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Monday, 29 November 1999
Page: 10984

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (10:19 PM) —I rise this evening to discuss the need for an Australian parliament to hold an inquiry into the responsible regulation and promotion of biotechnology and its applications. To date, all consideration of biotechnology and related issues has been in the other place, the most recent being the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Primary Industries and Regional Services inquiry into the primary producer access to gene technology. However, I would argue there has not been a comprehensive consideration of such issues since the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology's investigation into the development, use and release of genetically modified organisms into the environment, which was tabled in February 1992.

Biotechnology and its regulation have moved a long way since this time, and the public needs a forum to address the issues that have arisen in the intervening period. These issues should be addressed by the Senate. The Senate represents interests which the other place cannot. Sustainable development, the environment and other traditionally non-industry and business interests must be represented and considered in any such debate.

It is true that Commonwealth departments and authorities consult regularly with the public on aspects of the regulation and implementation of biotechnology, but many aspects of this multidimensional debate remain relatively unexplored. For example, the biopiracy and biocolonialism issues cannot be ignored in domestic law. The effectiveness of intellectual property rights and other legal instruments to ensure adequate recognition and protection of indigenous knowledge of biological species needs to be addressed. This ties in nicely with some of Senator Coonan's earlier comments on the WTO Seattle Round, because some countries wish to pursue some of these issues during that forum's debate.

Australia needs a forum outside that of the department of health and the ANZFA to address these issues before we consider the value of an office of gene technology. Senator Tambling might want to take up some of these issues if he has time in his comments shortly. Only last week in the other place, backbenchers raised the issue of patenting natural genetic material. I am sure a Senate inquiry could address this. It is quite surprising to hear some government backbenchers questioning whether or not we should be able to patent genes and gene sequences. This is something that until now I assumed the government endorsed, but I suspect there were some nervous backbenchers in the recent debate on the ANZFA who were suggesting it may not be appropriate.

That is a view to which I subscribe, and a private member's bill of mine from a couple of years ago reflects the idea that we should prohibit the patenting of genes and gene sequences. Senator Nick Minchin, the Minister for Industry, Science and Resources, stated today in question time—in response to a dorothy dixer, mind you—that Australia was well supported in science by this government in comparison with other OECD countries. It is true that we have increased our natural output of scientific papers and patents. However, it remains to be determined if this increase will transfer to the private sector, considering our poor record in developing inventions into marketable products.

We must critically consider the domestic policies for promoting research and development in biotechnology which may be, on the one hand, promoted or, on the other hand, restricted by regulation. The Senate should participate in debating the issues involved in the responsible regulation of biotechnology. The issues surrounding this technology are greater than that represented in the two-party play-off in the other place. There is a considerable role for the Senate in this debate and considerable room for the extension of this debate beyond the pro- and anti-GM foods and crops dimension. That being said, there are several issues which gene foods and crops raise which require further attention and investigation. These include the suitability and adequacy of testing of biotechnology products.

Currently, there is no independent body which undertakes scientific analysis of genetically modified products in Australia. The ANZFA instead relies on data provided by the company which is applying for approval of its genetically modified product to satisfy safety requirements. This is inadequate. We need to know what we mean by GE free—and what steps are considered adequate to providing consumers with a choice between genetically modified crops and traditional crops or organic crops. We need adequate segregation to ensure the individual's right to choose, just as we need segregation to protect lucrative export markets. We also need to consider the effect of trade initiatives, transfer pricing, and tariffs for biotechnology and Australia's GM and GM-free markets.

The global opportunities of non-GMO markets are looking more and more extensive. Take for example the forum held by KPMG a fortnight ago attended by a number of international experts, including the Japanese Consumer Union and the Japanese International Certification Service, which launched the FoodCert Consortium, a GM-free alliance that is anticipated to win Australia and New Zealand tens of millions of dollars in food exports—providing a valuable trade niche with our European and Asian trade partners. It is a case of the government's efforts being so inadequate in regulating this technology that the industry has had to take GM foods testing and segregation into its own hands. They have recognised that there is a valuable export market here, but they require government support.

Rodger Hussey, the Associate Director of KPMG, recently stated:

Consumers have made their desires plain, the government is moving towards putting labelling into place, and there is now a substantial non-GM market moving towards putting labelling into place, and there is now a substantial non-GM export market.

Costing by the Genetic ID & CERT ID behind the FoodCert AUSNZ Consortium for ensuring GM-free foods has estimated a price of 0.2 per cent of product price. This shows that the Prime Minister's intervention in the decision, last month, by Australian and New Zealand health ministers to label genetically modified foods was ill considered—at the very least.

The health ministers have committed to labelling, but we must protect against further ill-informed debate or eleventh-hour contributions to the wider biotechnology debate. Technology must be accountable—that is, a technology's benefits must outweigh its collective negatives. Those who implement the technology must be accountable for its claimed benefits. It is not the end of the story, just because it passes a test which is interpreted to mean that it is safe. Nuclear technology, for example, must keep demonstrating that it is safe, as should biotechnology. The accountability of biotechnology is a significant issue, as regulatory approval can be given and a test is made available further down the track which is more effective at assessing the particular approved product or process.

The technology should have to meet safety standards—for which the new test allows. For example, Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans have approval in some places. If better tests show they are unsafe, this approval will need to be reviewed. There should be accountability to ensure that they keep up with the best tests available and provide the satisfactory data to fulfil the latest requirements of the regulatory authority. The concentration of ownership of biotechnology and its corporatisation must also be addressed. National governments control less than one-third of global investments in biotechnology, whereas private industry therefore controls more than two-thirds of the capital generated. The global bio-industry spans the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries and is eclipsed by an uncontestable tier of multinational corporations.

Today, 2,800 biotechnology companies exist worldwide and it is estimated that by 2005 the potential market for bio-commodities will be worth $US278 billion. The implications of this powerful concentration of capital and its compatibility with public and environmental good must be explored. In the past, politicians have wanted to shy away from genetics issues as these issues tend to defy the traditional party lines. Nevertheless, we must grit our teeth and immerse ourselves in the debate beyond the two-party `for and against' mind-set—that is, take it beyond the `expert only' realm of scientific discourse and bring it out into the community. I am hopeful that the universal implications and revolutionary nature of this technology will allow for cross-party support. These are issues that do not fit the traditional ideological right and left divide, and what better place to debate these issues than in a Senate committee.