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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 10594


Mr MARTYN EVANS (11:19 AM) —Often in the affairs of human society there are quite significant revolutions which change the way in which whole societies are organised. There was the Industrial Revolution of a few hundred years ago, the discovery of printing technology a few hundred years before that and the discovery of mathematics a few thousand years before that. In our own lifetimes, of course, we have seen the IT revolution and the biotechnology revolution, which we are living through at the moment. The predictions are that this will be the biotechnology century. I do not think the biotechnology revolution will last as long as a century. I am sure it will be well through its progress long before the end of this century.

The underlying principle of both the IT discoveries and the biotechnology discoveries is not revolutions in themselves. The underlying principle behind them both is intellectual property and knowledge. In fact, we should describe this current period as a knowledge revolution—it is not an industrial revolution, as we had previously, but a knowledge revolution. That is what underpins both the IT revolution and the biotechnology discoveries that we are currently beginning to explore. Intellectual property is the underpinning basis of this legislation and the parent act which this bill seeks to amend. As my colleague has outlined, the Plant Breeder's Rights Amendment Bill 2002 seeks to protect the intellectual property contained in the changes to plant breeding which plant breeders and farmers have undertaken in traditional ways and in the new and exciting ways which biotechnology now permits.

At the moment we are starting to sequence the genetic make-up of a number of very important cereal crops. We have already fully sequenced a number of basic plants. Aradopsis was one of the first organisms to have its genetic make-up fully sequenced, and rice and other important cereal crops will soon be fully sequenced in turn. It will not be long before all the major crops and all major animal species—as with humans—will be fully sequenced, and our understanding of those sequences will be much more complete. It will be much longer before we understand the meaning of each of the genes within those sequences, so we might well have a map of the highways but we do not yet have a street-by-street and house-by-house map of each of the towns and cities along the way. But at least we are getting the map of the basic highways, and certainly a map of the countries and the states in each of those countries. That is very much the outline of what I would like to talk about.

Plant breeders undertake a very important task, because without them from day one humanity would have been very hard pressed to form the basic civilisation which we have now. Without the domestication of crops we would have been very hard pressed to form the civilisation which we now enjoy. Crops provide the basic sustenance which allows us to enjoy our current lifestyle. Crops provide energy for us all and without energy we would have nothing. Those plants have matured enormously over the years. For example, the wheat which we now use as a basic and staple commodity in all our lives was the first genetically engineered crop. Oats, barley and rye were combined in a very fundamental way in that first genetic engineering experiment of early plant breeders to produce wheat. Those who see wheat as a staple and fundamental commodity would, I am sure, be very surprised to find that it is a genetically engineered crop, but that is fundamentally what it is. That points to the fundamental fallacies in the arguments of many of those who oppose so vigorously the use of genetic engineering and biotechnology in our society today. I would like to examine more closely some of those issues in my commentary on this bill which is before the Main Committee today.

Plant breeders have a great deal of intellectual property to protect. It does not really matter whether they undertake their work in the highly traditional way used on farms for decades, as has been the case in my own state at Roseworthy College, which has a fundamental and long-established reputation. The college has done a lot of work over the decades on improving wheat and other cereal crop varieties, but in the early days it took a very long time to produce an improved crop variety. And, over decades, gradually and slowly to see those fundamental improvements come to light in crops was a very worthwhile experiment and one from which farmers and society benefited. However, it took a great deal of patience and was a hit-and-miss affair.

Now, of course, technology has improved the way in which plant breeders go about their work. In recent years, the more fundamental process was to induce mutations in the seeds. That could be done by introducing chemical mutagens to the seeds or, in more dramatic ways, by exposing them to radiation and forcing the seeds to mutate, planting large numbers of seeds and seeing which seeds survived, which produced useful mutations and which produced harmful mutations. If you planted enough seeds and exposed them to enough mutagenic chemicals and radiation you might well gain some mutations which were helpful to your breeding program. Then you were able to backcross those seeds with your fundamental stock and thereby produce an improved variety. This allowed a much faster tracking process, but I doubt that the public would be as impressed with that as they would have been with the more traditional but much longer process that was involved in the original plant breeding activity.

But that never got the publicity which biotechnology has, even though it involved changing the DNA of the plant and cereal crops in very fundamental and large-scale ways, and in ways about which the plant breeders had absolutely no understanding. They could see the outward signs of that DNA change, they could see the expression of that DNA in the outward appearance of the crop but they had absolutely no idea of how the DNA had changed within the crop itself. Largely the green movement and those who opposed genetic modification of crops had no real idea of how that modern plant breeding technology was undertaken.

Then along came the genetic engineering technology—biotechnology—and we started to understand how DNA worked its magic in the breeding of plants and how genes came to express individual characteristics of plants. They came to express the amount of starch and protein in a cereal crop, the height of the plant, the way in which the leaves grew and how quickly the plant would flower and the like—all of those characteristics which are so important to farmers and ultimately to the consumer as they affect the amount of crop, the amount of food and the price of the commodity, vital things to people in developed countries and absolutely fundamental life and death issues to people in the least developed countries.

These things became much easier for farmers and plant breeders to do but also started to take on political significance. A country like China, for example, combines the issues of the developing world and the technology of the First World. China, with its vast population, relatively hard-pressed economy and many people who have basic and subsistence lifestyles also has the technology of the First World in many ways and many highly educated scientists who are able to apply biotechnology. China is an interesting case study which I think we should all learn a little bit more about. In fact, China's farmers purchase and apply some $US5 billion of pesticides each year, which is a very large amount of pesticides, and many of those are long-term residual organophosphate pesticides. China's farmers, in recent years—for example, in 1995—were applying something like $US100 worth of pesticides per hectare on the cotton crop alone. That is a very substantial amount. For their cotton crop, they were applying $US500 million dollars of pesticides annually.

China's scientists have started to develop, as Monsanto did in the West, the BT cotton gene, because BT is a naturally occurring bacteria which produces a very significant toxin which the primary pest of cotton finds quite toxic. When that gene is expressed only in the leaves but not in the cotton itself or in the oil, the cotton pest eats the leaf and is affected quite fatally.


Mr Georgiou —It dies.


Mr MARTYN EVANS —Yes, it dies. That is the practical, end of the day consequence for the cotton pest. In 1997 China planted some 2,000 hectares of BT cotton, as it is known. But by the year 2000 that had spread, China being what it is, and China had planted some 700,000 hectares or 20 per cent of its cotton crop with BT cotton. By now, 2000-03, I am sure the volume is even greater. Farmers who did not use BT cotton varieties sprayed pesticides on an average of 20 times per season. Some households of small farmers—because these are small farming households—applied pesticides as many as 40 times a year, and every two or three days by the middle of the season. By contrast, BT cotton farmers applied organophosphate sprays only six times a year on average. They were applying only 11 kilograms per hectare; less than one-fifth of the quantity of pesticides used by non-BT cotton farmers. That is a dramatic difference. By 2000—and of course these estimates are a couple of years old because it is very hard to get the latest figures out of China, and it is hard to keep statistics—the estimates were that they had saved nearly 45,000 metric tonnes of formulated pesticide by using that BT cotton, and that was only with planting 20 per cent of China's cotton crop with BT cotton. That is a major reduction in the use of organophosphorus pesticides, which are mainly used in China.

Organophosphorus pesticides are very toxic to humans. Although it is very hard to get the statistics out of China, I believe—and so do many in the field—that these pesticides are a significant cause of death and injury in China. Middle-class Europeans—and, indeed, some in Australia and some in a chamber not far from where I speak—believe that it is easy for us to protest and say, `We will not use these kinds of genetically engineered products.' Even though there are no genes in the cotton that expressed this BT cotton—so this shirt that I wear would contain none of those evil genes—and even though it is not toxic to humans, the reality is that some are prepared to sacrifice the lives of Chinese farmers, who would otherwise use that 50,000 metric tonnes of organophosphate pesticides saved when only 20 per cent of the crop was planted with BT cotton. Those lives would be saved immediately and directly by the use of BT cotton.

We can sit in our lounge rooms in Australia and take the very privileged view and the highly theoretical position that we will not favour the use of these genetically engineered cottons, but of course mankind has been genetically engineering plant and cereal crops for thousands of years. We did that in ways we did not understand, such as leaving the plants alone in the barn at night and letting them do their own genetic engineering, and we had no concept of how the DNA was being modified. But, of course, when scientists modify plants in ways we fully understand and move only one or two genes around, that is totally unacceptable. We are prepared to directly put the lives of Third World farmers at risk from organophosphate poisons, the effect of which we understand very well. We are prepared to put the lives of people in Zambia at risk because we say they cannot eat food that is genetically engineered because it is unacceptable for them. Those lives are immediately and directly at risk, and we can measure that effect immediately and directly.

We can no longer afford to take that kind of highly intellectual position. That is the kind of decision we must weigh in this genetic engineering and biotechnology debate. We must set those kinds of factors on the scale as well when we have our intellectual discussions about genetic engineering. Those issues must be put and weighed up in this debate as well. We must be very careful about looking at this on just an intellectual basis. Second-generation BT cotton is being examined now, where multiple genes are put in to prevent resistance developing and so on, so these technologies and that intellectual property will move forward. We must look across the whole range of this intellectual property, which bills like this seek to protect. It is not just an industrial revolution before us here; it is an intellectual revolution. To merely examine the technology is to overlook the whole basis of this revolution. The technology itself is almost irrelevant; the focus is the intellectual property that stands behind it. Even though it looks relatively mundane on its surface—and even though it is debated in the Main Committee, and few people necessarily contribute to that debate—I am sure that the minister and our colleagues in the chamber understand the fundamental importance of this kind of legislation in underpinning the revolution in knowledge of human affairs that is before us.

This is the legislation that will form the basis of the knowledge revolution of the 21st century, which is in effect as fundamental as, if not more fundamental than, the industrial revolution of previous centuries. This is the debate that will be the basis of that knowledge revolution. This is the kind of legislation which underpins that knowledge revolution. I think that this bill, along with its companion acts, the Copyright Act and Trade Marks Act, are the legislation of the knowledge revolution. The parliament should endorse them. Of course, we will have our differences about the precise terms, but that is the kind of legislation which this parliament must give the greatest attention to over the next decade or so.