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Tuesday, 7 November 2000
Page: 19288

Senator SHERRY (8:03 PM) —I rise to continue my contribution on the Gene Technology Bill 2000 and the two cognate bills. Before the Senate adjourned last night, I was commenting on the exemptions that apply to a very limited range of dealings and that are based on the experience of assessing applications in Australia over the last 25 years. In addition, these dealings present no significant biosafety risks to public health and safety or the environment and are undertaken in contained facilities. Current methods of human embryo research do not fall within the definition of gene technology in the bill we are considering, because whole nuclei are involved in this work so manipulation of genes does not occur. In the future, it would be open to a minister to declare this research a thing to be a GMO for the purposes of the act, and thus bring this research under the umbrella of the OGTR.

Cloning of entire human beings is banned by current ethical guidelines in all publicly funded research institutions and facilities in Australia. In addition, specific legislative bans that apply to all research on cloning of entire human beings in public and private institutions and facilities are in place in Victoria, Western Australia and, to some extent, South Australia. There is concern that, in states where only the current guidelines are in place, private institutions that are not compelled to abide by such guidelines could theoretically conduct cloning experiments involving both cloning of entire human beings and cloning of embryonic stem cells. This loophole is to be closed with the proposed introduction of a national legislative framework banning cloning of entire human beings that was announced in July this year. Obviously, legislation in this area is highly contentious and raises very major economic, social, moral and ethical issues, and we will consider that at a later date. In the case of human embryo research, known as therapeutic cloning—for example, the use of embryonic stem cells to grow new organs—state legislation in Victoria and Western Australia and current guidelines regulate this research, including the production of embryonic stem cell lines. The problem that exists with the regulation of research in private institutions also occurs in this situation, and the future of such research is currently being dealt with by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs as part of a wider inquiry on cloning.

In terms of the issues that have been identified with the current legislation, there is a range of claimed advantages in respect of the gene technology when applied to crops. They are in brief: firstly, varieties with increased resistance to pests and diseases leading to benefits, including reduced pesticide and herbicide use and consequent reduction in input costs and adverse environmental impacts from chemical use; secondly, new varieties which make better use of soil nutrients leading to reduced fertiliser use; thirdly, reduced labour costs and energy costs; fourthly, improved yields and quality and product that is better adapted to the requirements of the food industry and consumers; fifthly, quicker adaptation of crops to environmental and climatic factors, such as reduced water use, salt resistance and drought tolerance; sixthly, crops which incorporate the nitrogen fixing ability of lucerne, peas and soya into other crops, assisting improvement of soil nutrition and enhancing productivity; and, finally, accelerated breeding of plants with improved characteristics leading to productivity gains, such as the faster growing of trees for wood production and higher quality grains. Time does not permit me to go into them in any further detail.

But there are significant risks associated with gene technology. These risks have been identified as arising from modern genetic manipulation techniques, especially transferring genes from one species to a different species. They include: firstly, the introduction of unidentified allergens into GM food; secondly, the contamination of traditional or organic crops by neighbouring GM crops; thirdly, the inability to eliminate a GMO once it is released and found to have an adverse impact, as observed by the Organic Federation of Australia; fourthly, the increased environmental damage due to increased use of chemicals; fifthly, increased environmental competitiveness of GMOs, creating weeds in the case of plants or pests in the case of animals; sixthly, insect resistant crops adversely affecting non-target insects, exemplified by the study of the impact of transgenic cotton on the monarch butterfly; and, finally, the transfer of genes from herbicide tolerance from GM crops to related species resulting in herbicide resistant weeds. Certainly, my view is that there is sufficient prima facie concern about some of the disadvantages that the precautionary measure that I touched on earlier is one that should be observed in respect of the legislation we are considering.

I would next like to touch on the Tasmanian position, as a senator from Tasmania. This has been an issue of very significant concern and public debate. The Tasmanian government considers that, as a sovereign state, it has the right to decide on the appropriate level of protection for its environment and primary industries, including the right to decide whether GMOs are released in the state and, if so, on what basis. The Tasmanian government, in the interim, has prohibited all further genetic research in this area other than in protected environments such as greenhouses and has indicated that it wants to determine its attitude on a crop by crop basis about the application of genetic engineering as it applies to Tasmania. This is in order to ensure that the current clean, fresh image that is a major marketing advantage to Tasmania is protected as well as the obvious other concerns that I touched on earlier.

It is not a simple issue, however. I observe the Senate Community Affairs References Committee report, which received evidence from a leading agricultural production company on the north-west coast of Tasmania where I live, a company called Serve-Ag—one of Tasmania's most innovative, progressive and fastest growing agricultural companies. They have questioned whether Tasmania has to be totally GM free to enhance the clean, green image and suggested that it did not need to be. Serve-Ag have argued that the products and markets where GM or GM free would be an advantage needed to be considered on a case by case basis. In relation to the Tasmanian agricultural industry, trials have been mainly with canola involving herbicide and disease tolerant strains in poppies involving a strain to produce a greater alkaloid yield.

The complexity of the issue is further exampled by the poppy industry. This industry is unique to Tasmania. We are the only state licensing commercial poppy cultivation for sale to the pharmaceutical industry. We are one of the few areas in the world where this production occurs. Sales are growing rapidly from $23 million in 1996 to an expected $100 million this year, of which 95 per cent is exported. Tasmania accounts for 25 per cent of the global market share of legal poppy production. The cultivation of GE poppies on a commercial scale is not envisaged for at least five years, but the industry does want to explore the technology through limited field trials to ensure that overseas competitors do not gain an advantage over the Tasmanian industry. Whilst there are significant marketing advantages for my home state in ensuring a clean, fresh image, there are some practical issues that do have to be deeply considered. Nevertheless, the Tasmanian government does want to have a say in our own destiny on this particular issue, and it has initiated an inquiry into GM and the parameters and guidelines and has sought, within the parameters of the legislation that we are considering, an ability to opt out of certain provisions in the legislation.

In Tasmania, this issue is certainly of major public concern and discussion. My colleague Senator Denman, who is in the Senate this evening, my colleague in the other place Mr Sidebottom, the member for Braddon, and I circulated a questionnaire—I strongly believe it was appropriately balanced—to the north-west coast, seeking community input and response on the issue of GM. It was the largest single response to any survey that we have circulated in that part of Tasmania. The size of the response was quite staggering—3,000 persons, which I think is a good sized response for any questionnaire.

We asked: do you think genetically modified crops should be grown in Tasmania? Only 13.3 per cent said yes and 75.9 per cent said no. We asked: do you support the Tasmanian government's one-year ban on growing genetically modified crops in the open? 79.7 per cent said yes and 16.5 per cent said no. We further asked: do you think there should be a total ban on growing genetically modified crops in Tasmania? 71.9 per cent said yes and 18.4 per cent said no. We asked: do you support labelling of genetically modified food products? 95.5 per cent said yes. We asked: would you buy genetically modified food if it was cheaper? 11.3 per cent said yes and 75.1 per cent said no. We further asked: do you think you have enough information on genetically modified organisms? Only 12 per cent said yes and 83.7 per cent said no. I think this indicates that there is enormous public concern about the issue of genetic modification. The public do want answers to their questions. They want more information. They want to be involved in the process. This is not an issue on which governments can lead too far from community opinion. There certainly has to be very significant information—and I do emphasise information and education, not a propaganda campaign.

I will conclude my remarks on a positive note. I referred to the Tasmanian concerns, and I am pleased to acknowledge on this occasion that the recent negotiations between the states and the Commonwealth government have resulted—there was a public announcement only yesterday—in an agreement which apparently will be included in the legislation that we are considering. In my home state of Tasmania our Minister for Primary Industries, Water and Environment, Mr Llewellyn, has ensured that amendments will enshrine a fair and reasonable process for Tasmania to deal with its concerns about GMO releases on a case by case regional approach basis. I congratulate the other states, and I congratulate the current Liberal-National Party government for recognising Tasmania's particular position on this issue. The right to opt out from categories of GMO releases in specific regional zones, including the entire state, on marketing grounds is a very important issue in Tasmania.

On the all-important question of environmental impacts, the Commonwealth has agreed that state concerns will be addressed at each stage of the assessment process. The Gene Technology Regulator, which will be established under this bill, will be obliged to accept a state's wish to prevent a release if there was some environmental risk. And Tasmania won a further guarantee: the agreement of the Commonwealth to add to the legislation an appeal provision that would be open to state governments in the unlikely event that the states' concerns were not taken into account. I congratulate our state minister, Mr Llewellyn, for his precautionary approach on this very important issue. It is critical to the future of Tasmania and its agricultural production. I am sure the minister will apply the Tasmanian aspects of the legislation in a considered and thoughtful manner. (Time expired)