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Tuesday, 29 August 2000
Page: 19570


Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (9:11 PM) —Many claims have been made on behalf of genetic engineering. They stretch from having more productive crops—which will lessen the impact on the environment, reducing the need to destroy forests and therefore reducing the impact on waterways—to developing edible insulin. They range from the creation of khaki or blue fibres to the production of paints and plastics from plants. They include the ability of plants to be insect resistant, to emit their own pesticides and to contain deadly proteins, vitamins or protein improvements, et cetera, ad nauseam. I particularly noted the comments of the member for Calare in regard to the seeming futility of the consultative and ethics committees and the lack of role they really have in government advice, and I noted his calls for statutory compensation. I note also the concerns of a number of speakers in regard to the user-pays concept of this legislation and the impact that it might have in calling the tune in the industry. I, however, want to deal with my right to question the so-called scientific hierarchy which dictates that this is the only option. In the Guardian Weekly of 2 to 8 March 2000, the editorial commented:

We welcome Mr Blair's conversion to a cause that he once dismissed as hysteria, for the Prime Minister seemed to make up his mind hurriedly on GM foods. Soon after taking office, he was persuaded that Britain would be a world leader in biotechnology and that it should not let slip its domination of the new technology.

The editorial further commented:

We hope that Mr Blair will be less dismissive of concerns voiced in future. Perhaps he will realise that he does not always know the public mind better than it knows itself and that sometimes the ability to lead is also the ability to listen.

That editorial emanated from the British Prime Minister's comments in the Independent newspaper that week, where he said:

There's no doubt that there is potential for harm, both in terms of human safety and in the diversity of our environment, from GM foods and crops.

Blair further commented that he understood the `cause for legitimate public concern' and said that Britain would move `very cautiously indeed'. The timing of that is interesting because that very week citizens of the United States, under their freedom of information act, helped obtain evidence that the British government had been persuaded by Clinton to move and change the British position. A day after the two leaders met in Downing Street, Britain, which then held the European Union presidency, set in motion changes to make it easier for GM food to be sold. To me that typifies the reasons that people should perhaps not assume that, just because a scientific establishment says something about this product, it is therefore right. It is interesting to note that while Blair has moved his position, the government of this country has been not so sanguine about genetic engineering. There are the comments of the ACT health minister, Michael Moore, in the Advertiser of 21 October 1999, when he said, of the Prime Minister's intervention in regards to labelling, that it was a `very sad' intervention. He further commented:

I think ministers will feel a significant resentment at an intervention that's based on ignorance...

That essentially stands as indicative of this government's overweaning attempt to promote this industry. It is interesting to note that the Prime Minister's figures, essentially manufactured by KPMG, as to the cost of labelling in this country have been somewhat discredited in the interim. The broader concerns in regard to genetic engineering concern the degree to which the United States is pushing this agenda in international trade and its political leverage around the world. The member for Oxley commented briefly on concerns that some European countries might use hostility towards genetically engineered crops as a trade barrier. Quite frankly, I think that, while that is understandable, we have an equal danger in that the United States is using its trade power to overcome the health and environmental concerns of the European nations to impose on the world the dictates of its corporate world. The degree to which the United States administration is taking orders from Monsanto is indicated in an article titled `Pandora's Pantry' in Mother Jones of January-February 2000. The article by Jon R. Luoma said of the United States's position:

Despite mounting scientific concern, the Clinton administration still adheres to that policy, requiring nowhere near the intensity of testing that would apply to a food additive, such as an artificial sweetener—let alone a drug. In addition, the FDA—

the Food and Drug Administration—

requests only that firms conduct their own safety assessments of new products containing GE components. The FDA has received such self-assessments for each GE product it has approved so far, but “does not conduct a scientific review of the firm's decision [to bring the product to market],” according to an agency spokesperson.

Is it any wonder that the United States administration seems rather lax in regards to genetic engineering? We noticed that President Bill Clinton, in his 1996 presidential campaign, was at pains to promote chief executive Shapiro of Monsanto Corporation as a leading associate of his in business. It is worthwhile noting that Michael R. Taylor, Monsanto's vice-president for public policy, is a former executive assistant of the FDA. He was also closely associated with Monsanto then. Mickey Kantor—on Monsanto's board of directors since 1997—is the personal attorney of President Clinton and a former US commerce secretary and US trade representative. Marcia Hale, Monsanto's director of UK government affairs, is a well-connected former assistant to President Clinton. William D. Ruckelshaus, a member of Monsanto's board of directors, is former chief administrator of the Environment Protection Agency under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Jack Watson, the chief legal strategist for Monsanto, is a former White House chief of staff in the Carter administration. So what we have had has been not only the penetration of the FDA—and that has been acknowledged in a series of other articles—by Monsanto's employees but also their close political connections with a variety of US administrations. The reality of this industry is outlined in an article by Andrew Simms in the Guardian Weekly of 18 May 1999. He noted that:

The top 10 agrochemical companies control 85 per cent of the global agrochemical market; the top five control virtually the entire market for GM seeds.

The situation is essentially that this industry is being driven by a few players, that they are influential in the US administration, and that the US administration utilises its trade power and political influence to push this agenda internationally. Another indication of this was that in 1998 the World Bank lent India $150 million to make the seed industry more market responsive to global corporations. The other thing that concerns me is the increasing connection between the science that supposedly backs these agendas and legitimate university study. An article in the Washington Post of 17 August this year commented:

... Arnold Relman, a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, believes free-market thinking is distorting the mission of the medical researcher as “a reliable, trustworthy source of information about the safety and effectiveness of new methods and new products”.

“Is everything, including health care, just a market commodity? I believe the answer is obviously no”...

What he was detailing is the close interconnection between universities dependent upon corporate finance and the scientific output. In a very worthwhile article in the Atlantic Monthly by Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn, titled `The Kept University', which I would like to quote at length, a number of comments are made about this whole difficulty and the degree to which we can rely on scientific evidence for these products, and our inability to have a scientific alternative. That concerned me when I was on the 1992 Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology inquiry into Genetic manipulation: the threat or the glory. I was concerned that we essentially had a very uneven debate between a wide variety of scientists on the one hand—many of whom might be perceived as having connections with industry, whether directly or indirectly—and on the other hand the Australian Conservation Foundation and a large variety of people who, for philosophical or religious reasons, opposed genetic engineering. Quite frankly, their arguments were not that intellectually convincing in regard to the science.

At that stage, as a layperson with very limited scientific knowledge, I was disturbed by the degree to which a parliamentary committee could be affected by the lack of alternative information and alternative sources and probably by their inability, despite the very stringent efforts of the Parliamentary Library, to deal with an establishment that essentially is going in one direction.

This article makes a number of very important points about the trend in the US and the degree to which we can just dismiss some of the concerns that a minority of scientists are putting forward in regard to genetic engineering. Some of those concerns are the overuse of herbicides that might arise, new genes producing new proteins which may be toxic or cause allergies, new genes which may alter the action of old genes close to them, the introduction of genes from distantly related species, the world seed supply coming under the control of a few large corporations, and viruses combining with other viruses to produce new virulent viruses. They are some of the concerns that have been articulated by a minority of scientists.

I note that the member for Lyons—from recollection—referred briefly to the situation of Professor Arpade Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen. The brain, liver and heart shrivelling of rats fed on a particular genetically engineered potato caused a furore in the United Kingdom. Essentially, he was forced out of his job, he was attacked by the scientific establishment and there was a large debate about his work. Eventually, he was exonerated to a large degree by the publication of an article in the Lancet. He was obviously perceived as a small minority out there in the wilderness voicing an unpopular point of view.

Returning to this article that I mentioned earlier, it refers to a particular piece of legislation in the United States, the Bayh-Dole Bill, and its impact on universities in the states and the degree to which we must now question whether they are independent of the corporations and whether we can trust them as independent arbiters—people we can respect in regard to their side of the evidence. That article commented:

What is undeniable is that Bayh-Dole has revolutionized university-industry relations. From 1980 to 1998 industry funding for academic research expanded at an annual rate of 8.1 per cent, reaching $1.9 billion in 1997—nearly eight times the level of twenty years ago. Before Bayh-Dole, universities produced roughly 250 patents a year (many of which were never commercialised); in fiscal year 1998, however, universities generated more than 4,800 patent applications.

It further commented:

A 1997 survey of 2,167 university scientists, which appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, revealed that nearly one in five had delayed publication for more than six months to protect proprietary information ...

Essentially they had done scientific medical research but had suppressed it for commercial reasons. These are people in the university institutions in the United States. It went on:

In a 1996 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Cho found that 98 percent of papers based on industry-sponsored research reflected favourably on the drugs being examined, as compared with 79 percent of papers based on research not funded by industry. More recently, an analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that studies of cancer drugs funded by pharmaceutical companies were roughly one eighth as likely to reach unfavourable conclusions as non-profit-funded studies.

On page 45 of the same article it states:

More than a year before fen-phen, the appetite suppressant, was pulled off the market because it seemed to be implicated in a number of deaths, a group of researchers published a study in The New England Journal of Medicine warning that drugs like fen-phen could have potentially fatal side effects. But the same issue contained a commentary from two academic researchers that downplayed the health dangers of fen-phen. Both authors had served as paid consultants to the manufacturers and distributors of similar drugs—connections that were not mentioned.

Further on the article states:

The dean of Chicago's medical school, Glenn D. Steel Jr., recently removed many faculty department heads and bluntly told Business Week that he plans to begin “insinuating the place ... with entrepreneurial people”—a clear statement that commercial acumen is becoming an important qualification for new faculty.

So that is the situation there; it is happening here to a degree as universities are becoming more and more reliant on corporations to finance their chairs, to provide their scholarships and to have their names on buildings in this country—the same concerns and fears must arise. My final quote from the same article contains a comment by Donald Dahlsten, the associate dean of the College of Natural Resources, who shares the concerns of this whole article:

“Molecular biology and genetic engineering have clearly risen as the preferred approach to solving our problems, and that's where the resources are going.” ... “New buildings have gone up, and these departments are expanding, while the organismic areas of science—which emphasize a more ecological approach—are being downsized.” Dahlsten once chaired Berkeley's world-renowned Division of Biological Control. Today that division, along with the Department of Plant Pathology and more than half all faculty positions in entomology, are gone—in part, many professors believe, because there are no profits in such work. “You can't patent the natural organisms and ecological understanding used in biological control.”

The situation is that we have a very strong agenda dictated by US corporations internationally. The European Community has had some difficulty in resisting this. If we return to Britain for one moment, we have traced earlier the way in which the British Labour government was heavied by Clinton and the US administration, an administration heavily affected by Monsanto and possibly other corporations. But the UK experience, which unfortunately as many speakers have noted has preceded us by quite a while because of the inaction of this government in regard to putting some controls into this industry, is also informative in regard to other problems.

A minister in the UK government, Lord Sainsbury, was found to have been funding a genetic engineering corporation in which he had a number of interests. The British government dismissed its own 13-strong advisory committee that granted licences for genetically modified crops because of concerns about its lack of representation. Once again, the member for Calare referred to his concerns that a number of these committees, which seem to be basically throw-off lines of the legislation, will not be having much of a role in regard to advising the government. It is interesting to note that the minister, Mr Meacher said:

I am not making any suggestion of impropriety by any member of the committee. I have every confidence that the committee has acted responsibly and given honest advice based on the scientific expertise they hold ...

What he had to do essentially was to reassure the British public that a committee that was overwhelmingly dominated by industry interests and that lacked much representation from the environmental groups and from alternative scientific sources was altered because it typified a public concern that really they could not trust the word of government and that they could not trust the word of the scientific establishment. This legislation as detailed is a step forward of some sorts, but it is still to be viewed in a context where the overwhelming optimism of the government and industry sources should be more strongly questioned.