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Tuesday, 29 August 2000
Page: 19558

Mr RIPOLL (8:11 PM) —I rise tonight to speak on the Gene Technology Bill 2000, the Gene Technology (Licence Charges) Bill 2000 and the Gene Technology (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2000. The purpose of these bills is to establish the federal component of what is hoped to be a nationally consistent scheme for regulating certain dealings with genetically modified organisms and foods. Few issues have attracted as much attention or concern from the public as the issue of gene technology and all its related parts. In my electorate of Oxley, for example, within a matter of weeks, 7,000 signatures were given to a petition for the proper labelling of genetically modified content in a range of foodstuffs. As was evident from the reaction in Oxley to food labelling proposals, there is a genuine concern in our community to know what we are eating. The adage that you are what you eat takes on a new meaning in these times of dicing and splicing of genes to produce the ultimate crop.

Looking at the momentum of lobby groups in Europe and Asia in recent years, it is evident that people are clear about their views on the foods they eat. Regardless of the understanding of the technology that has allowed genetic modification to be developed, the perceptions of safety cannot be dispelled. Scientific, political and marketing rhetoric to trust the assurances of safety is not believed, and for very good reason. Maybe today we would not have all of this concern about GM foods if it were not for incidents such as the mad cow disease out-break that spread throughout the UK and parts of Europe. The fear that this disease caused resulted in unprecedented actions being taken by nations to protect themselves from future possible outbreaks or problems related to modern techniques and shortcuts in the way we produce food. France, for example, installed at huge cost a computerised system that accounts for every part of a beast, at every stage, from the grower to the pedigree to the supermarket shelf, through a system of bar coding. This means that customers can check the history and full details of the meat they are purchasing. This is probably overkill and too much information, but it seemed to be the only way for them to restore confidence in an industry that was suffering almost beyond recovery. So, to some extent, the fear that surrounds genetically modified foods needs to be addressed with the same tenacity and thoroughness that the meat industry has had to undertake in Europe to ensure confidence in their product.

Mad cow disease had a huge impact on the way people all over the world demanded assurances that food products were safe, and this is now very relevant to the GM food debate. We therefore need to move cautiously into this new and exciting field that promises so much. Unfortunately, Australia is already behind the times in drafting legislation to dispel public concerns and to ensure the proper growth of this industry. I am disappointed that what has been an issue for a few years internationally is only now being considered seriously by government and by industry in Australia. In June of this year, the Grains Council of Australia indicated that it had no strategy for ensuring that GM grains were kept separate from other crops—an extraordinary attitude to have, given that despite industry pressure to influence ANZFA's decision on labelling GM content, all indicators highlighted public concerns with the proposals under consideration.

There is now a degree of urgency in the regulation of products currently on the market that include GM ingredients, such as canola oil, cottonseed oil, corn, soy, rice, and potato products, to name a few. The reasons for the development of GM foodstuffs vary greatly, and regardless of the assurances of industry that these modifications are safe, at times I am unable to fathom the need to change some of these things at all. Some of these products have been genetically enhanced to improve the quality of the product; for instance, colour, taste, smell and size. Others have been genetically modified to incorporate resistance to herbicides, pesticides or insects. Others have been transgenically modified with animal genes to give fruits and vegetables better qualities in the refrigerator. Others are genetically modified to make it easier for producers to get bigger yields. Others are modified to contain vitamins; for instance, nutrients are added to rice for use in poor nations where people lack basic minerals and vitamins in their diet.

While there are many reasons why GM foods can make our lives better, not all of them are necessary and not all are for the right reasons. Today we live longer for many reasons, none greater than the development of new technology, improved food quality, better hygiene and health standards, and more effective medicines. None of these is directly related to genetically modified foods, as the majority of this technology is very new, particularly in being able to identify, remove and replace specific genes and DNA. Some will argue that great advances have been made, and they have. For example, insulin can be extracted from pigs, and you can get a better quality product by genetic modification and manufacturing.

I could not agree with—and support—more the efforts in this and similar fields, but this debate is totally different from that surrounding the modifying of a tomato with a salmon gene so that it can last longer in the warehouse fridge, so that it can be picked earlier, so that manufacturers can throw them around with less bruising, so that the risk of loss at the point of sale is decreased, and so that they can sit on the shelf for over a week without spoiling. This is not something that consumers demand, need, or have been asking for; it is something that shareholders encourage to swell the value of their shares and, in the end, own the patent to a particular legume or vegetable.

As we have seen in the United States, seed companies can own the technology and hold the growers to ransom by manipulating the reproduction processes of crops and forcing growers to re-seed every year with bigger, fatter and juicier crops—of their brand and at their price, of course. So marketing strategies hoodwink primary producers into thinking they will get a better yield immediately without having to be responsible for the long-term investment required to ensure the future of their own industry. If this sounds a bit far fetched, think again, because it is already happening. Corn growers in the United States may have increased their crop size, but they have to purchase seeds annually and are suffering an enormous backlash in sales to overseas markets, such as those in Europe and Asia.

Some believe that GM is another step in agrarian evolution. This theory has been put by all of those who would call the rest of us Luddites, and we have heard many of those in this debate. Sure, grafting trees to produce a desired fruit has been practised for hundreds of years, but the scientific precision of GM is daunting and remains a reason for division in the scientific community. Genetic modification is not part of the evolution process and cannot shelter behind the development of agrarian cultures. This science is not that simple. The big problem is that no science agrees on the possible long-term effects, and not enough is known about the effects of combined genes that did not evolve together over a long period of time—particularly genes from different species that, under anything other than pure scientific conditions, would never come together. This is where I have some difficulty with the arguments that all genes are the same if they match, regardless of origin. This is where we leave science and logic and enter the world of science fiction and, particularly, ethics.

Then there are those who say we are just speeding up nature by putting together genes that would have come together anyway and that farmers have been doing this—by interbreeding, for example—for centuries. Again, unless you can show me a farmer who breeds salmon and tomatoes together, I would have to disagree. The big difference is that breeding takes place over a long period of time, and when you attempt to do something which nature did not intend, it usually ends in failure. What happens now is that genes are literally smashed together to produce new types and species, bypassing the selection and filtering processes of time and evolution.

From my comments, you might think that I am totally against genetic modification. I am not. I just believe that the technology should be used to serve rather than to complicate our lives in fields that we do not fully understand or appreciate and which need proper control. There are many positives in the field of gene technology and biotechnology, such as the potential to decrease anaemia in the Third World; to eradicate the vitamin A deficiency that some 180 million children around the world suffer from; to reduce the use of chemicals in the production of crops; and to increase tolerance to aluminium, which is a soil toxicity problem that blights large areas of the tropics. There are also simple examples, like feeding the world's hungry people.

The central theme in this debate is really safety. It is about whether something is safe or whether it is not, how this technology will affect the environment, and so on. The jury is out on many of these questions, but I am confident enough to say that, with tight regulation and control, and with governments with the courage to ensure proper practices, GM foods can be safe and can be good industry. We have grown up on a diet of sceptics borne out of past practices by science and large organisations which have used humans as guinea pigs in the development of science. Despite the inevitable claims and conspiracy theories, I believe we are entitled to make science responsible throughout its development. This is particularly crucial in the field of pharmaceuticals and in other fields related to GM and biotechnology. Ask anybody who had a child disabled by thalidomide whether thalidomide should be legalised now because the drug poses some potential good when it is used in certain immune deficiency disorders. Millions of women throughout the world took thalidomide for that age-old ailment of morning sickness that can make pregnancy very distressing. I doubt that any of them would now trade the relief from nausea for a few months of the hardship and heartache they have had to face over the past 30 or 40 years.

Many people in favour of GM will say, `It's perfectly safe. Trust me; we know what we are doing. This is the solution to the world's hunger problems and economic problems. This will be our next big boom'. They are the types of people who, throughout history, have made tragic mistakes and at whom we look back now and ask ourselves: `How could they have been so irresponsible?' Many GM products are already on the market. We do not know much about them and there are no controls. It is about time that we did something to actually control them. The public has made its concerns very clear, regardless of the type of survey and regardless of the type of question. So I do welcome this bill. A number of complexities remain in the debate in terms of science, but there is simplicity in terms of consumer confidence. There is no conclusive evidence as to the safety of genetically modified foods—or otherwise, for that matter. Public concern in Australia and throughout the world is well recorded and well acknowledged. But questions still remain as to the real benefits of this new technology in certain areas.

Genetic manipulation between like plant species or animals is another issue that needs to be dealt with. In the field of transgenics, it is interesting to note that throughout the debate the argument is always put forward that there is nothing new about this technology, that it has, in fact, been around for a couple of thousand years or more, that it is really just a means by which we speed up the work of nature and that nature really intended for all of this to happen anyway. But, again, I would argue that this is not actually the case. There are not too many successful tomato-cum-salmon breeders out there who have really large markets. Another issue is the rights of farmers, particularly farmers who choose not to use a GE crop. What rights do they have with respect to a neighbouring crop affecting their crop? What long-term effect will that have? We recently saw some poor practices in Mount Gambier, where GM crops and seeds were improperly dumped at the local tip. That happened right in the middle of this debate; so you can imagine what would happen if we did not have some good regulation.

A truly good outcome of this technology would be the feeding of the poor and the plentiful supply of food to all the world's hungry people—for example, a GE crop that could grow in arid land or in countries that have low technology or in extremely poor countries that cannot produce the quantities of food they need. But the solutions are not going to be found in GE crops alone. This would be just one part of what has always been a large problem. Who would pay for these very expensive technologies and for how long? To what extent would a people be held in debt to the owners of this technology? If the crops could be grown, who and what technology would harvest these huge new food supplies and who would cart them across the countries? As you can see, this debate must be approached from a holistic perspective rather than from the simplistic view that we can feed the world through GE crops and therefore it is good. I believe there is currently enough food produced in the world to feed the world and still have some left over. But, obviously, that is not actually the problem. You could also ask what distribution system would be employed and who, at the end of the day, would have the money to buy the actual products at the stores. They are all serious questions that need to be dealt with.

Another area that I have looked at in this debate is: who is actually pushing the issues? You will always find two sides. On one side, there are the large multinationals pushing full steam ahead saying, `Let's go ahead regardless of any possible outcomes,' and, on the other side there are those saying, `This is really evil; we shouldn't have it at all.' I am somewhere in the middle of that. I think the industry should be given a chance to open up and to thrive, but it needs to be regulated. Another issue that stems from that is that it is not always the case that farmers or consumers will be the ones to benefit.

That leads me to an issue that was hopefully finalised to some extent recently—that is, the labelling of GE products. The current one per cent threshold is a start but, for me, it is a case of whether it is all or nothing. If you change something genetically then it is changed. So the percentage is not so much the issue. Anyway, it is a good start. The principle here is the significant difference between what is changed and what is not changed in terms of what they can identify through DNA tests. I think there is still a fair bit of debating to be done in that area. If people are asked whether they want to know what is in the food they eat, they say that they do. In my view, I think we have some very good labelling that takes place in Australia and this legislation will only enhance that. In many cases, consumers are not asking for the modifications to occur. Therefore, if modifications take place, I think the resulting products should be labelled. The underlying principle for the need to have meaningful labelling is something that I welcome, although I do not think it goes far enough. It does not cover fresh fruit and vegetables at the grocers and certain additives and food colours, and restaurants will not have to label their food. So there are still some problems there. Like I said, it is not perfect but it is a step in the right direction.

There needs to be a strategy to ensure the isolation of GM crops from non-GM crops. Another issue to be addressed is the use of herbicides. There is also a whole range of ethical issues for people such as vegetarians or people who, for religious reasons, would not want to eat, say, a pork product and who, whether it is just a gene of pork or a whole pork product, would say, `This is something we want to know about, and we choose not to eat it.' There is also a range of health issues for people with allergies. One particular gene may not affect them in isolation but combined with something else it might. This right to know, this ethical argument that we are having, is very central to this whole debate. There are also questions with respect to protecting the environment, fair and free trade—which we have all been discussing recently—and questions about whether some countries may use this GE issue to put up artificial trade barriers or tariffs.

One of the arguments that you will get from industry is about the cost of labelling. They will say that it is just too expensive and they cannot identify it. I would argue that that is totally false. If they are buying crops from someone who has GE crops then they know they have got them and they should therefore label them. It is as simple as a paper trail and would take very little work and very little cost.

There are certainly a lot of positives in trying to produce lifesaving drugs—for example, as I mentioned before, insulin. I think this area should certainly be explored and expanded and be given government support, as should a whole range of areas in this field, with proper control and proper legislation. We will hear all sorts of arguments and a bit of circus banter in this debate depending on which side you take—in some cases it does not really matter which side you take—but probably the best argument that covers a broad range of views and one which most closely reflects my own view is the argument put forward yesterday by the member for Lyons—a fellow foodie. One of the points he brought to light in his contribution was that gene technology is here and it is here to stay—and I do not argue with that. Our role as legislators is to ensure that we put in place the frameworks and regulations that will maintain peace of mind for consumers and for the industry.

There are common threads of debate from both sides of the House and both sides of this issue in terms of safety, trade practices, regulation, proper licensing and so on—things that are contained within these bills. It is also essential that the regulator established to monitor the development of GM and GE products in Australia remains independent of industry and answerable to government. Industry driven legislation on this issue has failed, as is evident in ANZFA's consensus with food labelling regulations. There is an obligation on this House to address and redress the obvious safety concerns of consumers. An independent regulator will not allow relevant industries to manipulate the true needs of the market.

This bill goes some way to addressing these matters but falls short in some key areas. As these areas have been dealt with very ably by many other speakers, I will not retrace their paths; suffice to say that the bill is well overdue and much needed in an industry that has so much potential but still needs so much control and regulation. The issue of GE, for us as legislators, is really at the very beginning. We are today debating a very new type of bill—one that we will be debating again in the future and one that will lead us to other debates. People will have many more moral and ethical problems and issues, depending on where these technologies take us. I am talking about debates such as cloning, in particular human cloning and the cloning of organs, where we start to get into the realm of genomics—and I believe we are very close to actually unravelling the human genome—where we will have the key, as it were, to our own DNA. We will have this great power for the first time in history. What we choose to do with that power will, I think, be the key and will be what will separate us from others.

It is going to be very important for this parliament to be at the forefront of that debate. We should not wait for the rest of the world or industry to dictate to us where this issue should take us. Industry and technology have moved faster than we as legislators have. That might have been okay 20 or 30 years ago when things moved a little slower, but it is no longer okay today. The parliament and its legislators need to move at the same speed of change so that we can properly put into place the regulations and rules necessary for these industries to develop properly. (Time expired)