|Oz GM push laid bare (15/7/2007)|
1.Victoria to lift GM ban?
NOTE: Three informative articles on the aggressive campaign being waged in Australia to push in GM and undermine State bans.
1.Victoria to lift GM ban?
Three years after extending its moratorium on the commercial growing of genetically modified (GM) crops, the Victorian ALP government appears poised to remove the ban when it expires in February 2008.
State agriculture minister Joe Helper believes that Victoria is now "open-minded" about GM crops and a "careful and considered approach" will be used to determine the impact of GM crops on the market before a decision is made.
Farmers' groups are split. The National Farmers Federation (NFF) has been lured by promises of increased yields for less expense, but the Network of Concerned Farmers sees an erosion of choice for non-GM farmers, with up to 10% additional costs to cover segregation bills alone. The United Dairy Farmers of Victoria voted on June 19 to reverse their support for Victoria's ban on commercial GM canola. In response, consumer groups say that they will vote with their feet and choose non-GM soy or organic alternatives if the ban is lifted.
Federal agriculture minister Peter McGuaran, a supporter of GM crops, was quoted by the May 13 Age as saying: "Farmers have much to gain, particularly in times of drought, from growing GM crops, such as wheat and canola that use less water and herbicides than conventional crops." The same points have been reiterated by NFF chief executive Ben Fargher.
These are emotive words, especially in times of drought, but they are hard to substantiate. There is no GM drought-resistant wheat or canola and development could be 10 years away. Non-GM varieties will be available far sooner. Seventy per cent of GM crops are herbicide resistant, and farmers spray more often and at higher doses, resulting in "super weeds" that demand an increasing amount of chemicals to control them.
Federal minister for trade Warren Truss has repeatedly said that Australian farmers are being "left behind". Yet, according to a 2006 industry-backed report from the International Service for Acquisition of Agro-biotechnology Applications ten years after the introduction of GM crops, just 0.7% of all farmers grew them, and 85% of all GM crops were grown in North and South America.
With Australian GM-free canola enjoying a premium of up to $120 per tonne more than the Winnipeg price it is difficult to see how our farmers are being left behind.
The Victorian government has appointed a three-member GM review panel to examine the economic impact of commercial GM canola on trade. However, the panel appears flawed from the start. The chairperson, Gus Nossal, is a retired medical researcher and a long-time supporter of GM crops and food. Panel member Merna Curnow was an officer of the Victorian Farmers Federation. She also worked for the Grains Research Development Council, which invests in GM promotion. Neither appear to have skills to review the issue.
As Bob Phelps from Gene Ethics said, "The Bracks government has set up a panel to recommend fast tracking GM crops into our environment and onto our plates". On May 22, he called for a review of "new evidence on health and environmental impacts of GM crops and foods since the licences were issued".
There have been few independent GM studies carried out, partly due to a lack of funding, but also because of the difficulty in accessing GM material. Hence the majority of data comes from the GM companies themselves. It is then the responsibility of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) to review the data.
WA agriculture minister Kim Chance has said that FSANZ does not adequately assess health impacts of genetically modified crops, and FSANZ spokesperson Lydia Buchtmann agreed it did not conduct trials involving feeding animals or people GM foods. As the May 13 Age editorial stated, "To ask Big Agribusiness about GM is a little like consulting Big Tobacco about the risks of smoking".
One independent study was conducted by Dr Irina Ermakova of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Female rats were fed GM soy, non-GM soy or non-soy diets prior to conception. Two weeks after birth, 36% of the GM pups weighed less than 20g compared to 6% of the others. Within three weeks, 25 of the 45 (55.6%) rats from the GM soy group died compared to only three of 33 (9%) from the non-GM soy group, and three of 44 (6.8%) from the non-soy controls. These results are consistent with other independent studies.
If Victoria does remove its ban, the pressure will be on other states to follow. In WA, there is a push to make GM cotton exempt from the moratorium. Opponents see it as a Trojan Horse that will serve to pave the way for GM canola and other crops.
In WA, the Say No to GMO campaign has brought together the Conservation Council of WA, the Organic Growers Association and the Network of Concerned Consumers. A petition asking that the GM moratorium be extended 10 years beyond 2008 has gathered almost 4000 signatures and was recently tabled in parliament.
This type of consumer-led resistance is evident across the country. As Phelps explained, "The citizen campaign to keep Victoria GM-free is even stronger since the turnaround as their foolish decision is based on empty promises about the profit potential of GM canola".
With outstanding issues to consider such as segregation, contamination, liability, labeling, consumer rejection, health, environment and economics, one has to wonder why we are even having this debate.
[To get involved in Say No to GMO email Janet on [email protected] or phone Maggie on (08) 9420 7260.]
2.GM push vilifies organics
Recent attacks on the organic food industry are about discrediting it to soften up the public to accept genetically modified (GM) crops, Dr Maggie Lilith of the Conservation Council of WA and the Say No to GMO campaign told Green Left Weekly.
"The spate of recent claims that organic food is riskier and linked to health scares seems to have come from proponents of GM and those with a vested interest", said Lilith, who is also a member of the Fremantle Organic Growers Association. "The claims about the safety of organic foods are unfounded and aim to spread misinformation to the public."
On April 12, a syndicated piece by Bettina Arndt entitled "Organic myths pose real risks to health" appeared in newspapers across Australia. The article is a savage attack on the organic food industry and consumers who choose its products.
"The organic food industry is booming with ever more people deluded into thinking that paying two or three times more for organic food products will provide them with healthier, safer food", stated Arndt.
In an attempt to portray organics as backward and unscientific, Arndt quotes British Lord Dick Taverne as saying, "What is most worrying about the whole organic product movement is the underlying notion that scientific progress is inevitably bad and we are all better off reverting to primitive, 'natural' ways of doing things."
Lilith disputes this unscientific claim. "Organic systems rely on modern scientific understanding of ecology and soil science as well as traditional methods of crop rotations to ensure fertility and weed and pest control", she said.
"Moreover, organic production aims to be sustainable and reduce dependence on non-renewable resources. The soil is not depleted as under conventional agribusiness practices. Organic produce is not covered in toxic chemicals as no pesticides or artificial chemicals are used. Animals are not treated with synthetic growth hormones or drugs."
Arndt also quotes Taverne glorifying GM crops: "If people were really worried about the effects of pesticides in farming on wildlife or human health, they should promote pest-resistant GM crops, which reduce pesticide use The solid scientific support for the safety and efficiency of GM crops means nothing to blinkered souls who trust instincts over science."
Janet Grogan, a leading activist with the Say No to GMO campaign, described Arndt's article as "a thinly veiled pro-GM rant against organic foods".
"It was misinformed and biased. Arndt cites two cases to prove the dangers of eating organic foods, neither actually linked to organically-derived produce."
"What's more, her list of experts comes from pro-GM groups. Lord Taverne is the chairman of the pro-GM lobby group the Association of Sense in Science. His book was lambasted in the Guardian newspaper as mingling myth with fact."
A month later, on May 16, an article appeared in the West Australian, promoting the idea of growing GM cotton in the Ord River district of northern WA and attacking organic growers.
A key GM scientist, Dr Jim Peacock, claimed opponents of the scheme were largely "self-serving organic farmers and ill-informed environmental activists". Peacock was instrumental in developing GM cotton while working at the CSIRO. Some 100 hectare trials of GM cotton along the Ord have already been approved by the WA government.
Lilith is scathing about Peacock's criticism. "It's the pro-GM groups who are self-serving, interested only in making profits at the expense of farmers and community health. Moreover, GM cotton should be considered a Trojan horse as it leaves the door open for other unwanted GM crops."
Another attack on organics followed soon after. The May 22 edition of the Bulletin contained an exclusive titled "The Truth About Organic Food". Two large photos of shopping baskets graphically illustrate the expense of organic food over conventional.
Lilith contests the claim that organic food is expensive, saying, "A lot of supermarket pre-packaged food costs far more than organic staples. The typical household spends far more on junk food, or alcohol, or take-aways than on fruit and vegetables."
"The Bulletin article also ignores the nutritional benefits of organic produce", Lilith told GLW.
"Scientific evidence shows that fresh organic produce is more nutritious than non-organic food, containing higher nutrient levels, more vitamins, minerals, cancer-fighting antioxidants and enzymes."
But the Bulletin article does concede "consumption of organics is growing at 25% to 44% per year, outstripping the rise in organic food production at 6% to 15% in 2000, there were 7.6 million hectares under organic management, with a value of $19m. By 2006, that had grown to 12.3 million hectares valued at $400 million."
According to Annie Kavanagh, president of the Organic Growers Association WA, suppliers are finding it difficult to keep up with the demand from consumers.
Across Australia, in addition to the 12.3 million hectares under organic cultivation, a further 1.1 million hectares land is being prepared for organic certification. In 2006, there were 176 listed organic processors and producers in WA, compared to 58 in 2002. This shows a 300% increase in four years, which reflects the increasing demand for organic produce.
Perhaps this trend explains why the GM lobby is so keen to demolish the credibility of organic agriculture.
3.Federal bill threatens GM moratoriums
A bill recently pushed through federal parliament has the potential to threaten state moratoriums on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by granting new powers to the federal agriculture minister, a WA anti-GMO activist told Green Left Weekly.
Say No to GMO campaigner Janet Grogan is worried the Gene Technology Amendment (GTA) bill will be used to bypass state regulations and community consultation to introduce unwanted GM crops.
"At stake is the future of the Ord River, in the east Kimberley region of Western Australia, which has been marked out for GM cotton by bio-tech companies Monsanto and Bayer CropScience. The federal government has vowed to pressure WA to lift its ban on GM crops as part of negotiations surrounding development of the second stage of the Ord", Grogan said.
At the government's Northern Australian Land and Water Taskforce inaugural meeting on June 29, the Ord River region was high on the agenda, with GM cotton tabled as a first crop. While WA agriculture minister Kim Chance is on record committing his government to maintain the moratorium on the commercial production of GM crops, the state government has recently given approval for a 100-hectare GM cotton research trial on the Ord.
A number of consumer and farmer groups and NGOs are campaigning for the current moratorium on GM crops to remain for another 10 years after it expires in 2008. "But even if we succeed in convincing the WA government, the GTA bill would enable the federal government to override its decision", Grogan said.
"Under the bill's new emergency provisions, the federal agriculture minister could use drought or pest problems to justify the release of GM crops, with no requirement for a safety assessment or approval from the states", Grogan explained. "The bill also removes the requirement for community consultation when dealings may pose significant risks to the health and safety of people or the environment, and when genetically engineered [GE] crops are field-tested."
Grogan said the federal government seems absolutely determined to bring GE crops to market. "It has invested millions of dollars in GE crops through CSIRO and is calling on all the states to lift their bans [on GE food crops]. This pro-GM agenda has permeated many of the governments agencies including Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). So far, FSANZ has rubber-stamped as safe every GE crop that has come across its desk."
"The government appears to be yielding to pressure from the US to lift trade barriers", she said. "At the moment 85% of GM crops are grown in North and South America. If the federal government decides that, due to the drought, the Ord is the new food basket of Australia, there may be little that the state government, or the people of WA, can do to prevent the introduction of GM crops", Grogan concluded.