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Tuesday, 29 August 2000
Page: 19536


Mr SIDEBOTTOM (4:49 PM) —The member for Dunkley opposite should realise that that is what you call a debate; there is not just one side, one argument, to a discussion—particularly one as important and as sensitive as this. The Gene Technology Bill 2000 sets out to establish a national framework for a regulatory regime for genetically modified organisms. It seeks to make rules for the research, development and release of GMOs. We have seen the emergence of gene technology around the world, and for close on two decades successive Commonwealth governments have been grappling with how best to implement legislative controls or regulations for the technology. It is one of the major health, technology and environmental issues facing Australia today. Genetic modification is nothing new, as many speakers prior to me have pointed out. But the rapid advances in the technology now demand an appropriate national response, hence the Gene Technology Bill 2000.

We all know that everything in life has its be-nefits and its risks, and gene technology is no exception. According to a Parliamentary Library research paper in November of last year, Australia indeed stands at the crossroads in its management of GMOs. The paper said:

Too cautious an approach may see it—

that is, Australia—

lose market opportunities and market share to competitors, if they have benefited from the new technology. On the other hand, a too liberal interpretation may see it out of step with some of its major markets, and raise concerns about as yet unknown food safety and environmental issues.

I spent over 15 months as a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Primary Industries and Regional Services inquiring into primary producers' access to gene technology. In particular, we looked at the regulatory aspects of GMOs in agriculture. The committee produced its report Work in progress: proceed with caution in June this year. It supported the continued, safe and cautious use of gene technology and the beneficial role it can play in the future development of competitive agricultural industries. Yet, as alluded to in the report's title, we must proceed with caution. Producers, investors, manufacturers, growers and, importantly, consumers must be satisfied by the changes that the benefits of the technology are clearly and safely evident. The committee also acknowledged the importance of balanced research in this area.

The parliamentary inquiry, through its many public hearings, provided a valuable insight into the arguments for and against gene technology. But, above all, for me it brought home the need for the best possible regulatory system that can be put in place. Indeed, that was a major thrust of the committee's findings. Recommendation 1 of the committee's report states:

The committee recommends the continued use of gene technology, but only with stringent regulation, constant and cautious monitoring and public reporting.

The committee was adamant that public health and safety remains the key factor in the debate over gene technology. As far as this bill is concerned, that must be reflected in the regulatory controls and the powers of the regulator as proposed in this legislation. The process must be transparent, accountable and consultative. Again, this was a major focus of the parliamentary inquiry.

In regard to the regulator, the report recommended independence, adequate funding and public accountability. We are in an age of technological innovation. Technology is moving quickly and in many respects Australia is at the forefront of research and development and technological advances, yet we still do not really know how comfortable the wider Australian community is with gene technology in all its forms. In my home state, for example, the Tasmanian government has taken a cautious approach. It has imposed a 12-month moratorium on growing GMO crops in the open until it develops a firm policy position. I notice that similar action is anticipated in Western Australia in the Genetically Modified Material (Temporary Prohibition) Bill 1999, which has cross-party support.

Tasmania has enforced a moratorium to ensure genetically modified plants and plant products other than for use in contained research are not released into the environment. I might point out, though, that the Tasmanian government has not declared it intends to be GMO free. It wants breathing space before it makes a decision. I note only today that a joint select committee has been established to report, by 31 March next year, on GMOs and gene technology in agriculture. I notice that the state Minister for Primary Industries, Water and Environment finished his press release on the announcement by saying:

At the end of our investigations I am confident we will have enough information to reach a wise, properly advised decision rather than jumping to a simplistic position which may or may not be in the interests of the state, our industry and our community.

The Tasmanian government has also raised the prospect of opting out of federal legislation to remain GMO free. Tasmania jealously guards its internationally renowned clean and green image. It places a premium on its status as a producer of quality, uncontaminated foods. For example, it recently fought and won a battle to ban imports of raw Canadian salmon into Tasmania because of the risks it perceived to its burgeoning aquaculture industry. It takes great pride in its disease-free status and is reaping the rewards. Its disease-free status paved the way for the state to export Fuji apples to Japan, which is akin to selling ice to Eskimos. More recently, a Japanese company, Ichego, has established a huge strawberry farm near Hobart to supply its Japanese markets. Indeed, in my own electorate, the north-west coast has a reputation for producing natural and safe foods of the highest quality.

Some want Tasmania to be GMO free, others want to safely embrace the technology, and both groups support their views with gusto and valid argument. The Tasmanian government's cautionary approach is based on a fear of contamination, an uncertainty regarding the possible detrimental effects of introducing GMOs in the Tasmanian environment and the complementary impact on its clean, green marketing image. I agree with the Food Industry Council of Tasmania, which honestly affirms that the question of whether Tasmania should refrain from or adopt gene technology is a highly complex issue. Its support for a moratorium no doubt stems from the fact that Tasmania's natural advantages have led to the establishment of a strong marketing image based upon clean and green food production. I again refer to the parliamentary inquiry, which recommended that there continue to be a cautious approach to approving the use of genetically modified agriculture organisms. However, this bill does not explicitly contain a `precautionary principle' as does, for example, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

It is true to say Tasmania has yet to come to terms with gene technology—if indeed the rest of Australia has—and I can understand that because those involved in biotechnology cannot even agree on the science; that is, the benefits of GMOs as against the potential risks. The general public increasingly wishes to be informed about the science, and I would add that science needs to properly inform the public. There needs to be a more balanced, widespread public debate. With my Tasmanian Senate colleagues Nick Sherry and Kay Denman, I surveyed those in the Braddon electorate to get their views on genetically modified organisms. In just over one week we have received 2,000 responses to the survey. I suggest that is very important as a sample because my electorate does not have a culture of being invited to participate in surveys. The information from the responses received so far is very interesting. More than 76 per cent of the people who took part in the survey opposed genetically modified crops being grown in Tasmania; 79 per cent supported the Tasmanian government's 12-month moratorium. Further to that, 69 per cent think there should be a total ban on GMO crops.

In regard to the labelling of genetically modified food, a whopping 98.3 per cent support the labelling of GM food products. Interestingly, 75 per cent of respondents to the survey said that they would not buy genetically modified food if it were cheaper, compared with only 12.8 per cent who said they would. On the question of whether people thought there was enough information on GMOs, a staggering 94.6 per cent said no; 82 per cent said that they did not think there had been enough public debate about growing genetically modified crops in Tasmania. I think the message from this is pretty clear. The overwhelming fact that 94.6 per cent of respondents believed they did not have enough information on GMOs must significantly affect the negative view towards GMOs. It is all right for some proponents of gene technology to say that the public is ignorant of the issue and of the science, but it is the role of government to facilitate a better understanding and certainly to guarantee that it will implement the most stringent regulatory controls possible.

It has been said that the issue of genetic engineering has been a public relations disaster, and I tend to agree. As part of its public awareness campaign, Biotechnology Australia—the federal government's agency responsible for coordinating biotechnology issues—has had only limited success in getting its message across, despite its budget of $10 million. People are suspicious because they feel that Biotechnology Australia is too closely associated with pro-GMO players, and many believe it should be at arm's length. Again, the parliamentary report recommended that information provided by Commonwealth agencies should:

. detail the independence, transparency and accountability of the regulatory processes;

. give equal prominence to information about the risks and benefits; and

. detail how the regulation of gene technology is able to avoid or minimise risks.

The report also recommended:

All public education campaigns funded by the Commonwealth Government recognise and address the environmental, economic, cultural, ethical and social concerns of the consumers.

I note from an article in yesterday's Australian that the CSIRO is to conduct a new study into the long-term impact of GMOs. I read that the three-year $3 million study is one of the world's first large scale investigations into the long-term ecological risks and potential benefits of GMOs to agricultural biodiversity. Some would argue that this is better late than never.

The potential benefits of this technology for Australian agriculture, exports and medical technology may indeed be significant; however, these benefits will not be realised until Australians know that there is a strict regulatory regime in place that ensures that public health and the environment are protected. It is also fair to say that industry needs a level of certainty in order to invest in the research and development of these technologies. The question of Tasmania opting in or out of the Gene Technology Bill 2000 is not dealt with in this legislation, despite the fact that Tasmania argues that such a provision was envisaged in the earlier public discussion paper at section 7(d). Others disagree with this interpretation of section 7(d).

The opt-out option is one of the questions being dealt with in the Labor initiated Senate Community Affairs References Committee inquiry into gene technology. The Tasmanian government argues that each state or territory should retain the right to decide whether GMOs are released. The Tasmanian government argued in its submission presented to the Senate inquiry in Hobart last week that:

...an opt-out option recognises and gives effect to the state's right to make policy with regard to these serious issues, rather than the one-size-fits-all approach of the Commonwealth government that may force a state to accept a lesser level of protection than would be delivered nationally.

The Tasmanian government is confident that an opt-out provision does not offend against sections 92 and 99 of the Constitution, nor does it offend any WTO agreements. The IOGTR, however, disagrees and has argued that the absence of an opt-out clause does not mean that a state could not ban the use of a GMO in their jurisdiction. They could, it argued, choose to refuse the release on other grounds such as local trade considerations. The possibility of creating GMO-free zones under state legislation has also been raised. My major concern at this stage, however, is that if Tasmania opts in, what is it opting into? That is why we must ensure this bill provides an acceptable national framework that ensures the strictest possible regulation of GMOs. The question of whether states or territories should be allowed to opt out or whether other mechanisms exist to create GMO-free zones is yet to be determined.

Other important issues relating to this bill will be further scrutinised by the Senate committee. These include whether the cost recovering and funding measures of the proposed regulator are appropriate, as well as looking at accidental contamination compensation and liability. As I have already said, one of the major objectives of the legislation is to protect the health and safety of people and to protect the environment by identifying risks posed by or as a result of gene technology and by managing those risks through regulation. I note that the Bills Digest raises specific concerns related to the adequacy of the legislation's approach to risk assessment and management, and this will be taken up in the Senate inquiry related to this bill.

As part of this year's budget, it was announced that the government would establish an Office of the Gene Technology Regulator. The purpose of the OGTR will be to regulate those GMOs which are not currently regulated by existing agencies. Anyone wishing to deal with one or more specified GMOs must apply to the regulator for a GMO licence and pay an application fee. As outlined in section 56, health and environmental concerns are the focus of the bill, as they were for the parliamentary committee; however, questions surround the extent to which legal liability for damage caused by GMOs is adequate. It does not deal with issues such as marketing and trade, hence the controversy over an opt-out clause, or intellectual property rights in biotechnology. Nor does the bill deal with all the health and environmental concerns. Specifically, food labelling remains the responsibility of the Australia New Zealand Foods Standards Council. I welcome the decision last month by the Australian and New Zealand health ministers to introduce a comprehensive genetically modified food labelling regime. This was at last a victory for consumers.

The issue of labelling again highlights the uncertainty or lack of confidence in genetically modified food products. Opinion polls such as my own consistently show that the vast majority of Australians support the labelling of GM food. According to a recent survey by the International Survey Project at the Australian National University, even amongst those who support GM foods 85 per cent want such food labelled. I agree with the Australian Consumers Association, which says that consumers have a right to know whether or not they are eating genetically modified foods. Whether for health, environmental or ethical reasons, it is the consumer's right to choose whether to buy GM foods. It sends a clear message that, unless people believe GM food is safe, they will not eat it. Clearly the starting point must be to ensure the strictest possible regulations are in place to control GMOs. The integrity of the regulator is central to the framework of the whole process.

The parliamentary committee recommended that the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator report to the parliament at least quarterly for the first three years of its existence. Yet the bill provides that the regulator must report to the minister annually. I note that it also says the regulator `may at any time report to the parliament', but there is no compulsion to do so under this bill. Another concern stemming from the parliamentary inquiry is that of ensuring that sufficient funding is provided to enable the regulator to fully discharge his or her duties. After May 2001, the federal government anticipates that the regulator will recover 100 per cent of his or her costs from users of the regulatory regime—for example, through licensed charges.

In practical terms, the regulator will be required to approve a sufficient number of GMO licences to obtain the annual licence fees to continue to operate the day-to-day activities of the office. Further, and paradoxically, the regulator will only be able to obtain funds required to conduct independent scientific research into the risks posed by the GMOs by approving enough dealings with the GMOs to raise the money needed. The independence and impartiality of the regulator must not be compromised by this full cost-recovery model or by the delegatory powers of the regulator. Again, we must ensure that this bill provides a vehicle for the best regulatory regime possible, and this should involve much more redress to guarantee compliance with, and enforcement of, the bill's provisions, particularly in relation to the adequacy of the penalties and enforcement mechanisms provided for in the bill, comprehensive independent auditing to ensure compliance with licence conditions and an ability to insist on immediate remediation of contamination. The need for the latter was highlighted after the IOGTR took more than two months merely to investigate allegations that GM canola plants were dumped in an open commercial tip at Mount Gambier, South Australia. I look forward to the report of the Senate Community Affairs Committee inquiry into the Gene Technology Bill 2000.