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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 37

Senator HURLEY (12:03 PM) —I rise to support the Gene Technology Amendment Bill 2007. The application of gene technology is a contentious issue, and in Australia scientists, regulators and farmers have trod very warily in implementing this new form of technology. That is a very justified caution on the part of people in Australia. Some countries—such as the United States and countries in Europe—have gone more quickly. They have implemented new crops with altered genes. There is debate about whether that has been successful or not. A quick perusal of the internet will find examples of people who believe that there have been disasters as a result of the planting of altered gene crops. But these are refuted by others, so it is in fact difficult for the layman to get any clear indication of where this is heading and how safe alteration of genes in plants and animals is. I like to compare it to the biological controls which have been used for some time. I suppose a lot of people concentrate on some spectacular failures in biological control in Australia. One that continues to have its effects is the cane toad, which was originally introduced to control the cane beetle in Queensland. It was discovered that the cane toads ate not only the cane beetles but also a large number of other things and have spread all through Queensland in almost plague proportions and are now spreading in the Northern Territory and apparently in Western Australia as well and causing difficultly for native wildlife. There are other examples both in Australia and round the world of where scientists in a supposedly controlled environment have introduced an organism to control other organisms and it has gone wrong.

However, by and large that has been very successful in Australia. There are a number of examples that have been and are still being used very successfully in Australia, where biological organisms have been introduced to control plant or animal pests. One example is the use of nematodes, which are used to control slugs, for example, in agriculture. A more well-known example is cactus, which has been more or less wiped out in most parts of Australia. Biological controls over the years have proved to be very successful economically. Even where they have been less successful, they have proven to have a reasonable benefit-to-cost ratio in crop production. The new advances posed by gene technology are very much along similar lines.

We are fortunate in Australia to have the CSIRO and other organisations, such as SARDI—the South Australian Research and Development Institute—which have good expertise in biological control and crop research and other agricultural research. They have a long history of proven, concrete, reliable research and have proved to also have good regulatory controls. I think that gives us great comfort in allowing this slight loosening of the licensing requirement for gene technology and allowing gene technology to be used in emergency situations. We have that background of expertise in leading-edge research and development in our primary industries—which is something that is perhaps not so widely recognised—and in health, where Australian research and technology is very well recognised.

We have been quite right to proceed warily in this area. In general we should support this bill and the amendments to the current Gene Technology Act. Certainly we should not ever let our guard slip, and I suppose that is where the anxiety comes in, in terms of the emergency powers. One situation cited is where emergency powers may be used if there is an avian flu epidemic spreading quickly throughout Australia, causing loss of life or debilitating illness, and where governments and regulators may be panicked into allowing a genetically modified organism into our system that has far more adverse consequences than the original organism. That is a great threat that we should be very aware of and have in the forefront of our minds. Our experience with micro-organisms and the manipulation of micro-organisms is probably not as great as it has been with plant and human health and other large animal health, so I think we need to tread very cautiously in this instance.

There is still a lot we do not know about the behaviour of bacteria and viruses in the body and the way that they might cross over between species. There is still some debate about whether or not or how easily micro-organisms can cross between species and produce disease or various other effects. I think we should certainly err on the side of caution when considering human intervention in these matters. We should always have in the forefront of our minds those relatively few but still potent examples of where biological control has gone wrong in our environment.

That being said, I think a great deal of good work has been done in gene modification technology, both in primary industry and microbiology in Australia and the rest of the world. This is a very exciting new technology that may reap great benefits in our production of food sources, for example. We are all worried about climate change, and this technology may lead to the production of drought resistant crops, crops that are resistant to humidity in some areas and crops that are resistant to extreme cold or extreme heat. Unless there is an abrupt and sudden reversal of what seems to be a change in our world climate, it is difficult to see us juggling the requirements of an expanding population and expanding the need for resources without some form of gene technology to assist us. I know that this is anathema to some people who do not like to interfere to any extent in our ecology, but it is difficult to see how we might advance into the future without some use of that technology to relieve widespread problems in adapting to the change in our world climate and conditions, both in human health terms and in animal terms.