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Monday, 28 August 2000
Page: 19455

Mr IAN MACFARLANE (8:22 PM) —I welcome the closing comments of the member for Bruce that the Labor Party will work with the government to ensure that this legislation is put through in a form that is able both to ensure the safety of the public and to put in place as soon as possible the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator. We certainly have a concern that we get this office in place as quickly as possible. Some might say that it is long overdue. I would be inclined to agree with that. Like many other parts of science, gene technology often outstrips the ability of legislators to keep up with developments. However, I do reject the assertion that the federal government have not been able to close the gap between scientific advance and the regulatory and ethical implications. The Gene Technology Bill 2000, the Gene Technology (Licence Charges) Bill 2000 and the Gene Technology (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2000 are certainly a step to ensure that science is allowed to progress but in a safe and healthy framework. The bills that we are considering tonight are, as the member for Bruce called for, tougher legislation. Having some respect for his opinion, I was curious as to which parts of this legislation he would zero in on as having shortcomings. That zeroing in did not occur. In fact, most of his address was spent addressing issues of the past, the usual words such as `at the tip of the iceberg' being there.

Relying on a Senate inquiry to produce anything is, I think, wishful thinking in most cases. This legislation certainly has all the hallmarks of being able to protect the health and safety of people, as well as to protect the environment. It will do so by identifying the risk posed by or as a result of gene technology and by managing those risks through regulating certain dealings with GMOs. There is nothing in the legislation that leads me to think that any area is soft or in need of amendment.

The Gene Technology Bill 2000 creates the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator who is a statutory office holder with significant independence akin to the Commissioner of Taxation and the Commonwealth Ombudsman. This independence is critically important as it allows the officer to operate without political or commercial interference and is something I strongly support and am very pleased to see as a cornerstone of this legislation. The member for Bruce and I, and a number of other members from both sides of this House, spent some time on the Standing Committee on Primary Industries and Regional Services investigating gene technology. I am sure the member for Bruce would agree that the independence of the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator is very critical. The Gene Technology Regulator is appointed by the Governor-General with an agreement by the majority of Australian jurisdictions and has the responsibility to administer the legislation, thereby regulating GMOs. He or she will provide advice to the public, industry and government regarding the regulation of GMOs and provide risk assessment advice to other regulatory agencies whilst promoting harmonisation or risk assessment of GMOs and GM products. The office also has the task of developing guidelines and standards and undertaking much of the research on risk management and GMOs, while maintaining links with international organisations. The accusation that this legislation does not go far enough is simply refuted by those few paragraphs. The opportunity is there, through this legislation and through the establishment of the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, to put in place all the mechanisms we need to ensure that both public and environmental safety is assured.

The Gene Technology Bill 2000 prohibits all dealings with GMOs unless the dealing is exempt, a notifiable low risk dealing, a licensed dealing or a registered dealing. The bill establishes a system for the Gene Technology Regulator to assess dealings with GMOs ranging from contained work to general releases of GMOs into the environment. Under the area of contained work—for example, dealing with low risk GMOs in a laboratory—the Gene Technology Regulator must undertake any consultation necessary, that is, with states and territories, expert committees, Commonwealth agencies, local governments, et cetera, and prepare a risk assessment and a risk management plan. I am not sure that I see any shortfall in all of that. The GTR must also notify the approval of the dealing—for example, on the database and in the annual report. Where the Gene Technology Regulator believes that a dealing may pose significant risk to health and safety of people or the environment, the Gene Technology Regulator must publish a notice in the Gazette and relevant newspapers, enter a notice on the Gene Technology Regulator's web site and generally make relevant people aware that the application has been received and is available on request, and invite submissions. The Gene Technology Regulator must also prepare a draft risk assessment and a draft risk management plan, taking into account any submissions received, as well as advice from the Gene Technology Regulator's expert technical committee. The GTR will release the draft risk assessment and risk management plan for a second round of public consideration, invite submissions and then make a final decision and notify the public.

What that tells me is that there is an extraordinarily extensive process involved in setting up the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator and that, in terms of the legislation, it is a living document. It is a process which we will need to ensure grows, as does the task in front of it. The confidence that I have is the confidence which the member for Bruce spoke of when he mentioned the esteemed performance of the TGA in managing issues relating to therapeutic goods. I have absolutely no doubt that the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator will be able to match those extremely high standards already set by the TGA.

The bill establishes three committees to assist the Gene Technology Regulator and to provide advice to the ministerial council. They are the Gene Technology Technical Advisory Committee, which is to provide scientific and technical advice, including on individual applications; the Gene Technology Ethics Committee to develop ethics guidelines and prohibitive directives; and the Gene Technology Community Consultation Group to provide advice on matters of general concern in relation to GMOs and the need for policy, technical or procedural guidelines and codes of practice in relation to GMOs and GM products.

The record of GMOs and GM product dealings provides for a centralised, publicly available database of all GMOs and GM products approved in Australia, including those approved by the other regulators. There is an interface with other regulators and relevant parties through the regulatory framework established by the Gene Technology Bill 2000. It will operate concurrently with other Commonwealth and state regulatory schemes relevant to GMOs and GM products as well as with relevant Commonwealth parties.

The Gene Technology (Licence Charges) Bill 2000 is a further bill being considered as part of this legislation. The purpose of this bill is to enable annual licence charges to be levied on licences authorising certain dealings with genetically modified organisms issued under the Gene Technology Bill 2000. The third bill being considered is the Gene Technology (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2000. The purpose of this bill is to amend a number of Commonwealth regulatory schemes to require other regulatory bodies to consider advice from the Gene Technology Regulator when making decisions to approve certain dealings with genetically modified products. This bill amends four existing schemes to regulate the approval of products derived from, or produced from, GM products. The bill thus provides an additional layer, or a second generation of regulation, and requires the relevant regulatory agency to request advice from the regulator and to consider that advice when making decisions in relation to products which are GM products or contain GM products. The agency must also notify the regulator of decisions made in relation to GM products.

All of that is quite a mouthful and to me merely underlines the detail and time that the government has taken in preparing this legislation. After the Interim Office of the Gene Technology Regulator had studied other models from right around the world, we have put in place a legislative base and framework which I believe not only will give consumers in this country a great deal of confidence but also will allow us to successfully develop GM products so that Australia remains at the forefront of scientific advance.

The area of GMOs has been subjected to a great deal of hysteria, misinformation and ignorance by parts of our community with regard to the whole issue of genetic modification. Genetic modification is nothing new; it has been going on since the beginning of creation and is part of evolution. From a scientific perspective, biotechnology is an umbrella term that covers various techniques for altering the properties or genes of living things and has been around for over 100 years. The term includes genetic alteration through methods such as selective breeding—as a past cattleman I have certainly done that from time to time—plant cloning or grafting—many an orchardist has already become an expert at that—and the use of microbial products in fermenting.

What is new about BT, biotechnology, is not the principle of altering various organisms but the modern techniques for doing so. Of particular pertinence and importance is that these modern techniques are far more precise now and allow for the transfer of single genes. This gives a far more predictable result and produces greater gains in varietal and breeding development. In a nutshell, gene technology involves the modification of organisms by directly adding or deleting one or more genes to bring about certain specific characteristics. These may be characteristics related to growth patterns, chemical tolerance, disease and insect resistance, yield and maturity variations—and so the list goes on. Gene technology covers both animal and plant species.

Gene technology is also widely used in medicine. In fact, gene technology is used in research; agricultural applications; production of therapeutic goods and products such as insulin; medicine for the identification and treatment of disease; bioremediation, which is the use of micro-organisms to decompose toxic substances; and industry, such as the production of enzymes for use in paper pulp production. Benefits for agriculture include higher yields and productivity, higher efficiency, better and more sustainable land use, and reduced use of agricultural chemicals. Those few things for agriculture are things we very much need. Our farmers, as seems to be the case all too regularly of late, are in need of an extra competitive edge and great efficiency. It is never easy on the land, as many in this House well know—certainly those who sit on this side know. With current prices at levels we saw 20 or 30 years ago, many farmers are hanging their future viability on the development of new species of crops and animals which give them a larger margin in their farm productions.

Health benefits cannot be overlooked when talking about GMOs. These include the use of gene technology to conduct research into the cause of a disease, as a diagnostic tool, and for disease prevention and treatment. There is also the development of improved biopharmaceuticals such as vaccines. It is interesting—in fact, I find it incredibly curious—that the general public have accepted for decades the use of GM products which are injected into them yet we now have this sudden outcry over food products. Already well accepted are vaccines for whooping cough and hepatitis B. We are now using insulin and replacement hormone therapy derived directly from genetic modification techniques. These medicines are cheap to produce and present lower risks of allergies and, more importantly, lower risk of transmission of infectious agents. Where in the past we may have used animal products or animal derivatives, we are now using derivatives that have been produced synthetically.

The environmental benefits of GMOs include the reduced use of chemicals and pesticides, reduced ground water contamination, reclaiming of polluted or salt-affected land and increased agricultural productivity—which was the word I was looking for earlier—reducing the need for land clearing, thus protecting biodiversity. The production of biodegradable plastics and biodiesels are other potential derivatives from GM research, along with bioremediation—that is, the use of modified micro-organisms to clean up industrial wastes and environmental accidents.

As with all scientific advances there are some risks and, although they are not clearly identified, they relate to the possible unknown, long-term or intergenerational consequences of GM technology and allergies to GM foods, along with the impact on the traditional or organic cropping status of Australia. On that, we—we being Australian farmers—are quite rightly very proud of our clean, green reputation in international markets and we need to ensure that any advances we embrace through this technology do not endanger that.

Along with regulation, another area receiving a great deal of public attention is that of the labelling of GMOs. In the short time I have left I would like to touch upon that area. Much has been said about labelling and the importance to the consumer of knowing exactly whether or not products contain GMOs. I certainly agree with that: the consumer has every right to know. The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Council agreed to a new labelling regime and, whilst they require the labelling of food and food ingredients where a novel DNA and/or novel protein is present, I do not believe they got it right. While I support labelling, I believe a far better approach would have been that we be able to use a system whereby those products that were not GMOs, that did not contain GMOs, were the ones labelled. I say that quite simply because what we are going to see in Australia's litigious society is companies, manufacturers and retailers going for the easy option—that is, rather than getting caught with a product on the shelf that should have been labelled as containing GM foods, they will simply go through and label everything as containing GMOs. In such a situation there is little or no information for the consumer, other than that the products in front of them either have GMOs or may have GMOs in them.

What we really needed to do was offer the opportunity for manufacturers whose products do not contain GMOs, and who were prepared to defend perhaps even in court the fact that they do not contain GMos, to label those foods in that manner and use that as a marketing opportunity. Of course, politics and hysteria have prevented this and the consumer will be the loser through loss of information. This has masked the very real gains that are there to be made from gene technology and they have led to a political rather than a practical solution. All is not lost, though, and as we saw with the motor vehicle—in the very early part of this century, they had to be preceded by a man waving a red flag or carrying a red lantern and ringing a bell—time will allow GMO technology to be more readily accepted by the general public. In the same way as motor vehicles, once the advantages, convenience and safety of GMOs are demonstrated, we will all be left to wonder what all the fuss was about. In the end it will be the consumers who judge the issue of the long-term safety effects of GMO foods, not the politics and hysteria. Why am I so confident? As stated in an ANZFA document:

There is no credible scientific evidence indicating that GM foods have had an adverse effect on health anywhere in the world, even though they have been in the food supply for more than a decade.

I commend this legislation to the House.