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Monday, 28 August 2000
Page: 19463


Dr WASHER (9:01 PM) —I rise tonight to speak on the Gene Technology Bill 2000. Much has been said and written about gene technology in recent years, as the wealth of possibilities through science and research open up new doors for us—confirming this century as a revolutionary century of biotechnology. It is a very exciting field to be part of, as the benefits for the human race are limited only by our imagination. It gives us opportunities to feed our rapidly expanding global population, as well as treat and even cure diseases that are fatal or debilitating. Biotechnology offers many solutions to how we can go on living on this planet without destroying it. It lets us grow crops in places where it used to be impossible to grow anything, resisting even drought, frost and salt. It gives us the tools to make crops resistant to disease and able to stand up to outside forces like insects and pests, so we can use fewer pesticides and fertilisers. In short, it represents the key to meeting society's challenges and will be the central growth factor in every economy on the globe.

Biotechnology is simply the manipulation of a biological process to derive some kind of benefit. We have been doing this for centuries through techniques like selective breeding and crossbreeding, and so has mother nature through genetic mutations. In fact, a natural mutation occurred recently in a canola crop that has now made it resistant to herbicide. Ever since we started baking bread, brewing beer and making cheese, we have been utilising biotechnology. GM foods represent a more exact science than what we have been used to, as we can now map and identify an organism down to a single gene and move it from one organism to another to enhance its characteristics to suit us. A good example was extensively covered in a recent issue of Time magazine, as was mentioned by a previous speaker. The article was about a Swiss scientist who had developed a rice crop that was created from snippets of DNA from a daffodil. His desire to do this stemmed from his concern that people in Third World countries were suffering major vitamin A deficiencies, leading to infectious diseases and blindness. More than one million children die each year because they are weakened by a vitamin A deficiency and an additional 350,000 go blind. This is due to poorer nations relying almost entirely on rice for their diet. By transferring genes from the daffodil, the rice then has the code to make beta carotene. That is what makes it yellow. This is a precursor of vitamin A. I was pleased to hear in recent weeks that Monsanto, the company that owns the rights to this technology—as mentioned also by the previous speaker—has offered use of the rice to Third World countries totally free of charge. This crop will bring immeasurable benefits to the nutritional standards of poorer nations and cannot be overlooked when the hysteria surrounding GM foods reaches such a crescendo that we cannot see past the headlines. As a former United States president, Jimmy Carter, so aptly put it: `Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy; starvation is.'

In June this year an American scientist decoded, for the first time, the human genome. In other words, we have an extremely large database containing every letter of our human genetic structure—all 3.1 billion of them. Even more exciting, Australia was the first country to buy the rights to this knowledge. We now have the means to be part of a new medical revolution where genetic medicine will help cure and vaccinate against cancer, HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, to name a few. For Australia to remain part of this revolution, we must continue on the path that the Howard government has begun to build—continuing funding for scientific research, supporting our scientists so that we do not lose them to the US and by structuring our tax system to encourage venture capital.

Fears surrounding GM foods were initiated, particularly in Europe, by the mad cow scare—a disease caused by proteins called prions that change shape. This has its equivalent in Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and curu. Cows develop mad cow disease after being fed animal products containing neurological tissue, such as brain and spinal cord. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease was spread by injecting people with human growth hormone extracted from cadaver brain tissue. This disease is now largely eradicated, rather ironically, with the aid of genetic engineering. We are now able to genetically engineer a safer growth hormone using bacterial cells. Despite the mad cow incident having nothing whatsoever to do with GM foods and despite its human equivalent, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, being eradicated with the help of genetic engineering, this episode has inspired a wealth of paranoia on the subject.

It is worth noting that the medical world has been quite comfortable with GM products for some time. It is exasperating to see some groups like the British Medical Association speak out against GM products, even though their members use these products as vaccines on a daily basis. The same paranoia accompanied the introduction of treatments such as genetically engineered insulin some years ago. But they were permitted on the market because our medical regulatory systems based their decisions on good science and not on ill-informed sensationalism. Without this insulin, we would not have enough human pancreas in the world to obtain the human insulin that is required to treat our diabetic population. Vaccines also exist today because of genetic engineering. The new GM whooping cough vaccine is actually much safer than the old one as there was always a possible risk, albeit a small one, of brain damage. The new genetically engineered vaccine does not contain any foreign proteins and therefore removes this risk. Hepatitis B vaccine, which is now recommended for all Australians, has been guaranteed safe because it is produced by genetic modification. Confidence in its safety was not always assured when the product was extracted from high risk hepatitis B sufferers.

Critics of GM food often cite a handful of reported scientific studies that would result in a D grade for any high school science student using the same methodologies. Perhaps the most widely reported one comes from a biochemist in Scotland who said he had proven that GM potatoes were harmful to rats because of the genetic modification. Without going into too much detail, the changes observed in the rats and their organs are attributable to the fact that rats are not particularly fond of potatoes and were consequently malnourished. Most significantly, the known toxins in raw potato often cause problems in rats—a conclusion that could have been drawn from the start of the experiment. A GM potato causes no more damage to rats than a non-GM potato. Of course, we should test GM foods to see if they are in any way harmful. However, it is worth pointing out that the food we are eating now that has been subtly altered will have gone through far more rigorous testing than conventional foods ever will.

This brings me to the decisions made by ANZFA on the issue of labelling products based on their method of manufacture. Even if products have been proven to be safe and substantially equivalent to their conventional counterparts, in making this decision ANZFA has allowed itself to be coerced and ultimately politicised away from good science. I am now extremely concerned about Australia's global standing because of this decision. The United States Food and Drug Administration, which is one of the world's oldest consumer protection agencies and an employer of some 2,100 scientists, has stated that labelling of all GM food represents `consumer fraud'. It is costly, unworkable and leaves us wide open to a trade war through the World Trade Organisation, threatening thousands of jobs of ordinary Australians. There is a danger that Australia will be used as an easy target to send a message to traders like the EU which have already been threatened with a formal complaint to the WTO on the grounds of product discrimination.

GM products would not have been allowed onto the market if they were not safe. As long as the product is not substantially different or contains allergens, then not only is mandatory labelling unnecessary, it is quite perilous. Advocates of GM labelling often quote surveys that report high public support for GM food labelling. But like all surveys, you get the answer you want by the way you frame the question. In Australia, for instance, we were asked: `Would you like to see GM food labelled so that consumers have a choice?' Not surprisingly, 93 per cent said yes. Another survey in United States framed the labelling question in another context by saying:

The FDA currently requires that all food, GM and non-GM, that is substantially different or may contain allergens must be labelled. There is a move to label all GM food, irrespective of whether it is substantially different or not. Do you support this change?

Two-thirds said no. In more general surveys regarding gene technologies, such as one conducted by the Australian Food and Grocery Council, consumers were found to be confident in the safety of the food supply and comfortable with the application of gene technology. Another factor that makes a mockery of the idea of labelling GM products is that some products like sugar, starches and oils have been genetically modified, but there is no way of proving this as they have no DNA. In the process of making these products, the DNA gets stripped. It is impossible to tell the difference between these GM and non-GM products.

The legislation I am addressing tonight creates the mechanism for managing the gene technology industry to ensure the safety of the consumer and of our environment. This bill contains the legislative framework for the creation of the Gene Technology Regulator which will work with bodies such as the TGA, which already regulates therapeutic goods, and ANZFA which is the existing agency overseeing the safety of food products. Importantly, the GTR will be a statutory office holder with a large degree of independence, similar to the Commissioner of Taxation or the Attorney-General. I cannot stress enough the significance of this. I have said in this House before that these issues need to be managed on a scientific level, away from the populist mood of the day. The labelling issue represents a classical case of ANZFA letting politics get in the way of logical scientific decision making. The GTR will, nonetheless, be answerable to a ministerial council that will be made up of ministers from state and federal governments. Their role, I am told, is to provide a broad oversight of the regulatory framework and to provide guidance in matters of policy that underpin the legislation. The regulator will also take counsel from three separate advisory committees. Scientific advice will come from the former Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee, now to be called the Gene Technology Technical Advisory Committee.

A community consultative group will provide input on issues and concerns from the community at large, and an ethics committee will advise the regulator on the questions of ethics that will inevitably arise from time to time. The public will have an opportunity to make comment on every single application to the regulator, but this is nothing new. The public can do so now through the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee. In fact, a new application for comment came across my desk just last week. It was from Murdoch University in my state of Western Australia, to conduct a trial to genetically modify a bacterium that will provide livestock with a tolerance to a particular poison occurring naturally in several native plants. Losses of cattle, sheep and goats from this poisoning cause significant economic damage to these industries. I wish this project well.

There is no denying that the issues surrounding gene technology are complex, particularly when it comes to legislating for its use. During the debates that arise about gene technology I often hear reference to what is known as the precautionary principle. This is a strategy of policy making developed in the 1930s and has been used as a political concept ever since. It basically says that, if there is a level of scientific uncertainty in a decision making process, anticipatory action should be taken to prevent any harm that may happen, as it has not been proven beyond any reasonable doubt that it will not. Although on face value it seems simple, this method of risk management should be treated with a great deal of caution. In fact, as one commentator points out, if you applied the precautionary principle to itself—if you ask what are the possible dangers of using this principle—we would be forced to abandon it very quickly. If we applied this theory every time a scientific breakthrough was made, who knows what limits we would have placed on our most significant scientific discoveries, including the life-saving medical advances we have achieved? The precautionary principle seeks to legitimise unfoundedand irrationaldecision making processes. This has never been more obvious than in the debate over the use of gene technology.

Australia has the potential to lead the world in advancing biotechnology. If we do not pick up the baton and run with it, we will suffer economically from non-competitive agriculture. We will suffer from lost opportunities to innovate in medicine and research. Any technology we wish to use we will pay dearly for, as it will belong to someone else. In the words of Harvard University researcher Juan Enriquez:

The countries that succeed will pull ahead and those that fail will fall behind faster than we have ever seen. Australia is on a knife edge.

We have a tremendous opportunity to address the global problems that threaten to engulf us—problems of severe land degradation, environmental pollution, and the most pressing problem of feeding a global population that is set to double within 25 years.

I welcome the establishment of the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, as this authority should show leadership in issues surrounding GM products. It is important that all the stakeholders share responsibility in ensuring that GM products are managed properly, safely and with the confidence of the consumer. I look forward to a future where the quality of life on this planet will be improved with the use of biotechnology. I commend this bill to the House.