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Tuesday, 29 August 2000
Page: 19567


Ms HALL (8:51 PM) —Gene technology is an explosive new technology which is evolving at a rapid rate. It is in its infancy and offers promise and hope for a future free of disease and illness, coupled with bountiful quality produce and foods. It is a science which challenges many of our traditional beliefs and perceptions about life and forces us to expand and consider our intellectual and ethical boundaries. Gene technology has been heralded as the science that will deliver a cure for cancer, identifying and eliminating genes that cause disease, but as yet the expectation has not been matched by the results. Further, gene technology is progressing quickly and dramatically, necessitating social and institutional change.

I am afraid that, to date, the government has not handled this change at all well. The Gene Technology Bill 2000 leaves me in fear for the future. Gene technology creates changes that raise ethical, legal and perceptual issues. If handled badly, this change could lead to dislocation within our community and fear and mistrust of technology that could benefit humanity. That is why this legislation is so welcome. The need for legislation to regulate gene technology has been apparent since the early 1990s. While I have a number of real concerns about the legislation, at least it is a step in the right direction. The member for Calare was saying that this is putting the cart before the horse. I understand where he is coming from, but I feel that if we do nothing gene technology will take care of itself. It will develop a life of its own and we, as regulators, will not be able to impact on where it goes or be able to control the future.

The government has been reluctant to legislate and show leadership in this area. This can only result in lost opportunity, community suspicion and economic disadvantage. The recent debate over labelling of genetically modified foods demonstrates the government's lack of understanding of the real issues. The community is not necessarily opposed to genetically modified food, although I believe a large number of people are. The real issue is that this government wanted to prevent people from knowing what they are eating. People want to know what they are eating and they want the labels on food to reflect that. You have only to look at some of the produce that has been modified with genes from fish to see how it could be of concern to a vegetarian. This technology is being used to increase the life of products, but people who eat the product need to know what they are eating. Gene technology is also a concern in the area of trade. The European Community and Japan like to know the processes that have been used in producing food. Failure to disclose this will lead to loss of markets.

The community has been crying out for the government to show leadership and regulate to ensure that the health of the community and the environment are adequately protected. All that has been achieved in this process is to create anxiety within the community and distrust of the government. Australia is at the crossroads in its management of gene technology. It must balance the need to ensure community acceptance, food safety and environmental issues against the loss of market share, inhibiting research and loss of knowledge. If we as a nation do not handle this science with the respect and enthusiasm it deserves, it will cement the current brain drain that is so evident in Australia's society today.

This government has failed miserably in the area of research and development. Never has there been a time in Australia's history when so many of our scientists have left our country. The government's failure to embrace gene technology, to come to terms with it and to take the community with it will lead to a further brain drain. More scientists will leave our country because we do not have the framework in place to encourage further development of research in that area. We have only to look at today's Australian to see that Australia now rates below Iceland, Denmark, Canada and Austria in its gross expenditure on research and development as a proportion of GDP. That is just not good enough. The amount of money that Australia is investing in research and development has plunged nearly 10 per cent in two years—that is money we should be investing in Australia's future. During 1996-97 and 1998-99, the nation's gross expenditure as a percentage of GDP fell from 1.65 per cent to 1.49 per cent—a fall of 9.7 per cent.

If the government does not show more leadership, does not show how it is prepared to invest and encourage research and technology, this fall will continue. Gene technology reportedly offers significant advantages to agriculture, particularly in quantity and quality of product. As has already been mentioned by a number of speakers, the genetic modification of rice with an increase in vitamin A and the benefit that that can have in Third World countries is one of the benefits of gene technology that is being touted by people who support it. Also, there is an ability to produce crops without insecticides. As well as the benefits offered by gene technology, there are some serious concerns that governments need to address.

One of the main concerns I believe government must address is the need for the community to accept gene technology—and I do not think that has happened at this stage. Even producers of agricultural products are not uniform in their acceptance: 55 per cent of all producers support a five-year moratorium on gene technology. The reason for this, I am sure, is that they do not know the long-term effect of gene technology any more than we in this House know the long-term effect of gene technology. There is very little research into the long-term effect, and until we do know that long-term effect we should proceed with caution. We should make sure that the legislation in place regulates the industry effectively. Further, producers feel that gene technology creates uncertainty in the market. You could say they will be producing more produce and therefore have a better market share, but there is uncertainty because some farmers realise that in the world market some areas genetically accept modified products with some reluctance. Also, there are farmers who do not produce genetically modified produce and they are very worried about their products being contaminated by genetically modified products. That brings up the issue of liability. This technology could result in endless litigation where non-GMO farmers have their crops affected by genetically modified products. That is an issue that really needs to be addressed. We need to really know and understand how products can be contaminated and the effect of this contamination.

Consumers are another group that the government have not given due consideration to in their rush to introduce this legislation. There is uncertainty over the health implications. We need more knowledge about the long-term effects of consuming genetically modified products. There is great distrust in the community about the government's handling of the issue. If you want to see the way the government have handled this issue, you have only to look at the way they handled the labelling issue. The process is not open. The process must be open, and people must understand what it is that they are committing themselves to, understand the technology and understand the implications of the technology for them. Unfortunately, the government have failed to do this. There has been no scientific rigour placed on the whole process. There have been insufficient trials of genetically modified products. That results in suspicion, and that can result in problems for our society in the future.

Whilst one of the main positives of genetically modified produce has been touted as being a reduction in the need to use pesticides, the same genetically modified crops could have a very negative impact. It could lead to the growth of super weeds, weeds that will in fact affect the products that farmers wish to grow. It could lead to unpredictable new species with mutation, and virulent virus strains could become prevalent. These are areas of great uncertainty. We do not know the long-term impact or effect of this technology. It has not been properly trialled and I do not believe that, to date, it has been properly regulated.

Many of the previous speakers have talked about contamination and cross-pollination and the legal battles, the litigation, that will come out of this and the sale of GM products on the black market. An article in the Age on 25 March exposed the genetically modified canola plants that were dumped contrary to the recommendation of the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee. As recently as 25 July, the Sydney Morning Herald identified 69 tonnes of traditional cottonseed that had been mixed with genetically modified cottonseed. The thing that I find interesting about this is that we did not find out about this through the Interim Office of the Genetic Technology Regulator; we found out about it through the media. So once again there has been no openness in the way this technology is being sold to the Australian people and the way it is being regulated and introduced. We need openness. We need a regulator that is there making sure that the industry is regulated and not covering up when a problem arises.

We can only hope that the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator being established in this legislation is more effective, but I do have concerns about that. The regulator will be required to fund its existence 100 per cent. That means it must be 100 per cent user pays from the middle of next year. It means that the recovery of costs comes through the administration of the regulatory regime. Costs are recovered through the fees for the granting of the GMO licences. Therefore it will be required to approve enough licences to cover its costs.

I see that as a major conflict of interest. It could lead to the regulator being a captive of industry, and it also creates a problem for independent scientific research. We need scientific research, but that research must be independent. The conclusions of the research should not be signalled before the research takes place, and we need to know that it will stand the rigours of the tests that scientific research should be subject to. Otherwise, it can lead to a compromise of the standard or the independence of the authority, and we do not need that in Australia.

Whilst the legislation does not address the ownership of intellectual property, I believe it is a very important issue and one that government will need to address. Gene technology ownership is concentrated in the hands of a very few multinational companies. Unlike the owners of patents, these companies do not have any restriction on the time that they own that technology, and this is placing enormous power—and, I might add, enormous wealth—in the hands of a few.

In the US this has been found to be a problem in the area of medical gene therapy. It has been found that mixing the treatment of people that are suffering from a medical condition with financial interests often leads to conflict. I was recently reading about a notable case involving the Institute for Human Gene Therapy at the University of Pennsylvania, which pushed the boundaries to some extent. A young man that had been on medication for many years and had been surviving quite adequately a life threatening disease since childhood was given a new treatment. Within four days of being given that treatment, he was dead. A number of inquiries in the US have followed, and debate rages over the actual and the perceived conflict of interest. When you mix this type of research with financial gain, you are always going to be placed in the position where you have to consider ethical issues.

In this piece of legislation, there are a number of areas where you have to look at the conflict between financial gain and the independence of the regulator. Also, we have to look at the ownership of the intellectual property in the long term. As I said, this legislation is a move in the right direction, even though it is a somewhat belated and weak move in that direction. At the same time, I acknowledge what the member for Calare said about having a moratorium in place. I do feel, however, that we need to have some regulation. This is legislation that needs amending to be truly effective, and I am sure that following the Senate inquiry there will be many recommendations in that area. The government must use this as the starting point for future legislation that will consolidate the gene technology industry in Australia whilst addressing the community's concerns and ensuring a safe and open industry that is not plagued by litigation and hidden agendas.