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Tuesday, 29 August 2000
Page: 19577

Dr THEOPHANOUS (9:48 PM) —I wish to indicate that I will be opposing this legislation, the Gene Technology Bill 2000 and related bills. In so doing, I want to make it clear that I do not oppose genetic engineering or the formation of genetically modified organisms. I oppose this legislation because the regime which has been suggested here is totally inadequate to the task that we face in relation to this spectacularly important area of human scientific endeavour and development.

One could begin by saying that, from a philosophical point of view, the development of gene technology is probably the biggest scientific challenge that we face in the 21st century. Unless we get our practices right, there can be very dangerous developments and problems which are beyond our wildest imagination. The capacity to manipulate genes has opened up new vistas, but it has also opened up great dangers. In that sense, it is very important that we have a regime which makes sense and which protects health, safety and the environment. Those are the proclaimed aims of this legislation.

Listening to the speakers tonight and yesterday, I am amazed that there is not a second reading amendment, and there does not appear to be any intention to move committee stage amendments. One of the reasons that has been given is that we are all awaiting the Senate committee report on this very important issue, and it has been stated that the Labor Party and others are going to move amendments in the Senate on the basis of that report. Be that as it may, I think that it is possible, just on the basis of the criticisms made by the earlier speakers, to ask, `Why has this legislation been rushed through now, before the Senate committee report, before the problems have been identified, and before crucial amendments have been put into place?' I do not understand why this has been done, but I can say this: the bill, as it is, would be totally unacceptable in trying to achieve the results.

Let us begin with one issue: the enormous role which this bill gives to the regulator. We have an interim regulator already in place in relation to genetically modified organisms, and it has become clear even at the Senate committee hearings that there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with what has already occurred—cases which should have been picked up and monitored, or even stopped. For example, breaches of requirements concerning genetically modified foods or crops have not been picked up. And we have not even put the full regime in place.

Let me explain the critical issue in relation to the full regime. The issue is this question of 100 per cent cost recovery for the regulator. That issue makes this legislation very dangerous. What are we looking at? We are looking at a regulator who has to make a decision about whether to approve certain proposals in relation to genetic modification of food, whether these be plants or animals. That is one of the key areas that we are looking at. From May 2001 the regulator—and even the Parliamentary Library has pointed this out in its Bills Digest—has to recover not only the cost of investigating a particular issue but also the full cost of running their office. This means that if the regulator wants sufficient resources, sufficient staff, to run their office they are going to have to charge very significant amounts. But consider the following scenario. There is someone who wants to pull the wool over the eyes of society and the regulator in relation to some genetic modification of food, crops, animals—whatever. He recognises that the regulator needs money for the running of their operation and that the regulator can impose as heavy a fee as he or she likes. There is then the potential for serious compromise, where it is possible that a major multinational corporation, interested in introducing a genetically modified food which has some dubious characteristic, could actually organise things in such a way that they are charged very large amounts of money in order to be cleared by the regulator. The regulator, in order to raise their money, would have to either clear many cases or charge very substantial amounts of money that only some of these major corporations could afford. In that situation, what independence would the regulator have to make a determination in terms of the health, safety and environmental concerns? I put it to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the regulator would be in a very serious position if these proposals go through.

We must not compromise the position of an objective regulator in this very critical area of scientific development, where there is enormous concern in the community about genetically modified food and other products as well. If the government is not prepared to change this suggestion and give the regulator objective independence, then this legislation is worthless. People are going to say, `We've been waiting for some regulation and legislation for a long time.' We have. But we would simply be pulling the wool over the eyes of the Australian people if we accept something that is totally inadequate and tells the people of Australia that we have a regime in place that actually looks after their interests in this matter when it may not—and I would argue that, unless changes are made, it would not. We could get the dangerous situation where products, crops and research are approved which are dangerous to the environment or to health and which should not have been approved under the regime which is being proposed. We are talking about very serious issues, and I cannot understand why we have not waited for the Senate committee report before trying to put legislation through this House on these issues.

One of the issues with genetically modified food—it has been mentioned by other speakers but it is of some concern to me—is how much control we really have in this area. Let us take an example. Suppose we approve a farmer to grow a particular genetically modified food in a certain area. What is to prevent cross-fertilisation from that food into another natural food? Would the regulator be in a position to check whether or not there has been such cross-fertilisation or whether there is a danger of such cross-fertilisation? Will we have the regulator checking whether or not farms have been organised in such a way that no such cross-fertilisation takes place? If, for example, a genetically modified vegetable is grown somewhere and a natural vegetable is grown nearby, who is to say there has not been cross-fertilisation? This is a very important issue when it comes to the question of labelling. You may recall that we had a big debate as to whether or not we are going to require full labelling of genetically modified food. Thank God we have agreed, through the Australia New Zealand Food Authority, that that is what we are going to do. But what happens when there are foods that get through the system because of cross-fertilisation or insufficient monitoring by the regulator which are genetically modified and are not labelled? What will people say in that situation? Unless this issue is dealt with, people will be sceptical about the adequacy of the regulator's actions, and the whole confidence of the community will be undermined in a substantial and dramatic way.

I even have concerns about the adequacy of the labelling regime which has already been adopted. For example, if research is done for the implementation of genetically modified changes in animals, say in cattle or sheep that will be used for human consumption, how do we guarantee that the raw meat will be sufficiently identified to the public as genetically modified? How do we know that these modified foods are in fact safe for human consumption? It has been said that we should not be paranoid about genetically modified foods. I do not want to be paranoid, but a lot of the guarantees given by researchers in the past about such foods have turned out to be insufficient. The scientific establishment, as I think the honourable member for Reid mentioned, is now falling over itself to seize offers of research from major multinational companies to do genetically modified work. Fine, but that research has to be tested, especially when it concerns human consumption. It is one thing to develop a genetically modified product like, for example, one to produce better wool in sheep, but when it comes to producing food for human consumption we have to be extremely cautious. I remind this House of the assurances given by scientists about mad cow disease. They said that there was no way that mad cow disease could be transferred from animals to human beings, but then it was discovered that something like 47 people died from contracting a disease as a result of contact with meat from animals with mad cow disease.

The honourable member for Calare in his contribution has mentioned a number of very serious issues about the powers of the regulator and the way in which the regulation system is going to operate. In some areas there is an absence of regulation altogether, in other areas the system appears to leave it up to the subjective judgment of the regulator and in other areas the regulator can delegate powers—but delegated to whom and in what way? How are we to ensure objectivity in the judgments to be made? There is also the question of compensation for people who become ill from being subjected to genetically modified foods, despite guarantees by a company that the food is safe. What sorts of guarantees are going to be given?

This bill does not sufficiently cover this issue of compensation. What about companies that do not bother to report the fact that they are carrying out research on genetically modified organisms or that they are actually planting genetically modified food crops? The penalties under the legislation are not sufficiently steep for the kinds of dangers which exist in this kind of situation. I believe that the bill as it has been proposed is quite inadequate to the task. It ought really not to proceed through the House of Representatives at this time without the Senate report and other aspects of the matter being considered, such as whether or not the government intends to bring back a recommendation—which I am sure the Senate committee is going to look at very seriously—that the office of the regulator be given total independence rather than being dependent on funding which is likely to come from the very same organisations that are claiming licences in order to proceed with genetically modified activities.

Another matter is that the legislation depends very much on the cooperation of the state and territory governments. It is interesting that, although the federal government had the power to legislate for the territories in this case, it has left it up to them to reach agreement with the states. This is going to make the operation of the regime, even if a good one is achieved in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, very difficult if another regime has to be negotiated with state and territory governments which will be under substantial pressure from a number of corporations to adopt actions in relation to genetically modified foods and in other areas. So I wonder whether in fact we will ever get to a point of agreement unless we actually have an independent regime. Why not have a regime that is funded by the states and the federal government, for example? Why not have that rather than relying on self-funding from fees that will be paid by the very same people claiming licences in relation to this matter? The interests involved in this issue are enormous. Not millions, but billions of dollars are at stake in investments by corporations that want to quickly move to genetically modified foods without sufficient research and sufficient guarantees that those foods are in fact free of hazards to human health.

Because there is this billion dollar industry, we should be careful. We should be putting into place a strong, independent regime to protect safety, health and the environment in relation to these genetically modified organisms. We should be aware that in the past scientists who should have known better have given to many governments and many countries guarantees about health issues which have not been sufficient. That was in the past. Now, with this new regime of genetic engineering, what is at stake is worth many millions of dollars more than was the case before. The temptation will be there for people, including members of the scientific community, to clear organisms in this way. This bill should not be passed at this time. (Time expired)