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Friday, 15 November 2002
Page: 6538


Senator CHERRY (2:57 PM) —by leave—I move amendments (1), (2) and (R5) on sheet 2606 Revised:

(1) Schedule 1, page 3 (after line 14), after item 2, insert:

2A Subsection 3(1)

Insert:

cost-benefit analysis means a written report prepared in accordance with the Department of Finance Handbook of Cost-benefit Analysis (1991),as in force from time to time.

(2) Schedule 1, page 3 (after line 14), after item 2, insert:

2B Subsection 3(1)

Insert:

genetically modified plant means a plant variety that is a genetically modified organism, as defined in the Gene Technology Act 2000.

(R5) Schedule 1, page 5 (after line 14), after item 6, insert:

6A At the end of subsection 26(2)

Add:

; (k) in the case of an application for a genetically modified plant—the results of a cost-benefit analysis undertaken by the applicant; and

(l) the results of any tests conducted on the plant variety; and

(m) information as to whether the variety has previously been released; and

(n) information as to whether the variety has established itself in the wild; and

(o) information as to whether the plant variety is likely to become an invasive species if released in Australia; and

(p) details of the precise indigenous community or origin of the variety or species; and

(q) details regarding historical and current indigenous customary uses of the variety or species; and

(r) details regarding any traditional knowledge, innovations and practices relating to the variety or species; and

(s) details regarding any indigenous rights and interests in ownership, including native title rights and interests (including whether the variety or species is found on lands that are subject to native title or in respect of which native title has been granted).

Amendments (1), (2) and (R5) institute a requirement that all holders of plant breeders rights for genetically modified plant varieties prepare a cost-benefit analysis based on the Department of Finance and Administration guidelines. This is intended to ensure that the social, cultural, environmental and economic costs associated with the release of genetically modified plants are assessed rather than a simplistic economic assessment based on the degree of commercial use. It is intended to ensure that we understand the implications of new plant varieties on markets and that we determine to the extent possible the viability of these markets as well. It is important to understand the financial implications of granting a right to which financial benefits may accrue.

One of our fundamental issues with the Plant Breeder's Rights Act is the extent to which it provides rights without responsibilities. We understand that, to the extent that this act parallels patent law, it is simply about the registration of a right. However, that argument fails to recognise the extent to which that registration has the potential to impact on the rights of others. A new plant variety is not a new steak knife and not a new refrigerator—it is a living organism. It may derive from wild or traditionally used species. It may have the potential to impact on other living organisms or on habitats or species through contamination or displacement. It may impact on markets and trade.

Before granting a right, it is imperative that we understand the implications of the use and the release of that living organism. Amendment (2) defines a genetically modified plant, relying on the definition from the Gene Technology Act 2000. Amendment (R5) refers to the information that must be included in the plant breeders rights application. In addition to a cost-benefit analysis for genetically modified plants, the amendment requires disclosure of any relevant information relating to the potential for a new plant variety to become an invasive species if released in Australia and information regarding any indigenous use of the plant from which the plant variety is derived.

The Australian Democrats believe these amendments are particularly important because the current approval process for genetically modified crops through the Gene Technology Regulator does not look at the issue of economic costs; it looks purely and solely at the impacts on health and the environment. These impacts are very important, and the analysis is based correctly on the science of the effects. However, we believe there needs to be a full and proper debate in Australia about the costs and benefits of genetically modified crops before the approval of such crops in Australia. This is particularly important, and these amendments are particularly timely, given that the Gene Technology Regulator is currently considering two applications for the commercial release of genetically modified canola.

Australia, like the United States, has been one of the countries most devoted to the introduction of genetically modified crops. There have been a number of quite damning reports on and studies of the impacts and dangers of genetically modified crops— studies such as the very recent British Soils Association study, which found that American producers since 1999 have lost about $12 billion through lost revenues and additional costs due to lower crop prices, loss of major export markets and product recalls. The Australian Grain Harvesters Association have expressed deep concern at the potential cost to their industry of introducing genetically modified crops against the wishes of many farmers, who do not want machinery shifting between GM and GM-free farms and zones. A British medical report on possible health implications of genetically modified crops, including the potential reduction in the effectiveness of antibiotics to fight diseases such as meningococcus, is also on the record.

More recently, the European Union have commissioned research on the cost of segregating GM and GM-free areas, which they estimate could cost up to 10 per cent of the harvest return to the farmers involved. The Productivity Commission only last Friday released a report on the trade implications of genetically modified crops. Whilst the assumptions in the report are absolutely mind-bogglingly extraordinary, the analysis and summary of the reports it canvassed are quite interesting and would be of concern to anybody who believes Australia needs to think carefully before going down the GM route. Only yesterday the trade minister, Mr Vaile, signalled that the labelling of GM foods in Australia could be one of the items we could relax even further, under pressure from the Americans.

These are all issues that Australia needs to consider very carefully. We need to ensure that, before we go down the North American track of allowing the granting of genetically modified crops, we have done the research. The Plant Breeder's Rights Act is probably the best place to do it, because it is through that that the royalties will be collected on the plant varieties which will be introduced. Without the royalties, obviously, the incentives will not be there for the seed companies to introduce those crops; and, without the incentives, we might be excused some of the excesses we have seen in North America and Canada.

We need to ensure that we keep our access to those markets that do not want genetically modified foods, particularly Europe and Japan, where resistance to GM crops is rising rather than falling. In fact, some of the research referred to by the Productivity Commission showed that the premiums in those markets were as high as 50 to 100 per cent of the prices gained in other markets. This is why the Democrats believe it is important both that the cost-benefit analyses are done and that they are done before the seed companies are able to collect any economic benefit in terms of plant breeders rights, and that is why we are moving these amendments. I commend them to the Senate.