Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 8 November 2000
Page: 19365

Senator LUDWIG (10:54 AM) —I rise to speak on the Gene Technology Bill 2000. I note that Senator McLucas has taken the chamber through her participation on the Senate Community Affairs References Committee, whose report is called A precautionary tale: fish don't lay tomatoes—I could perhaps add the rider `yet?' Senator McLucas has taken us through the gamut of the issues about gene technology from Labor's perspective in a thorough way.

There are a number of issues that surround this area that I wanted to talk to this morning. Particularly I wish to outline some of the issues which are contained within the bill itself. I also wish to deal with some of the recommendations that are contained within the report. Lastly, I wish to take the chamber to a related issue about the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. All of these things tend to coalesce into one whole. I guess the underlying phrase that I would use is that it is about ensuring quality control in the new technologies that are being introduced in the world—not only gene technology but others as well.

I will start with the Gene Technology Bill 2000 itself. The Gene Technology Bill 2000 and its related bills seek to regulate gene technology in this country in order to reduce the risk to our society from this new technology. Labor identified some areas of concern with this bill and referred it to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee, as I have stated, for further examination. That committee has now made its report, which contains a substantial number of recommendations. But, more than simply the recommendations themselves, it is a useful report in that it takes us through some of the detail of what gene technology is and it provides an educative process as well.

There are times in the course of human history where technology, invention and innovation leap ahead of social norms and acceptable custom and practice. It does not automatically follow that social mores should move with them. We can safely say that we can examine these issues more closely and get far more considered insight than ever before. That is not to say that we are better placed to be able to do that; perhaps we are better equipped to look at not only the technological aspects of a new invention or innovation but also the wider social, economic and political ramifications.

What is gene technology? Many people have taken a stab at trying to reduce that down to a single phrase, but this morning I will also add to the number of descriptions of what gene technology is. Briefly, it refers to a number of clever methods whereby genetic material—called DNA for short—in the cells of target organisms is altered in very specific ways. Our scientists can choose from the entire gene pool to add, subtract or alter genetic material in the target organism. The result is to strengthen or weaken, as the case may be, genetic coding mechanisms.

A number of issues impact on the outcome. Firstly, matters such as the ethical and religious issues that surround mutilation of DNA, issues about the safety of genetically manipulated foods and the likely effect of genetic modified plants interacting with commercial crops or animal herds and the natural environment need to be considered. There are related issues of privacy. The subsidiary issue related to privacy is commercial-in-confidence and the way that it may be used. This may more appropriately fit into the first issue, ethical and religious issues, but if you take a more holistic view of privacy you will find it pervades the whole debate. People need to be not only confident and knowledgeable about these new technologies but also secure that these issues are being dealt with in appropriate ways and not covered up, hidden or obscured.

Presently, gene technology is regulated in Australia and found in a number of different regulatory bodies. It largely depends on the intended use of the relevant genetically modified organism, or GMO for short. Thus, we have foods regulated under state and territory food acts, and therapeutic goods, including GM therapeutic goods, regulated under the Commonwealth Therapeutic Goods Act 1989, which is administered by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, or TGA.

We have human gene therapy, and both clinical research and marketing of products for human gene therapy. That is also regulated by the TGA. We have agricultural and veterinary chemicals which are regulated through a national scheme, including, but not limited to, industrial chemicals which are regulated through the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme. We also have imports and exports of GM products or GMOs which are regulated under the Quarantine Act. We commonly call the organisation that administers that AQIS. So there we have it, and I suspect that is not all the regulatory authorities that we have in relation to gene technology. In fact, I suspect I have missed some of them and have only caught half of them.

On top of these, we currently have the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee providing advice to these agencies on the biosafety and environmental implications of GMOs. This is a non-statutory body. In addition to the regulatory authorities, the statutory bodies and the non-statutory bodies, the crux of the argument is: where are we now? Nearly 30 per cent of the Australian cotton crop is genetically modified, and millions of hectares are under GM products. There is also the Gene Technology Bill 2000, which seeks to regulate and establish the federal regime of what is hoped to be a nationally consistent scheme for regulating certain dealings with genetically modified organisms. It does not deal with the regulatory regime for therapeutic goods, agricultural, veterinary and industrial chemicals and food containing GMOs. This bill will deal with GMOs, not GM products, as I understand it. Clearly there needs to be a coordinated approach to this issue. Dealing with a very complex matter, the fact is that we are to a large extent heading into uncharted waters.

The issues have been subject to a number of parliamentary inquiries, which Senator McLucas took us through. The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology reported on genetic technology in a report entitled Genetic manipulation: the threat or the glory? This committee recommended that a parliamentary standing committee be given responsibility for examining and monitoring complex issues involving the overlap between technology, law and the protection of individual rights.

Turning to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee report, which is the latest and, I dare say, not the last references or legislation committee looking at this area, as I said in the opening of my address this morning, I will come to a second area dealing specifically with some of the recommendations rather than try to cover all of them in the time available. Homing in on the areas that particularly interest me, I refer to chapter 3 of the recommendations, where the committee recommended that the risk assessment provisions should be amended to give greater weight to the consideration of the impact of the release of GMOs into the environment, especially given Australia's unique flora and fauna and the importance of maintaining Australia's biodiversity. I will come to this issue as well. It is also recognised in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. The same phrase runs through. It is a matter that is extremely important to Australia.

The recommendation also dealt with commercial-in-confidence, as I mentioned earlier, and the problems that might surround that. The committee considered it undesirable that commercial-in-confidence information could compromise the objectives of the bill or the transparency of the regulatory regime. It recommended that the application for an intentional release of a GMO into the environment include the size and location of the proposed release. There is always a concern, and it has to be balanced against the rights of the individual to know what is going on in the environment. There is a concern which was reflected in the bill that perhaps it might lead to people taking adverse positions in relation to crops where they might know the crops are GM, or they might deal with them in an inappropriate manner. But at some point it also has to be not hidden—in other words, there has to be a public release and general information made available to people so that they can effectively understand what is going on.

The committee also recommended that an independent organisation conduct a national public education campaign. When you look at the Senate Community Affairs References Committee report, you can see it has added to that public education campaign. In my view it is not enough. The government needs to ensure that these issues are adequately addressed and well known so that the public debate can continue in an informed and appropriate manner.

I will turn to another area. The committee also recommended that the objects of the bill contain the same words as appear in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 in relation to the precautionary principle, or what is sometimes called the `precautionary approach' or the `precautionary principle or approach' as substituted terms or taken collectively. Turning to that particular issue, I want to explore, in the short time that I have available, the interrelationship between the precautionary principle that is put forward here by Labor—which is one of the matters that has been discussed by Senator McLucas this morning—and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. That also, on a related topic, deals with gene technology, and it is a matter which will interface with the Gene Technology Bill when it is enacted.

It is axiomatic that Australia is an island nation and it is also one of the 12 most biologically diverse countries in the world. I refer particularly to a discussion paper put out in October 2000 called `Preparations for the Intergovernmental Committee for the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety'. The discussion paper was put out by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Environment Australia and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Without going to the document in full—it is some 23 pages in length—I can say it sets out the agenda of the meeting of the ICCP in Montpellier, France between 11 and 15 December this year. The document states:

... the Government is not proposing to consider the issue of whether or not to sign the Protocol at this stage. It will be in a better position to do this when implications of the Protocol for Australia are clearer. At the time when signature is considered, there will be public consultation to ensure that all views are taken into account.

The important point that has to come from that, of course, is that that treaty has been signed by a number of countries. I understand Australia has not signed it as yet. It is open for ratification until June 2001. As of Monday, only one of the countries that have signed had ratified it, and that was Bulgaria.

In the short time available, I will see if I can touch on the essence of what the protocol proposes to do. It is an international instrument specifically touching on environment issues relating to trade in living modified organisms, or LMOs. These are organisms capable of propagation which have been altered through modern biotechnology—that is, genetically modified—such as a range of plants, animals or micro-organisms, including grain and canola. It is not about processed foods derived from LMOs, such as cornflakes. The objective of the biosafety protocol is summarised in the discussion paper:

The objective of the Biosafety Protocol, as set out in Article I is "to contribute to ensuring an adequate level of protection in the field of the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health, and specifically focusing on transboundary movements".

So, as I understand it, the protocol itself includes the precautionary principle taken from the Rio de Janeiro conference. Australia is considering signing. It is going to the conference from 11 to 15 December in Montpellier, France with the position set out in this discussion paper, which reflects that it is not going to argue about whether article 1—which I just quoted from—is correct or not. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety has been signed by a number of countries. Australia is considering whether it will sign it and then, subsequently, ratify it.

At this time, the government has made known that it will regulate the transboundary movements of GM foods. Genetically modified organisms will be dealt with in Australia under the proposed gene technology bills, which will become acts, and they will interface with the Cartagena protocol when we wish to export those products. So, on the one hand, we have a precautionary principle that we should look at in terms of the article and whether we should sign—I will come to the fact that, even if we do not sign, that protocol will be out there and we will have to adhere to it in any event—and, on the other hand, we have the gene technology bills, which do not require as an object the precautionary principle approach.

In my view, you have a clash between the two. If we wish to export, we are going to be subject to the precautionary principle and, if we regulate in our country, we will not. The protocol itself suggests what we should have in Australia in our regulatory approach, which includes a precautionary principle. This government has ignored the issue. Already, we have four LMOs that are currently approved for general release in Australia and that may be exported: a herbicide resistant cotton, a pesticide resistant cotton, a violet carnation and a carnation with a longer life. There is export potential in these commodity areas within five years. Australia may also be exporting genetically modified canola, wheat and other agricultural products.

If we are going to enter the fray in relation to these issues, and if the protocol will be used to support the import regime in major markets abroad, the protocol—as presently ratified by Bulgaria and signed by a number of other countries—will be the overarching protocol that will deal with these areas. This includes, in article 1, a precautionary principle which we have not picked up in our own regulatory scheme in Australia. It is a matter that I hope this government will turn its mind to and will be able to deal with in a meaningful way. The protocol can be expected to have an impact in Australia expressly for exports and for producers of LMOs, irrespective of whether Australia becomes a member or not. (Time expired)