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Tuesday, 29 August 2000
Page: 19579


Dr LAWRENCE (10:09 PM) —In wandering the byways of the Internet and landing on a site called `Wired', I was stunned to discover a sombre piece by Bill Joy, who is a well-known cofounder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems. I was surprised, because it is a cautionary tale headed `Why the future doesn't need us', in which Joy explores the ways in which the most powerful 21st century technologies—robotics, genetic engineering and nano--technology—are threatening, as he sees it, to make humans an endangered species. Joy is not a Luddite. In fact, he is normally a technology enthusiast. In his thoughtful essay, however, he reminds us of the fact that many of the systems with which we are tinkering are `complex, involving interactions and feedback between many parts'. He says:

Any changes to such a system will cascade in ways that are difficult to predict; this is especially true when human actions are involved.

He ponders why more of us are not concerned about some of the likely consequences of these technologies on our lives and on our societies. He suggests that part of the answer lies in our attitude to the new—that, as he puts it, `in our bias toward instant familiarity and unquestioning acceptance', we adapt all too readily in fact. Joy argues that we are almost inured to routine scientific breakthroughs and that this makes it harder for us to understand that these 21st century technologies—robotics, genetic engineering and nanotechnology—actually do pose a very different threat from those technologies with which we are more familiar. Joy reminds us that the new technologies share a dangerous, as he calls it, `amplifying factor'—that is, they can self-replicate. As he puts it:

A bomb is blown up only once—but one bot—

robot, that is—

can become many, and quickly get out of control.

It may sound alarmist, but he argues his case very carefully. In Joy's view, the risk of the newer technologies is the risk of substantial damage in our physical world. While he acknowledges, as I do, that these technologies offer great promise, he is also aware that, with each of these technologies, a series of small, individually quite sensible advances can lead to the accumulation of great power and great danger. He observes that the failure to understand the consequences of our inventions `while we are in the rapture of discovery and innovation seems to be a common fault of scientists and technologists'. We have seen plenty of examples, from the atom bomb onwards.

Joy cautions that while on science's quest we do not always notice that the progress to newer and more powerful technologies has taken on a life of its own. He asks rhetorically whether, given the incredible power of these new technologies, we shouldn't be asking how best we can coexist with them, embed them in our societies. And, if our own extinction is a likely or even possible outcome of our technological development, shouldn't we proceed with caution, he asks.

It is in this spirit that I believe we should proceed in the regulation and monitoring of gene technology—with great caution and great care. We should be highly sceptical about the profit benefits and cautious in permitting widespread application of these technologies before they are fully tested. The Gene Technology Bill 2000 and related bills seek to reduce the risks that are posed by gene technology to our environment and to our health by providing an efficient and an effective regulatory system. Whether that is so or not remains to be seen. There are reasonable doubts, I think, that these bills will provide sufficient protection from the enthusiasts and corporations who seek to maximise their profits and have been shown in the past to be less than honest in identifying risks and complying with standards set. In particular, the Labor Party has identified a number of problems with the legislation which require further examination and are at present receiving it in the Senate. These weaknesses include the question of whether the measures in the bill to achieve its object are actually adequate, particularly in relation to the environment, to the role of the environment minister and to the provision of third-party appeals for decisions. We ask, too, whether the proposed structure and the assessment processes are actually efficient and effective.

I think it is important to question whether the proposed cost recovery and funding measures for the office of the Gene Technology Regulator are appropriate, and whether state and territory opt-out of the regulatory framework should be allowed. I know there are a couple of states, my own included, that will wish to opt out of these provisions. They want GM free agriculture. The conservatives, the Labor Party and the Greens in Western Australia are all pretty much agreed on this point. There is also the question of how much information should be made available to the public. I will await with interest the results of the Senate committee's deliberations. But I am particularly concerned about whether the bill will protect our environment and ensure that our agricultural products will be attractive in a market which is increasingly resistant to genetically modified products, particularly food. We need to be aware of that.

Much, of course, is made of the alleged benefits of genetically modified crops. However, this is where I think we do need to exercise caution and read the literature that already exists, as well as doing more research. A couple of researchers, Altieri, of the University of California, Berkeley, and Rosset, of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, Oakland, California, have succinctly outlined many of the fallacies in the arguments put forward by the biotechnology enthusiasts. They are typical of some of the well trained sceptics. In an article entitled `Ten reasons why biotechnology will not ensure food security, protect the environment and reduce poverty in the developing world'—all of which claims have been made—they capture the reasons why caution is needed in the application of gene technology, particularly to agriculture. They are cautions we should well heed. They indicate that biotechnology companies and their acolytes often claim that genetically modified organisms are essential scientific breakthroughs needed to feed the world, to protect the environment and to reduce poverty in developing countries—grand claims.

As the authors point out, this view rests on two critical assumptions, both of which can be shown to be flawed. The first is that hunger is due to a gap between food production and human population density or growth rate. The second is that genetic engineering is the only or the best way to increase agricultural production and meet future food needs. The Altieri-Rosset article challenges the notion that biotechnology is a `magic bullet'—a solution to all of agriculture's ills. They expose very clearly the misconceptions surrounding these underlying assumptions. I will go through some of their 10 reasons. First, they demonstrate that there is no relationship between the prevalence of hunger in a given country and its population. You only need to look at a map of the world to see that for every densely populated and hungry nation there is a sparsely populated and hungry nation. As they clearly show, and as others have too, the world today produces more food per inhabitant than ever before—more, indeed, than is necessary. Enough is available to provide 4.3 pounds of food to every person every day, 2.5 pounds of grain, bean and nuts, about a pound of meat, milk and eggs and another pound of fruit and vegetables. The real causes of hunger are poverty, inequality and lack of access. Too many people are too poor to buy the food that is available—but which is often poorly distributed—or they lack the land and resources to grow it themselves. There is not too little food, but it is in the wrong places.

Second, they are very sceptical about the claim that innovations in agriculture are absolutely necessary to save us all. In fact, those innovations have more often been driven by profit than by need. The real thrust of the genetic engineering industry is not to make Third World agriculture more productive but rather to generate profits. I am not surprised by that. These are private enterprise companies making money for their shareholders. The authors illustrate this by reviewing the principal technologies of the market today—and others have done similar work. These two technologies are the herbicide resistant crops such as Monsanto's Roundup Ready soya beans—seeds that are tolerant to Monsanto's herbicide Roundup—and Bt crops that are engineered to produce their own insecticide. In the first instance, the goal is clearly to win a greater herbicide market share for the Monsanto's proprietary product, for Monsanto's profit. In the second, it is to boost seed sales at the cost of damaging the usefulness of a key pest management product that is relied upon by many organic farmers. These technologies also intensify farmers' dependence on seeds protected by so-called intellectual property rights and they conflict directly with the age-old rights of farmers to reproduce, share or store seeds. For many it is clearly a backward step. Increasingly, corporations like these require farmers to buy companies' brands of inputs and forbid them from keeping or selling seed. They prosecute them when they do so in the United States.

Altieri and Rosset's third reason—and again there is substantial literature on this—is that the integration of the seed and chemical industries is accelerating the costs. Rather than reducing costs it is making it more expensive, delivering significantly lower returns to growers. In the United States this year, there seems to be less planting of genetically modified crops, perhaps for that reason. Companies developing herbicide tolerant crops are trying to shift as much of the per acre costs as possible from the herbicide onto the seed, via seed costs. In the United States the costs had escalated very substantially. A fourth reason they give for being sceptical is that a lot of recent experimental trials have shown that genetically engineered seeds do not increase the yield of crops. This is one of the big claims—that it increases the yield—and yet a recent study in the United States shows that 1998 yields were not significantly different in engineered versus non-engineered crops in 12 out of 18 regions tested. Research has also shown that glyphosate tolerant cotton showed no significant yield increase in either region where it was surveyed. This was confirmed in another study examining more than 8,000 field trials, where it was found that Roundup Ready soya bean seeds produced fewer bushels of soya beans than similar, conventional breed varieties. There is a lot of evidence of this kind, and I suggest that all members have a good, hard look at it before we all engage on large-scale agriculture of genetically modified crops.

Another reason we should be sceptical is that a lot of scientists claim that the ingestion of genetically engineered food is harmless—but without the evidence. We simply do not know. We have not been doing it for long enough to see the consequences. There is a little evidence, and I agree that it is not great, that shows that there are potential risks from eating such foods. It has been argued, for example, that the new proteins produced in such foods could act as allergens—that has already happened in one case in Japan—and that metabolism could be altered to produce toxins which we at this stage know little or nothing about. They are risks that we are exposing ourselves to without adequate research. Because at the moment in large parts of the world genetically engineered food remains largely unlabelled, consumers cannot discriminate between GE and non-GE food, so if there are any serious health problems we are not likely to know where they originate.

Another problem identified by many workers in this field is that transgenic plants which produce their own insecticides—one of the big pushes—also produce pest resistance, and they appear to be doing it very quickly indeed. The process may render useless some of the natural pesticides as well. Another reason why we should be sceptical is that a lot of leading companies are engaged in a massive effort to plant these transgenic crops around the world, with more than 30 million hectares in 1998, without any proper advance testing of the short-term or long-term impacts on human health and ecosystems. In the United States, for instance, the private sector pressure led the White House to decree that there was no substantial difference—to simply decree it—between altered and normal seeds. Confidential documents that were later made available to the public showed that the authorities' own scientists did not agree with this determination. They were clearly very concerned, but that was never made public. A lot of scientists from all over the world—and they are not all Luddites, they are not all opposed to these technologies; they are often people working in the field—are concerned that the large-scale use of transgenic crops poses a series of environmental risks and we should be aware of all these. For instance, the use of herbicide resistant crops undermines the possibilities of crop diversification. There is a potential, as I mentioned, for herbicide resistant varieties to become serious weeds in other crops.

All of these problems have been identified by scientists working in the field and there are many that we simply know nothing of. We would be foolhardy to rush into this field without care, without regulation and without knowledge. As Bill Joy indicated in his article, we can become blind to the risks that we face when we become enthusiasts for a technology which carries risks as well as benefits. This legislation will go part of the way in solving that problem, but I believe stops well short of what is needed in this community.

Debate (on motion by Mr Entsch) adjourned.