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Wednesday, 8 November 2000
Page: 19362

Senator McLUCAS (10:37 AM) —The introduction of the Gene Technology Bill 2000 is welcomed as an improvement in the regulation of the release of genetically modified organisms in our environment and agricultural sector, although it should be noted that the ALP intend to move amendments which we believe will strengthen the bill. It follows considerable discussion about whether we should allow GMOs into Australia, how the release should be regulated and what impact that decision may have on the environment and on human health.

I am fortunate to have been one of the participating members of the recent Senate inquiry into the Gene Technology Bill 2000. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to read the many submissions and to hear the witnesses to the inquiry. As part of the community debate over GMOs and their release, there have been a number of parliamentary reports done on gene technology, including Work in progress: proceed with caution, the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Primary Industries and Regional Services, and the recently released Senate report, A cautionary tale: fish don't lay tomatoes. These reports have similar recommendations even though they had very different sets of terms of reference, and there is a sense of unanimity over the need for improved regulation of the industry.

It is important that we understand what we are talking about when we talk about gene technology. It refers to a number of methods whereby genetic material or DNA in the cells of target organisms is altered in specific ways. It is possible because there is a similarity between the central biochemical systems of plants, animals, bacteria and fungi. It is a very precise science. A single foreign gene can be introduced into host cells which then decode the new gene along with the natural genes in the DNA. Through gene technology, scientists can choose from an entire gene pool, including taking specific genes from unrelated species, in order to add or alter genetic material in the target organism.

It is very important to note that genetic manipulation is not plant breeding. This is an important difference and one that, I must say, Senator Eggleston seemed to stumble over last night. It is an important difference which is fundamental to this debate and which is sometimes a point of confusion in the community. Many are saying that this gene technology will have enormous positive impacts in agriculture and consequently in feeding the human population. There are also those who advocate that, through the use of GMOs, there will be a positive impact on the environment through the reduced use of pesticides and through smarter farming. There are potential positives for human health through the development of pharmaceuticals. It is true that it is an industry of significant potential opportunity, but it should be recognised that it is also an industry of significant risk.

I would like to make some observations about the process of the Senate inquiry. For me, three main themes emerged from the inquiry process. Firstly, it is very evident that there is enormous concern and distrust within the community about genetic modification. Whilst the measures that have been adopted to label food have been welcomed—although there is still some work to do on the labelling of whole foods—the community is still sceptical about potential human health and environmental impacts of releases of GMOs. This scepticism is not without basis. There have been many examples historically where science has assured us that a proposed change is safe and then subsequently we have found out that the change has had serious and wide-ranging consequences. The committee report recommends the implementation of a factual and unbiased education campaign undertaken by an independent organisation. To encourage effective community participation, people need to be informed of the potential benefits and disbenefits of the technology.

Secondly, the report recommends that the bill be amended to adopt the precautionary principle in its objects. The precautionary principle in essence recognises the need to err on the side of caution when making decisions about the release of GMOs. This recommendation was supported by many farmers, by the conservation sector and broadly by consumer groups. Proponents of gene technology argue that there will be enormous benefits to our community, both from a human health and an economic point of view. This is clearly yet to be proven. The report urges that any development of this technology that is undertaken needs to limit any potential negative impact on the environment, economic wellbeing—especially in the farming community—and on human health. Thirdly, it became extremely evident to me that the current systems in place to regulate the release of genetically modified organisms need strengthening. The report makes a series of recommendations enabling more stringent and rigorous evaluation of applications and monitoring.

The list of those who made submissions to the most recent Senate inquiry provides an indication of those who have an interest in the matter and it is clear that the use of GMOs has a potential effect on all sectors of the community. The concerns held, in many respects, reflect their constituency. In the agricultural sector there are different and in many respects competing concerns held by, say, organic farmers, those who use more contemporary practices and the multinational companies. Generally speaking, the concerns of most genetic researchers are in conflict with those of environmental groups. Ethicists, local government, farmers, producers and suppliers of farm chemicals have a stake as well as us, the consumers. All these players have a stake in the community discussion over the release of GMOs, and it is disappointing that this government and its institutions have not facilitated this necessary and fundamental community discussion. I go so far as to say that the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator has, in fact, stymied public discussion through the overuse of such terms as `commercial-in-confidence'.

I turn now to the bill. The object of the bill is to protect the health and safety of people and to protect the environment by identifying risks posed by, or as a result of, gene technology and by managing those risks through regulating certain dealings with GMOs. This is to be achieved through a national regulatory framework through which GMOs will be assessed for risk and, if benefits outweigh the risk, they will be released under conditions designed to manage any risk. As I have said, this bill is a huge improvement on what already exists, but it still does not go far enough. At present, gene technology is regulated in Australia in a complex and convoluted way with many loopholes.

In dealing with the bill, Labor's objective has been to ensure that this new regulatory regime, as set out in the bill, gives a prime focus to public health and safety, and environmental protection. A key requirement is that the new arrangements command public confidence and be strongly scientifically based. Labor would like to see the regulatory framework strengthened by including a more independent regulator; a more transparent, open and accountable process for approvals; greater community consultation and involvement; a more rigorous system to ensure greater health and environmental safeguards; and the capacity for increased original research in Australia by not setting additional financial barriers. We also need greater certainty and a more affordable system. Our amendments reflect those concerns.

I wish to focus my comments about the ALP's amendments on the issues of community participation, the states' opt-out provision and the precautionary principle. For the reasons I have outlined, I support a much more participatory approach to dealing with the whole GM issue and believe that our amendments will deliver a far more acceptable system for consumers and industry alike. The issue of labelling gained much momentum when it became evident that the government was not going to respond to community pressure. There was a collective sigh of relief when the government responded to that concern and agreed to a formula for the labelling of foods that included genetically modified ingredients.

The introduction of labelling of GM foods will encourage a greater level of community discussion about the safety of such food. Producers and manufacturers of GM food have in the past shied away from their responsibility of playing their part in the food safety debate, instead leaving the role of defending the use of GM product to government or science. The advocates of GM, given that they are the players with the most to win, have the responsibility to placate any potential fears in their consumers.

There is a similar strength of feeling in the community about the release of GMOs as there was about the issue of labelling. To some extent the community's distrust is a consequence of the attitude of the IOGTR and the proponents of GM product. This was the case during the Mount Gambier incident. The evidence that the Senate inquiry received was extraordinary, to say the least. The first the public knew of there having been a serious breach of the GMAC guidelines was a report in the Age. This was not as a result of a release of information from the IOGTR but through the efforts of a vigilant community member we had the fortune to meet during the inquiry.

Ms Leila Huebner told the inquiry that she was interested in environmental affairs and in ethical and moral applications relating to what `should be for the benefit of public health and environmental concerns'. She told the inquiry that she became aware of the existence of the crop through a conversation with her daughter, and she simply got in her car and went and had a look. If it were not for Ms Huebner, it is not clear that the public would ever have known that this breach had occurred. It became clear that the IOGTR knew of the breach some 11 days prior to the Age report and yet did not contact Aventis, the company involved. There was no contact with the journalist from the Age nor with Ms Huebner. Further, the final report of the office was released only after constant pressure from Mr Alan Griffin, Labor's parliamentary secretary with responsibilities in this area. This passage of events gives no confidence to our community.

The events in Queensland where GM cottonseed was mixed with traditional seed involve a similar story. The public found out that there was a breach, once again through the media, with the report of the breach posted on the web site of the IOGTR some two weeks after the media report. This is simply not good enough, and Labor's amendments will ensure greater transparency in the monitoring of GM releases. To achieve that end, Labor will introduce an amendment that will improve the consultative process through the three committees of the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator. Further, the position of the regulator will be amended to expand the position to three individuals and establish the Gene Technology Regulatory Authority as a statutory authority.

Associated with the need to provide the public with better information, the Senate committee recommended that information about the location of trial sites should be made public as part of the approval of a release. This is a sensible recommendation. It once again ensures that the proponent is responsible and prepared to defend their activity on their properties. In fact, Mr Harnett of Tasmanian Alkaloids, the company undertaking trials in poppy cultivation for pharmaceutical purposes, told the inquiry that there needed to be transparency in order to develop the trust of the community. He said:

I think we should declare what we are doing. If people have a problem with that, then they have the right to raise those problems and they should be taken notice of. We do not want to proceed in a secret or clandestine sort of a manner. I think it should be open and debated.

Tasmanian Alkaloids are taking the route of transparency, and it should be noted that they have significant support in their state. This is not to downplay the very real threat of environmental vandalism. We had the event in Queensland this year where vandals destroyed $100,000 worth of pineapples that had been genetically modified. However, it is my view that these events would be far less likely to happen if a transparent and inclusive approach to GM were adopted. Secrecy is more likely to heighten community concerns rather than build community confidence.

The other sector of the community that needs to be included, by providing information about the location and extent of trials, is organic farmers. The committee received strong evidence, once again in Tasmania, that the costs of protecting this organic status will be borne by the farmers themselves—those who are not changing their practices. We were advised that the cost for one small organic farmer would be thousands of dollars annually. In my mind, this is an important reversal of the onus of proof, and this issue needs to be addressed.

I turn now to the issue of the states' opt-out provisions. The discussion of the need to include a provision to allow the states to have the ability to disallow the release of GMOs has been well argued by the Labor government of Tasmania. I am pleased that there has been a resolution of the issue and I congratulate the government for responding to it. I also congratulate the leadership of the Labor Party for facilitating this discussion.

The issue of the precautionary principle has been subject to broad community debate. I am very pleased that my party, the Australian Labor Party, has taken the sensible and responsible option of including the precautionary principle in the objects of the bill. This follows accepted practice in dealing with activities that potentially have disbenefits but cannot be absolutely proven one way or the other. In 1982 the United Nations World Charter for Nature stated:

Activities which are likely to pose a significant risk to nature shall be preceded by exhaustive examination; their proponents shall demonstrate that expected benefits outweigh potential damage to nature, and where potential adverse effect are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed ...

In Australia the precautionary principle has been included in the 1991 Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment and in 1992 was agreed to by the federal and state governments in the Ecologically Sustainable Development Strategy. It was specifically enacted in legislation in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. It is not a new concept. The Australian Centre for Environmental Law in their submission to the inquiry said:

Once released freely to the environment, a living organism, or a novel gene that has transferred to an unintended host, cannot be "recalled". A cautious and conservative approach to risk should be followed where there is insufficient scientific confidence of safety. Successful application of the principle will mean that Australia avoids expensive failures.

There are no absolutes in the game of GM. That was made very clear during the inquiry. It is only sensible and responsible to include the precautionary principle as clear direction to the regulator as to the approach they should adopt.

Yesterday was Melbourne Cup Day, and most Australians had a punt. Most of us lost our money. There was no return, but we were all aware of the ultimate worst outcome—in my case the loss of a few dollars. This is not the case with genetically modified organisms, and that is why the inclusion of the precautionary principle provides some surety to our community and our environment.