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GM food debate to ignite again -

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A corn product containing unprecedented amounts of genetically modified traits is about to hit our
shores and has critics calling for stronger assessment procedures.

Transcript

KERRY O'BRIEN, PRESENTER: The debate over genetically modified foods is set to erupt again with the
imminent arrival on our shores of a corn product made with an unprecedented amount of GM traits.

Australia's food regulator does not need to specifically approve this new plant and critics of GM
are calling for an overhaul and strengthening of assessing - or assessment procedures.

Mary Gearin reports.

MARY GEARIN, REPORTER: Passion about GM foods is still strong, a decade after they entered the
world's food supply. Witness recent protests about traces of GM found in infant soy formula, and
about Australia's labelling regime. As protesters in North America resist the first genetically
modified animal bred to be eaten.

Now there's a product coming Australia's way that could test consumers' tolerance for GM to an
unprecedented degree. SmartStax is a corn variety with eight genetically engineered traits, the
largest number to date. It's expected to land in Australia early next year, in a range of products,
after it's refined into ingredients such as corn syrup and corn starch, that under current laws
don't need to be labelled as GM.

LAURA KELLY, GREENPEACE: This product was rubber-stamped by our food regulator with no approval
process. So, if you look at the regular GM trait approval process, it's incredibly lax compared to
something like the pharmaceutical testing regime.

STEVE MCCUTCHEON, FOOD STANDARDS AUSTRALIA NZ: The majority of regulatory agencies around the world
on the food side don't require to separately assess stacked varieties.

MARY GEARIN: The Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences companies boast SmartStax is game-changing
technology. Six of the artificially-added genes give the plant protection from a variety of
insects. The other two give it resistance to herbicides, including Monsanto's own roundup.

What has sparked most protest here is the fact that Australia's food regulator, Food Standards
Australia New Zealand, or FSANZ, says there's no need for SmartStax to undergo assessment for
approval because all of its individual GM lines have previously been approved and were
conventionally bred together. The CEO of FSANZ Steve McCutcheon says pre-approval wasn't necessary
even as a precaution.

STEVE MCCUTCHEON: I guess if you're gonna be doing any testing of a food product, for example, or
derived from stacked gene technology, then essentially what you'd be testing is the same material
that you would be testing for the parental lines. Again, the safety assessments and the science as
it currently stands suggest there are no safety issues.

MARY GEARIN: Professor Peter Langridge is CEO of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional
Genomics, which uses genetic engineering to develop new serial varieties. He supports GM as safe
technology that's also good for the environment and he supports Australia's regulatory stance on
SmartStax.

PETER LANGRIDGE, UNI. OF ADELAIDE: We know a lot about the nature of both the genes and their
product and there's no scientific reason to suppose there should be any problem in mixing them
together. So I think this is actually a fairly safe combination of genes.

MARY GEARIN: Dr Judy Carman disagrees. She's a biochemist and epidemiologist conducting independent
feeding studies on GM crops. Dr Carman says the gene stacking of this product carries the same
risks as polypharmacy, when patients mix too many medications and they combine with ill effect.

JUDY CARMAN, INST. OF HEALTH & ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH: On this basis we have clear scientific
evidence that if you start putting different GM genes into the one GM crop, that you are likely to
have a similar polypharmacy type of effect on people. And to assume that that's not going to occur
is I think quite remiss.

MARY GEARIN: Steve McCutcheon says the European food safety authority did consider the interaction
of the genes when it approved SmartStax and that that is enough for it to be considered safe for
Australia.

STEVE MCCUTCHEON: We don't have the resources to able to do the major research projects and
generate the data that are done in, say, North America or Europe. So, in that respect we are a bit
of a follower. But having said that, we do again use very rigorous and robust processes in
Australia to use that work.

MARY GEARIN: Professor Langridge says even though GM science and regulation is safe, there's still
a problem with how the technology is perceived.

PETER LANGRIDGE: I think we do have a bit of a crisis of community confidence in the way in which
technology is developed and being used.

MARY GEARIN: If that's true, isn't FSANZ partly to blame because you are supposed to be producing
well-informed consumers about GM?

STEVE MCCUTCHEON: Sure. Look, I think consumer confidence is very important. In the surveys that
we've done over the years we've tended to find that GM food, and particularly the safety of the
food, is diminishing in terms of importance to consumers.

MICHAEL GILDING, SWINBURNE UNI, DEPUTY DEAN RESEARCH: I think basically at the moment that the
views have stayed the same for about 10 years now and I think the GM companies on agriculture still
have a fair bit of work to do.

MARY GEARIN: Professor Michael Gilding examines public attitudes to biotechnology. His research
doesn't tally with a recent report commissioned by the Government that says 63 per cent of people
accept the general notion of modifying plants for food.

MICHAEL GILDING: People overall are uncomfortable with GM agriculture. A bit under 50 per cent are
uncomfortable, a bit over 30 per cent are comfortable and about 20 per cent are in the middle.

MARY GEARIN: The report to government said half of those opposed to GM would be converted if there
were evidence of no long term harm being caused. But Dr Carman says regulators can't evaluate this
because they rely on data from GM companies themselves and the companies don't test for long-term
effects.

JUDY CARMAN: You know, they don't measure cardiovascular health, they don't feed it to animals for
long enough to develop cancers, they don't do reproductive studies, the allergies studies that are
done are not done on animals.

MARY GEARIN: Why should we be relying on the companies' data?

STEVE MCCUTCHEON: Because the onus is on them to prove that their product is safe and so they've
gotta spend the money, and it's a lot of money, to be able to generate that data, do all the
appropriate tests to provide us with all the information we would need to make a separate
assessment.

MARY GEARIN: FSANZ says the companies' data needs to meet internationally recognised standards.
Neither Monsanto nor Dow would comment for this story on camera, but a spokeswoman for Monsanto
says the company's products meet regulatory authorities' requirements. Paradoxically, Smart Stacks
didn't initially live up to its promise for Monsanto's own bottom line. Preliminary reports that
the relatively expensive seed produced low yields saw the company take a sharp hit on the
sharemarket.

LAURA KELLY: So, it looks like they're a bit of a dud, frankly. They're failing both farmers and
Australian consumers, who just don't really know what they're eating or what impact that could have
on their family.

PETER LANGRIDGE: We need community support for what we're doing. And in many areas of science, and
I think GM is a classic example, we don't have strong community support. And that is a significant
hindrance to us going forward.

KERRY O'BRIEN: That report was from Mary Gearin.