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Monday, 28 August 2000
Page: 19466

Mr ADAMS (9:18 PM) —The Gene Technology Bill 2000 has been brought in because of the amount of work currently being done on genetically modified organisms in the world. There needs to be some method by which the risks associated with gene technology and our health and the health of our environment can be tested. The object of the bill is to develop a regulatory framework that will provide an efficient and effective system for the application of gene technology and operate in conjunction with other Commonwealth and state regulatory schemes relevant to GMOs and genetically modified products such as the existing schemes for regulation of food, therapeutic goods, agricultural and veterinary chemicals and industrial chemicals.

What we are looking at is risk assessment—who will be doing it, how transparent it will be and how we can really be sure that what we are being told is true. By the same token, this technology can be very important to Australia. It does mean a whole redirection of agriculture, health and many other innovative developments. We cannot afford as a nation to stifle our most important asset, those people working on the edge of new technology. I am considering the bill in this context.

I do not think we should stint on cost in making it really safe, not just pandering to safety perceptions. But I cannot agree with my Tasmanian government colleagues that opting out, even for a short period of time, can be done without causing a setback to the research that is going on now. The risk of delaying GM research in New Zealand was discussed in an article in the New Zealand Commercial Grower in April of this year:

Once you are a year behind—you are history. Not only would we lose our experienced scientists, but we would find that many of the genetic applications we needed would have been developed and patented by researchers in other countries. They would be unavailable to Australia or available only at a prohibitively high cost.

This may be no problem if, as the Greens believe, the public will increasingly avoid genetically modified products, but the risk is high. The first generation of GM products has benefits for the grower and not the consumer. Consequently, it was not difficult to persuade the public to avoid them. Subsequent genetic modifications however will carry characteristics which the consumer will want—enhanced flavour, a better shelf life, or freedom from allergens for example. These combined with the credible testing scheme, may regain many customers for GM foods.

I would add to this cheaper products because it will be the cost of production and therefore consumer price that will be the key to consumer interest. Part of the problem is that we have two polarised sides of the argument, and both are taking a view that prevents the other scoring. I see this as a much bigger argument than a bit of point scoring. This is the future of our technological development. This is bigger than television, the Internet and mobile phones put together.

Change is also worrying and many are fearful of it, but mostly for the wrong reasons. Stories abound. There was an alarming one floating around in Britain last year, mentioned by the last speaker. The New Scientist revealed that a biochemist who used to work at a research institution in Scotland said that he had shown that GM potatoes were harmful to rats because of their genetic modification. Were they toxic? On the basis of the evidence given it was impossible to say. The results supported only one conclusion: rats hate potatoes. In the tests, the researcher fed separate groups of rats normal or GM potatoes, to see if the GM food had different effects. According to Debora Mackenzie, who put together this story for New Scientist, it was good basic toxicology. Unfortunately, the researcher could not make the animals eat enough potato so they were malnourished, no matter what kind of potato they were eating. A number of tests were done on the rats and their immune activity. The only thing that could really be found was that starvation or known toxins in raw potatoes were the most likely culprits for any changes seen in the rats.

The reason I have raised this story is that we in Australia as well as those in Britain, from where the story originated, cannot really test the toxicity of GM foods by normal methods. There is insufficient research going on to provide better indicators. Even if one manages to get animals to eat enough test food, one risks changing their diet so profoundly that even those eating unmodified foods will be abnormal. Other tests also give ambiguous results, so it is currently very hard to achieve toxicity results in the testing of foods. This makes it hard to argue that GM foods are dangerous to health. I am not saying that they are not but I am concerned that what we are hearing is based on some pretty strange research results. Another story on the 25th anniversary Science Show last weekend rather took the mickey. Robyn Williams started the segment with a skit on the news item that reported a group of people had eaten some genetic material in their sandwiches. And—gosh!—one of the women turned green. Then they went on about canola genes crossing into computers and having canola jumping out of the keyboards. Opposition does sound a little silly when you get this sort of thing being said.

In a background paper from the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago, written in December 1999, we read that since life began genes have crossed the boundaries of related and unrelated species in nature. Biotechnology applications by humans date back to 1800 BC, when people were using yeast to leaven bread and ferment wine. By the 1860s, people had started breeding plants through deliberate crosspollinisation. They moved and selected genes to enhance the beneficial qualities of plants through crossbreeding and knowing the strengths for which the genes were coded. Most foods, including rice, oats, potatoes, corn, wheat and tomatoes, are the products of traditional crossbreeding and are very different from what they were centuries ago. Traditional crossbreeding has its limitations. It can only occur in the same or related plant species, it takes time and is a rather random process. The idea of using a new technology to speed up the procedure has come about because scientists are now able to identify and select a single gene responsible for a particular trait. These genes do not have to come from related species in order to be functional. Hence, genes can potentially be transferred among all living organisms.

Here lies the rub: because there are no real independent checks and the legislation before parliament does not really deal with the crux of people's concerns, there is understandable nervousness. This is certainly not helped by some quite wild claims by those opposed to GM technology, which have led to terms such as `Frankenfoods' and `unnatural practices'. Personally, I think biotechnology is here to stay. It is going to be one of the biggest steps mankind has taken this century and it will not be going away. Whatever we think of the practice of genetic modification, it certainly will go on. If we ban it, that will mean it will go on without supervision and without scrutiny and may well become the evil that many believe it is now. However, taking a cautious approach, putting some good legislation in place with some completely independent and professional assessment of the risks, will provide an opportunity for Australia not only to have control of this technology but also to move forward on the edge of the technology and be a world leader. I read this morning that the CSIRO has moved to put a new inquiry in place into the long-term impact of genetically modified organisms—one of the first large-scale investigations into the long-term ecological risks of GMOs in agricultural biodiversity as well as the potential benefits. This will be a much more meaningful basis for legislation than hypotheses. This way we can continue the research programs.

I was recently reading in the Mercury of 6 August 2000 about an extremely tiny natural asset: micro-organisms that produce PUFAs—polyunsaturated essential fatty acids. According to this fascinating article by Elaine Reeves, pure PUFAs are worth as much as $5,000 a gram. That is even more than truffles. Apparently they are found in certain fish and cultured micro-algae. They are good for general health, including sharpening the thinking of adults, and have benefits in fighting against heart disease, arthritis, strokes and some forms of cancer. One can find PUFAs naturally and one can produce them, but this is very expensive through the normal ways. However, our scientists have found a way of getting the PUFA producing enzyme working in isolation away from the surrounding cell. And there is much going on—already some other research institutions are ordering kilograms of it, and they have not been produced in this sort of quantity yet. The point I am trying to make here is that this is an industry that is just starting out. It is very new. The article goes on to say that the last phase of the work will involve gene jockeying, or genetic engineering, and that these scientists are now sitting in a very delicate situation—can they continue this valuable work? If the Tasmanian experiment of banning GM crops goes ahead and the legislation is not handled properly, it could restrict all sorts of opportunities. The ones I mentioned are not the only ones.

Another two critical projects are being undertaken by a big company in Tasmania, within the poppy industry. It is already involved in a trial to genetically transform poppies to be resistant to herbicide and the other is transforming poppies with new constructs of genes involved in the alkaloid biosynthetic pathways. This has enormous potential for Tasmania. The poppies will be unique to Tasmania. Although the company fully supports having a gene technology regulator, it is very concerned about a moratorium and possible ban on GM crops.

Recently I have had an intern, Vikki Fraser, in my office looking at the ethics of GM regulation. Between them, she and her supervisor have identified a number of problems with the current argument, not just with the bill but with the general ethical argument on these sorts of issues. They are not simple. I have attempted to translate this discussion into some of the problems with the bill that I and others have. Part 3 of the bill, at proposed section 26, refers to a gene technology regulator. Firstly, the person appointed should be completely independent of any related work and also from either side of the interests. The person should be an active scientist with broad interests and at the peak of their career, and they should have a specific and set term of office.

Proposed section 27 speaks of the functions of the regulator. We have to watch out that information which is disseminated as part of `providing information to the public' has not been adulterated in its passage by commercial or political interests. Any research, testing and consequential information dissemination needs to be at arms-length from government and its research wing if it is to be credible. It is very important that we get right part 8, which covers the advisory committees. I believe you need more than just scientists on the committees if they are to be independent and credible. These positions are very influential, and I believe there should again be a set and specific term of tenure.

Part 9 at proposed section 138 covers confidential commercial information. There should be very little that needs to be confidential. The trouble with commercial-in-confidence information is that `commercial-in-confidence' can be easily pulled on for political purposes—and has been used in the past—to preclude important information from being made available to a worried public. We need to be open and up-front if this technology is to be accepted for the good that it does, not just over the worry of change. The technology is in its infancy. There is much that can be achieved by Australia being involved in developing the guidelines, both ethically and commercially. We have the opportunity of improving our food, our environment and our lifestyles with the acceptance of the general public if it is done with the watchdogs being outside the commercial and political process.

I would like to see Australia be part of setting up an international panel to cut through the dogma and the woolliness that is clouding the debate over GM crops and food, a panel similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has been working on the global warming debate. This is an idea put forward by John Krebs, who is the chairman of Britain's Food Standards Agency, and I believe that it is a good one and that it would allow the debate to be more broadly based. While Australia can afford to pick and choose how our food is produced, millions of people are not so fortunate. A quote from John Krebs's paper Seeds of Hope I believe is the way in which things should be considered, because developing countries do not have our luxuries:

We would like to be like you, with plenty of food for our people. We need every tool at our disposal to achieve this, including biotechnology, which will allow us to grow things without costly chemicals and irrigation schemes that we cannot afford. We do not want to be dependent on aid or redistribution, we want to be in control of our own destinies.

An independent world panel could help this to happen—not close the door on the technology but drive research and also separate facts from propaganda as those facts come to light. Getting this bill right is crucial to the future development of the technology not only here but overseas. I would ask that those comments be considered during the current discussions.

Getting back to the bill, I do not believe it goes far enough. I think we should be expanding our knowledge of this technology—we should be allowing our scientists to tackle this major ethical and economic direction without overbearing barriers. Caution by all means, but keep the discussion open and transparent, and Australians will benefit from this approach. The area that must be looked at is that of the ownership of the technology—the owning of the patents and the costs of seeds, the genetic material that is patented and who has access to it. These are the aspects that are going to be most important in the ongoing discussion.

There are many problems that really need to be considered, and considered in the light of world trade arguments. When all is said and done, we might not have the choices to do what we want to do if the whole technology has moved on without us. I find that this argument has not been dealt with, that government is trying to sneak stuff through without really having the public understand what is indeed going on. How many people know which of the foods we are eating now have GMO material in them? The joke I repeated from the science show demonstrates that many people have still not got the faintest idea what has happened with our food over the years. Do people really think that some fast foods are better for us because they have been improved in some way, either genetically or through other methods? Australian foods such as Mars Bars, Maltesers, M&M's and Heinz chicken dinners contain ingredients from genetically modified crops. Have they killed anyone yet? Also, I am told that Heinz banana custard, Homai cocktail spring rolls, Snickers, Dove caramel, Sanitarium country spiced soy burgers, as well as their healthy spiced soy fillets, and some Nestle frozen products all contain genetically modified material. Other manufacturers are neither confirming nor denying that their products contain foods from genetically modified sources. (Time expired)