and one we believe the Rudd government should override.

This is a nation-changing decision being made by the two state governments. It has huge ramifications across Australia - the Constitution ensures that there can be no confinement of the GM produce to the states involved.

Genetically modified crops have not been proven to be safe and cannot safely be controlled. There are environmental, health and economics problems with lifting this ban. Issues include the potential for increased chemical usage, broad cross contamination, environmental weeds, the potential for pharmaceutical contamination, loss of markets and of particular concern increased immune and allergic reactions. For example in March 2007 tests on Monsanto’s maize type MON863 caused symptoms of poisoning and liver and kidney damage in rats.

Many of our farmers rely on their crops’ GMO free status for sales in key export markets including Europe, Asia and the Middle East and will be shut out of those markets if Australia adopts GM farming. Farmers in the US and Canada who have planted GM canola and soy beans have been shut out of former markets, and currently receive massive subsidies.

Multinational companies own the patents to many seed stocks and are signing up many producers to the exclusive use of their range, often containing genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). Companies promoting GM crops are using the technology to take greater control over farmers to ensure greater profits at the expense of farmers’ abilities to produce their own seed, and manage their own business. This is bad for farmers and bad for our food.

As global food production increasingly is concentrated into the hands of a small number of multinationals our level of control over what we eat is being diminished.

GMOs in Australia are regulated at a federal level by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator. The Gene Technology Act was introduced in 2000 and was amended last year by the Government, the Greens tried to introduce further amendments for example to ensure better community consultation and introduce better labelling of GMO products these were however rejected by the Coalition Government…

Small trials and some commercial planting have occurred across Australia which has already resulted in contamination. If Australian GMO-free farmers are contaminated and lose markets, they have no legal protection or ability to seek compensation.

The government has said that farmers whose land is contaminated by their neighbour’s GM crop will be protected by common law but the experience of canola farmers in Canada is different. Far from enjoying common law protection, Canadian canola farmers whose crops have been contaminated by GM canola seeds have been famously sued by aggressive bio-tech companies claiming unlawful use of their patented plant.

The Greens believe that the biotech companies pushing this technology onto the community should be legally responsible for losses that GM-free farms suffer as a result of contamination.

The Australian Greens support an immediate freeze on any further use of GMOs in agriculture.

We support full powers for State, Territory and Local Governments to declare their jurisdictions GM-free. Legal protection for GM-free farmers must be legislated at federal and state levels.

Liability for any damage to the community and the environment should be borne by the proponents who develop and commercialise GM technology.

Farmers who wish to maintain their GM-free or organic status should not bear the cost of proving that their crops have not been contaminated.

We support mandatory labelling of all foods produced using gene technology, and foodstuffs from animals that have been fed GM feed.

We support government measures to encourage the adoption of sustainable agricultural systems.

Australia's premium status as a GM-free food producer is being sabotaged by Premiers Brumby and Iemma. The Constitution, including its corporations power, enables Mr Rudd to override them, and so he should.



Victorian Local Governance Association, 27 Nov '07 http://www.vlga.org.au/news/items/2007/11/183084-upload-00001.pdf

You can download the letter to Agriculture Minister Joe Helper at: http://www.vlga.org.au/news/items/2007/11/183084-upload-00002.pdf

VLGA President Cr Beth Davidson has expressed disappointment at the Victorian State Government's decision not to renew a four-year moratorium on GM Canola crops.

'We question whether the economic benefit of just $115 million over several years is really worth the health and agricultural risks we believe have not been adequately dismissed,' Cr Davidson said.

'The VLGA Board has passed a resolution stating its support for a precautionary approach to this issue. We opposed the moratorium being lifted because local communities across Victoria have told us they deserve certain scientific evidence that GM Canola crops are safe and can be contained.

'We've also called for more consultation with affected communities (especially rural and regional), community organisations, local governments, farmers, food processors and consumers.

'There is concern in the community that the membership of the Moratorium Review Panel was always going to support lifting the Moratorium as its membership lacked balance. The Panel contained GM foods advocates, biotechnology company directors, ex-members of the pro-GM Victorian Farmers Federation executive and a member of the Southern Panel of the Grains Research and Development Corporation which promotes acceptance of GM research, development and commercialisation.

'While we believe the decision of the State Government today is pre-emptive and based on inadequate consultation, we now call on them to at the very least create a 2 register of GM crop trials and commercial releases, to contain all the following information:

- all studies submitted by licence applicants;

- GM reference data;

- A valid GM detection test; and

- All health and environmental research data.

'The VLGA will now consider conducting more consultation with interested local governments as this has not been adequately undertaken by the process to date,' Cr Davidson added.

Go to a Print friendly Page

Email this Article to a Friend

Back to the Archive