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Monday, 28 August 2000
Page: 19459

Mr MARTYN EVANS (8:41 PM) —It is something of a truism these days to talk about the impact of technological change on our society over the last hundred years. At the turn of the century and at the turn of the millennium I suppose it is appropriate to note the fact that the last hundred years of the last century and indeed of the last millennium have indicated the most rapid period of technological change that the human race has ever experienced. The generational change, of course, has been very significant in that context.

In the period of but a couple of generations we have seen society go from an industrial era to the start of an information era. The Gene Technology Bill 2000 and related bills that we are debating today are about gene technology and the regulation of gene technology and are very appropriate in the context of the start of the information age. If gene technology is about anything it is almost 100 per cent about information, because DNA is perhaps the most effective form of encoded information that we know of. It expresses so much information, in fact, that our modern technology is almost unable to cope with it. We have only just begun to decode the human DNA, and we have started on a number of plant and animal species to ensure that we also have the full record of their genetic make-up. But we have a long way to go yet. While we may have the basic roadmap of the human genome we do not have the answer as to what many of those genes do, and it will be many years yet before we have the full certainty of the genetic make-up of humans and the basis for each of those genes.

Indeed, the rate of change in this area has been so fast that I was born in the year when the basic structure of DNA was first elucidated by Watson and Crick, at the very start, if you like, of that technological revolution—the genetic revolution that we are now seeking to regulate. That kind of rapid pace of technological change risks leaving people behind. The reality is that the changes have occurred so quickly and in so few generations that the human race is in danger of being left behind in that technological advance. People are concerned to ensure they are fully informed about those technical changes where they affect the intimate aspects of their lives and they want to know that they have the full amount of information necessary.

Unfortunately, the amount of information concerning genetic manipulation—genetic technology—is such that many members of the public have difficulty in fully comprehending and staying abreast of all of those changes when taken in the context of their already busy everyday lives and tending to their work and families. Trying to stay on top of areas of scientific change as complex as this is a difficult task, even for those professionals fully engaged in the field. It does not really matter whether you relate it to the invention of the motor vehicle earlier this century, as the previous speaker, the member for Groom, did, to the widespread use of vaccines, to the pasteurisation of milk or to the implementation of anaesthetics before surgery, those kinds of technological advances—particularly the examples I have chosen of health and medicine—were all very controversial at the time they were introduced. They provoked substantial public concern and public debate about their safety, their efficacy and their moral appropriateness. It was debated widely within the legal framework as to just why we should embark on that area of research, why the public should be subjected to those kinds of changes, whether they were safe and whether they were ethical. But public approval has usually followed in the long term as the benefits of that technology became apparent.

One of the issues that has concerned me about the gene technology debate is that many of those who promoted the early examples of genetic manipulation and the technology associated with it were not careful to ensure that the public were alerted to the benefits which would ultimately flow to them from this technology. Many of those early technological changes were directed at farmers and the producers of agricultural goods rather than at the ultimate consumers. PR effort was expended by the manufacturers of those products. I do not wish to single them out, but companies like Monsanto, Aventis, Novatis and many other corporations engaged in the quasi-pharmaceutical and genetic agricultural industry sought to promote their products to the agricultural community and did not expend the necessary effort to explain to the public why the changes they were proposing were in the long term beneficial, even at the first generation, and what was in store in subsequent generation products, where the consumer was likely to be even more directly benefited.

Because of that effect, substantial acreages of some of these early products were planted, such as Bt maize, Bt cotton and genetically modified canola. Those products have been planted substantially in the United States—some of them also in Australia and in many other countries. Consumers were not made aware that this technology was being implemented on a large scale, that it would show up in consumer products ultimately and that the health issues which might flow from that had been adequately addressed by the manufacturers. All of the effort went into convincing the primary customers—the agricultural producers—that these products were desirable, that they would make their lives easier, that they would add to their productivity and that they would ensure their farms would be able to use fewer pesticides or undertake less soil tilling, whatever the particular application was. Of course, the public were not aware of many of these changes and were naturally concerned when they did become aware about the impact that they might ultimately have. I think the industry is now largely aware of those early mistakes and is seeking to rectify them, but already public concern is out there and it is something which must be effectively addressed.

Good regulation in this context, therefore, is vital. It is absolutely fundamental that our primary concern in the area of agriculture and food should be food safety. It really does not matter very much whether that food is derived from a product which has been directly subjected to genetic manipulation or whether that product is a conventional bread seed or a conventional bread product or whether it is one that has evolved naturally, although I will discuss some aspects of that later. It does not really matter how that food is derived or what processes are used in its production mechanisms; the important issue is whether that food is safe when it is sold at the farm gate, when it is sold in the supermarket and when it finally appears on the consumer's table. That is the critical issue which we as legislators and regulators must address. It is the critical issue which consumers must address when they demand more information about products and when they look at the efficacy of regulations. We make a mistake when we focus too much on how that food came to be produced, rather than on the ultimate safety standards.

If we turn our attention to the organic food industry, we can see that an example of what is allegedly a natural product—produced by natural means—may not necessarily always be the safest product. While I have absolutely nothing against organic food per se, the reality is that often that food is fertilised in the farm context with the use of raw sewage and with the use of other organic material which may well not have been adequately decontaminated of bacteria. Many deaths have occurred from E. coli, which is carried in food, fruit or vegetables through to the consumers' table and which is then the cause of food poisoning. Sometimes it can be quite serious and has the potential—although it is always difficult to trace these things back—to cause the deaths of consumers from food poisoning. Many thousands of deaths in the United States, and many in Australia, are caused by food poisoning every year from conventional food, yet we still permit the circumstances to exist. While we seek to minimise those circumstances, they are indeed out there. Being natural does not always mean that a food product is safe, and it does not guarantee that that food will not contain contaminants, be they organic or inorganic, which may ultimately be harmful.

We see that also in the field of drugs. In this era of rapid scientific change, there is potential for an almost anti-science attitude in the consumer marketplace, for a degree of concern about scientific advances and the efficacy of them, and for an ethical debate around them. Whether or not a scientific advance is appropriate, people may turn away from it and look towards what is sold in the commercial marketplace as natural—be it organic food or so-called natural drugs, which can often be far more harmful and dangerous than the real thing. For example, a drug containing St John's wort is sold in health food stores as a cure or treatment for some forms of depression. These drugs often have adverse impacts because they contain a wide variety of active chemical constituents, they are not standardised in any way, and they are not subject to the normal regulatory processes or the double blind clinical trials which would precede the marketing of any pharmaceutical. They are not taken in a supervised context and there can be significant interactions with other drugs that are being taken.

So we have to be very careful, as consumers and as legislators, to ensure that we do not cater to an anti-science view which takes us away into this natural realm which may be as dangerous as the well-regulated but perhaps more artificial area of food and drug delivery. Certainly gene technology is one of the areas which many in the community cite for a lack of natural breeding processes, and they assert that there are risks involved. As in all human activity, there are risks, and we would be foolish not to acknowledge that. That is the reason for the kind of regulatory proposal that we have before us today.

We should not lose sight of the historical context in which plants have been bred by humans ever since we first domesticated animals and sought to produce domesticated agricultural plants. Indeed, we have always produced plants which involved forms of genetic manipulation. One of the earliest examples would be wheat, which is a hybrid product of other natural grasses and cereals and, as such, is far from natural, yet everyone would assert that bread is a very natural product. It is a product of the very earliest genetic engineering which we are aware of. So is the tomato. Four hundred years ago, the tomato which grew wild in the hills surrounding the Andes in South America was small, green and relatively poisonous. Over 400 years of selective breeding—genetic engineering—we have bred a product which is larger, redder and far from poisonous; indeed, it is quite a healthy product to eat, although it does contain some natural toxins. Those who were performing that genetic engineering were doing it with their eyes closed and with no knowledge of the very substantial DNA changes which took place in those products.

For many years, some of the most common modern breeding techniques have involved exposing large numbers of seeds to chemical mutagens and radiation, which is designed to induce wholesale DNA restructuring within the seeds. Those seeds are then planted, the successful seedlings are selected for their desirable characteristics, and they are then bred back with the parent or other wild types to further propagate the desirable traits and suppress the less desirable traits which have resulted from the DNA changes induced by the chemical or radiation mutagens. That is far from a natural process, but it is the one we all endorse when we buy and eat new strains and new varieties of plant and agricultural products—which of course are what stock our supermarket shelves today.

Those changes to the DNA are wholesale; no-one knows what undesirable characteristics have been introduced in the breeding process or what significant changes have occurred to the DNA structure. They are aware only of the outward expression of that genotype, the outward expression of those desirable characteristics for which they have bred. They are completely unaware of any undesirable changes to the DNA, which are far more significant than those which occur when products are manipulated scientifically to modify the DNA and to insert perhaps one or two genes. In those cases, the changes which have been made to the structure of the DNA of the plant are very clear, well known and well documented, and the outcomes are well researched and tested. That is not always the case with traditional plant breeding. That is not an argument to say that we should be that concerned about traditional plant breeding—obviously we should not, because we have all been eating the products of it for many years now—or an argument to say that we should ignore the problems which potentially surround the manipulation of the DNA by genetic engineering technology. It is an argument to say that we must keep these relative risks in perspective, and we must judge one against the other, assess the relative concerns, and focus on food safety—not on the mechanisms by which these things were produced.

I suspect if consumers were fully aware of the way in which many of the traditional plant varieties had been produced, they would be less than enthusiastic about purchasing them, as many are less than enthusiastic about purchasing those items which are stated to have been recently changed and subject to DNA modification by artificial means. The potential for DNA manipulation is very great, as many members have said in this debate. It is important that this legislation allows that promise to be expressed in the way of new technologies, new foods, new pharmaceuticals, new industrial products and new environmental remediation tools which should become available as a result of this technology.

We should be able to see the introduction of vaccines into foods, which would be advantageous in those countries where there is not an adequate supply of cold storage or adequate medical facilities to distribute vaccines. We should see improved food nutrition, the removal of negative characteristics, and the enhancement of the positive characteristics of our existing foods. A prime example is the development of the so-called golden rice, which has had vitamin A added to its new genetic structure. This rice will assist children in many Third World countries who suffer partial or total blindness as a result of inadequate vitamin A in their diet. The company responsible, Monsanto, has recently placed the technology in the public domain and allows the licensing of that technology so that the countries which will benefit from it, but cannot afford to pay for it, will be able to take advantage of it. We may well see some significant improvement in those children as a result.

There has always been the promise, particularly in animal trials, of the production of pharmaceuticals, especially the very complex and expensive pharmaceuticals, through the use of genetically engineered animal stocks. That is why cloning technology is so important. Having produced the initial animal with the modified DNA, which might well produce substantial pharmaceutical drugs of broad use and application in our society, that animal could then be cloned into a herd and economic production could occur as a result. We can potentially modify plants to be much more successful in high saline areas—a very relevant technology in Australia today—or to resist drought or heat or to cope better with higher CO2 concentrations. All of those potential changes can be brought about by the introduction of additional genes into, or indeed the deletion of additional genes from, these plant and animal species—and that technology will grow apace.

It is important that this technology is properly regulated. It is important that we bring the public along with us and that consumers are properly informed about these changes. It is also important that we keep the risks in perspective, that we understand the kind of technology which is used today and the potential for that technology to be used tomorrow, and that we ensure that the benefits of this technology are not outweighed by concern as to the harmful aspects. We need to ensure that those aspects are properly addressed and that the public are made aware of the potential gains from this technology. Their support for it will be much more likely to follow when we indicate to them what the direct benefits to consumers are, that there is adequate regulation and adequate testing, and that those involved in this industry are seeking to do it not only for the profit motive—which, of course, will often be there in private sector research—but also for the ultimate good of society as a whole.