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Greenpeace anti-GM campaign doomed

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Monday, 15 August 2005


Greenpeace campaigning has resulted in bans on the commercial planting of new genetically modified (GM) canola varieties by Australian farmers. So all Australian-produced canola should be GM-free. Last month, however, Bayer Crop Sciences confirmed that minuscule, but detectable quantities, of GM material were present in Victorian canola ready for export to Japan. A few weeks later Western Australian canola was found to be also contaminated with GM material.

It is unclear how the Australian canola became contaminated. Bayer has field trials of GM canola in Victoria. However, the contaminant, Topas 19/2, is not in the GM canola currently grown in the Bayer trials. A more likely source is one of the many current conventional canola breeding programs that exchange germplasm with overseas companies. It is possible through this exchange that the Topas 19/2 was accidentally introduced.

Topas 19/2 includes a gene from a soil bacteria that confers herbicide resistance. The same gene, known as the pat gene, has been used as a marker in a wide range of research in a variety of crops around the world.

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Greenpeace campaigner Jeremy Tager, however, claimed, “this is the most serious genetic contamination event that Australia has ever faced ... and the response from state governments in the coming days will determine their commitment to upholding Australia's GE free status”. (GE is the Greenpeace acronym for “genetically engineered” another name for GM.)

What is so serious? There are no human health risks and no serious environmental risks.

At risk is the GM free status of our canola exports. But it is unclear what benefits the GM free status actually confers. Australian farmers are competing in international markets against Canadian producers growing superior yielding GM varieties. A Melbourne University study (pdf file 109KB) has indicated that if Australian farmers were able to grow GM canola they would reduce costs, increase productivity and be using an environmentally safer herbicide.

At most risk is the Greenpeace campaign to keep Australia GM free. But this campaign was doomed from the start.

While food icon Margaret Fulton repeated the “keep Australia GE free” theme at the launch of the Greenpeace “True Food” campaign in 2003 supermarket shelves were already stocking (pdf file 54KB) GM.

The Greenpeace “True Food” website confirms our GE status:

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Currently in Australia, the GE ingredients in our food are derived from four main crops: imported canola, corn (or maize), and soy, local and imported cottonseed products.

These GE ingredients are commonly found in processed items such as bread, pastries, snack foods, baked goods, vegetable oils, margarine, flours, starches, sauces, fried foods, soy foods, lecithin, sweets, soft drinks and sausage skins. But GE ingredients can take many forms. Just one of these ingredients, soy, can be found in up to 60 per cent of all processed food - sometimes as soy flour, sometimes as soy oil, sometimes as smaller ingredients such as lecithin. Corn is also widely used in processed foods - look out for corn starch, corn flour, corn oil as well as more hidden ingredients such as maltodextrin.

Foods containing GM material are everywhere. There is even a Swedish brewer promoting a beer made from GM maize. According to the Kenth beer website: “The master brewer’s ultimate objective was, of course, to produce a great beer, but also one that is a symbol of new technology and new thinking. A few years ago, information technology was the embodiment of all that was new. Today, genetic technology is the brightest star on the horizon.”

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About the Author

Jennifer Marohasy is a senior fellow with the Institute for Public Affairs.

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