Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Tuesday, 29 August 2000
Page: 19562

Mr ANDREN (8:32 PM) —As the only member of the Standing Committee on Primary Industries and Regional Services inquiring into primary producer access to gene technology to prepare a dissenting report, I recommended a five-year moratorium on the development of genetically modified organisms in Australia to enable adequate independent research to be carried out on the health and environmental impacts and consumer demand for such products. I did this not because of some naive call from uneducated consumers or green activists but, as I stated in that report, because of evidence like that from the Australian Medical Association which told the inquiry that the jury is still out on the benefits and risks of genetically modified foods on public health and the environment. As well, I pointed out that Australia risks surrendering its unique, clean agricultural status in a too hasty marriage to an unproven technology. I said Australia should be ultracautious in facilitating any genetic pollution of its agriculture and not give ground, as it has in quarantine protection. The governments of Tasmania and, to a lesser degree, Western Australia have recognised these latter points in imposing their own moratoriums or at least delays in introducing this technology. I have heard little so far in this debate about the benefits to Australian agriculture of maintaining a clean, green product devoid of genetic modification to meet the market demand out there for such produce. The fact is that we are working on the assumption that this technology will become a major if not dominant part of our food production and consumption. However, many millions around the world increasingly question the need and motives for such technology and assert their right to reject it.

How does the gene technology legislation match up with the recommendations of the committee of this parliament? Recommendation 30 of the parliamentary report recommended that the Office of Gene Technology Regulator report to the parliament at least quarterly for the first three years of its existence. Proposed section 136 of the bill provides for annual reporting with discretion to report at any other time—a power said to be equal to that of the Auditor-General and Ombudsman. I, for one, would have wanted that extra mandated reportage as recommended by the committee. The committee at recommendation 35 called on the government to ensure that there is sufficient in-house capacity in the Gene Technology Technical Advisory Committee to provide timely and effective risk assessment. As the bill details, the advisory committee may be composed of up to 20 scientific and technical experts and one lay person—which I suppose can be regarded as sufficient in-house capacity. In addition to GTTAC, there will be a Gene Technology Community Consultative Group and a Gene Technology Ethics Committee. However, while the gene ethics committee will be modelled on the Australian Health Ethics Committee, only the Gene Technology Technical Advisory Committee will be directly involved in providing advice on GMO licences and other applications. The Gene Technology Ethics Committee will not have a function to advise on policy guidelines or specific guidelines—which brings into question the real value and purpose of either the community consultative group or the ethics group.

The parliamentary inquiry also called on any proposed legislation to make risk assessments public. Under the bill the gene technology advisory committee has no power to make any risk assessments public; rather, such power is vested in the regulator. Formal risk assessments are required only when the GMO in question involves applications for a licence under part 4 of the bill. At that time, the regulator must prepare a risk assessment and risk management plan, but whether or not these should be made public depends on whether or not dealings involve any intentional release into the environment.

This brings me to the regulator himself or herself—a superperson if ever I saw one, with herculean responsibilities and the wisdom of Solomon—dealing with a technology the medical associations of Australia and Britain say has health and environmental consequences yet to be assessed. The functions of the regulator spelt out in proposed section 27 cover the tasks of determining applications for GMO licences; developing draft policy principles and guidelines; developing codes of practice, technical and procedural guidelines; providing information and advice to other regulatory agencies and the public; undertaking and commissioning research in relation to risk assessment and biosafety; and promoting the harmonisation of risk assessments by regulatory agencies. A busy person indeed, and a powerful one.

For dealings that do not involve any intentional release into the environment, such as contained laboratory work, there will be no requirement for the regulator to consult with anybody in preparing the risk assessment plan and risk management plan. It is comforting to know that where, in the regulator's view, any dealing involving intentional release into the environment may pose a significant risk to human health or safety or the environment, the regulator must advertise such an application and invite submissions. The regulator can also consult the gene technology advisory committee and the other two community and ethics groups as well as regulatory bodies such as ANZFA and the National Health and Medical Research Council. While the regulator has the power to determine the level of risk with GMOs, I wonder just how he or she will, at the end of the day, be able to fulfil the object of the bill as stated:

... 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 regulating certain dealings with GMOs.

There is no provision in the bill for a statutory right of action or a fund to compensate those affected by any breach of the legislation. Nor is there provision for immunity of GM free farmers who inadvertently use GM products. While the committee supported recourse to common law by those affected, there seems to me a need to build into this legislation definite clauses covering liability in the event of contamination and economic loss.

A statutory compensation scheme such as workers compensation would seem a minimum requirement given that the open release of GMOs into the environment is such a recent phenomenon. In Canada, the National Farmers Union wants the federal government to make agricultural biotechnology companies responsible for what it calls the genetic pollution of organic and traditional crops. Indeed, we debate this bill before the results of a Senate inquiry into the legislation, before we know the long-term impacts of this technology, before we know the results of a three-year, $3 million study by the CSIRO into the long-term impact of genetically modified organisms announced only this week. The head of this project, Dr Mark Lonsdale, has been quoted as saying:

What we need to determine is could we be creating a monster?

According to Dr Lonsdale, the technology has the potential to pose as significant a threat to Australian soil quality as salinity. While GM crops are alleged to increase crop stability and yields, the CSIRO project will explore suggestions that the threat they pose to soil quality could have the opposite effect. We are not conducting this research before introducing legislation that will further expand the release of GMOs. We are not conducting this before we jump on the GM train. We are conducting a three-year research program into GMOs after we introduce legislation facilitating the expansion of usage of genetically modified organisms. Again, as Dr Lonsdale says, if everyone uses the one crop you end up with low agricultural biodiversity. On a much larger scale, how do you quantify the risk posed to non-GM farmers from the introduction of GM crops? `How far apart do these crops have to be?' he asks.

How far apart do these crops have to be according to the legislation before this House? This bill does not set specific buffer zones around GM crops to protect organic and GM free crops growing nearby. Does this `superperson', the regulator, have a crystal ball? Does he know something the CSIRO study is yet to find out? According to proposed subsection 56(1), the regulator must be satisfied any risks to the environment or to human health and safety can be adequately managed. How, I ask, can he or she do that without the sort of knowledge the scientific community can provide? And the scientific community, through the CSIRO, is only now about to embark on a three-year study to try to establish just that sort of knowledge. Have we put the cart before the horse? I think so. Is this evidence of the need for a moratorium until we know? I think so.

I spoke with Dr Lonsdale earlier today and he said the CSIRO study will keep pace with the progress of the industry and that buffer zones would be a second-stage task after the impact measurements of the three-year research are fed back into designing such zones. But that may well be too late for many farmers who wish to pursue the GM free path or for organic farmers. It seems as though the assumption `This is good; trust us' from the scientists and agrochemical companies who dominate this technology will just have to be swallowed. That is what gets up the nose of many farmers, rural communities and consumers.

I know the member for Moore, with scientific knowledge and commercial interest in this field, seems to argue that we do not need a moratorium, a study or indeed any serious response to the concerns expressed by millions of consumers around the world. He speaks of the medical usage of GMOs in producing insulin and other products and the fact that the medical authorities, while critical of the quick uptake of GM foods, are quite happy to use the medical products. The only difference is that insulin is a lifesaving requirement and there is no other option. There is and should always be an option for the food we eat, and we must not be used as part of a massive worldwide experiment, the health and environmental results of which will probably not be measurable for many years.

Speakers in this debate have detailed how the techniques of plant and animal breeding have long been used to modify characteristics of plants and animals. These breeding techniques, this selection for the most favourable characteristics, are said to be exactly the same as the techniques employed in genetic engineering. They are not. It is not as simple as the scalpel compared with a sledgehammer approach to breeding alluded to by the member for Wentworth. We are not talking about the deliberate cross-pollination that occurred in my early orchard working days between, say, a gravenstein apple—the so-called pollinator—and whatever variety you were producing, in this case a jonathon, both types now long superseded by other varieties, also no doubt developed by selective breeding and pollinating techniques manipulating the natural environment but certainly not, as with GM, introducing previously non-existing characteristics to a plant or animal that originate from a different species, or, to take this further, creating transgenic varieties. Mr Deputy Speaker, I put it to you that this is a huge jump from the longstanding techniques of selective breeding.

There has been discussion in this debate on the issue of the precautionary principle. The member for Moore questions the value of the precautionary principle, and says it seeks to legitimise unfounded and irrational decision making processes. However, in his less gung-ho and more cautious contribution, the member for Scullin rightly points out how the European Union is establishing guidelines, as it should, about where the precautionary principle should be applied, that is, in situations where the scientific evidence is uncertain. And, yes, scientists are sometimes uncertain.

The member for Scullin pointed out the sad fact that there are too many examples of companies working in this area that have done the wrong thing. He cited Monsanto's admission in almost cavalier fashion in last weekend's press that tonnes of GM cottonseed had been accidentally mixed with non-GM seed on a farm in Queensland, saying:

The mixed seed went into one big pile, and they do not know where it went from there.

The Aventis company, in announcing it will lobby politicians to have its herbicide resistant canola on sale within two years, was quoted on 22 August in the Central Western Daily in my electorate as having conceded it could have breached laws in trialing crops but said an accidental crop release at Mount Gambier, even the dumping of GM canola trash at a tip, did not harm people or the environment. How do they know? If Aventis can claim that, it should tell the CSIRO and save the three-year $3 million research program into that very kind of scenario. The CSIRO does not have the answers yet. Apparently Aventis does!

Monsanto can point to GM technology to improve the vitamin A content of rice for the Third World, but it should be clearly understood that according to the UN World Food Program as quoted in my minority report:

we are already producing one and a half times the amount of food needed to provide everyone in the world with an adequate and nutritional diet; yet one in seven people is suffering from hunger.

Indeed Gebre Egziabher, General Manager of the Ethiopian Protection Authority, has said:

people are hungry because they have no money, no longer because there is no food to buy.

The so-called green revolution driven by the World Bank, which persuaded farmers in the Third World to replace a multitude of indigenous crops with a few high yielding varieties dependent on expensive inputs of fertilisers and chemicals, has led to huge losses in genetic diversity. Indian farmers have seen the number of rice varieties reduced from 50,000 to just a few dozen over the past few decades. One wonders how long it will be before the emerging Indian IT economy is held to ransom by the dictates of the new green revolution.

This bill does not specify the standard of evidence required by the regulator in making decisions on licensing. Environment Australia has recommended that any pre-licence assessments should be based on replicable findings only and any evidence should be subject to the same type of peer review as is applied to published research. Environment Australia stated in evidence to the committee:

the unknown evolutionary fate of inserted genes all contributes to the difficulties of predicting environmental impacts.

Let me mention the agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary measures—the only World Trade Organisation instrument directly relevant to GM0s, but a very important one. It aims to ensure that quarantine and related health and safety import rules are not unnecessarily restrictive or discriminatory in relation to international trade. Any restrictions on importation must be based on scientific principles. So, for instance, apple growers are faced again with defending their livelihoods against the incessant attempts by New Zealand to export apples from its fire blight plagued islands. A report from the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service that could well overturn a 75-year ban on the import of apples from New Zealand is expected in a few weeks. What has changed? Has New Zealand overcome its fire blight problem? Are we now free of the risk? No. What has changed are the dictates of the World Trade Organisation's free trade rules that deliver, to New Zealand and others, the `markets of the world'—a fantasyland level playing field infected, potentially, with every disease—thus evening out the disease and evening out the market opportunities. It is tipped AQIS might recommend a so-called area freedom approach, which is simply opening the back door to New Zealand imports and criminally threatening the advantage we have had for 75 years—a disease-free environment.

When considering this issue in the last parliament a few years ago, the same primary industries committee which delivered the gene technology report looked at this fire blight issue in the wake of so-called discovery of fire blight in cotoneaster plants in the Melbourne and Adelaide botanic gardens. Had it not been for a hastily arranged briefing, our committee would never have known that AQIS was about to rely on a profoundly `objective' source to determine whether or not those cotoneasters really were infected by the strain of fire blight that devastates New Zealand apples and pears and nearly every pome growing country in the world bar Australia! Who was going to do the testing? None other than New Zealand scientists, the very same bunch who had so miraculously discovered the fire blight in the first place. So much for AQIS's ability to defend the best interests of Australian agriculture in the face of the sort of pressure being applied by world trade forces that we are so reluctant to challenge.

Time does not permit me to go into detail on other aspects of the bill, but I look forward to the Senate report due next week and any recommended amendments that will tighten this legislation. Areas I believe need amendment include, firstly, the requirement that the regulator be 100 per cent self-funding after mid-2001. This could seriously compromise the regulator's independence.

Secondly, the regulator's powers to delegate need to be more tightly defined. There is a need to absolutely ensure advice on GM products is given by a body independent of the regulatory agency involved. Thirdly, in the absence of the regulations accompanying this bill, I cannot assess yet if there are sufficient safeguards to regulate low risk GMOs. Fourthly, I believe it is essential the regulator be required to insist an organisation has and will maintain an institutional biosafety committee before any decision is made to accredit the organisation. This must be part of the licence conditions. Sixthly, while the inspection and monitoring sections are good as far as they go, there is no provision for a comprehensive auditing process. Seventh, the adequacy of penalties needs review and amending. While less serious offences contained in the bill, such as proposed in sections 175, 187 and 192, may result in imprisonment, no terms of prison are provided for major offences. Finally, the Senate should look at amendments targeted at tightening up the remediation of contamination provisions.

I am interested in the best outcomes for the consumer, the farmer and the environment. While my colleagues recommended we proceed with caution, including the framing of this legislation, I argued for extreme caution, including a moratorium. I do not think we will achieve that at a national level, but I urge both houses of this parliament to seriously consider the bill in the light of the Senate inquiry's findings and the weaknesses I detect in the bill as it stands.