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.
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:
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.”
Last Sunday Craig Cormich from Biotechnology Australia speaking on ABC radio made the following comment about GM in our supermarkets:
According to the supermarket chains, although they are often on the receiving end of anti-GM campaigns about their foods, there has been little to no diminution in sales of those foods that are labelled as containing GM ingredients.
Could this be put down to consumers simply not being able to find the fact that the food has a GM ingredient on the label? Perhaps. But at the deli counter in Woolworths, all across Australia, there are usually two or three types of sliced chicken loaf that is clearly labelled “contains genetically modified soy” on a plastic label, standing up by the meat. It is clear and prominent, and I make it a habit of always asking the person in the deli, wherever I travel, whether anybody comments or complains about the GM ingredients. Invariably I'm met with a blank look and the response that nobody seems fussed about it.
I checked Cormick’s claim by visiting my local Woollies. The deli does stock chicken loaf, but there was no GM soy written on a plastic label. So I asked if I could have some chicken loaf with GM soy. On hearing my request the young man behind the counter immediately called the store manager. She arrived with a large red folder.
“What do you want to know about chicken loaf?” she asked.
I said I wanted to buy some chicken loaf that contained GM soy. She found chicken loaf in the folder.
“There is no GM soy in our chicken loaf,” she said.
“Do your donuts contain GM?” I asked.
The store manager rummaged through the folder again. While reading from a page of small print she announced with some pride, “Yes, genetically modified soy is a listed ingredient of the donuts that come in the six-packs with icing sugar”.
“Do you get many requests for GM products?” I asked.
“No,” she replied, “What is it?”
“How long have you been managing this store?” I asked.
“Three months,” she replied, again with some pride.
I reckon, that if Greenpeace can’t get a Woollies store manager interested in their campaign, they have more or less lost it. Then again Greenpeace could never honestly claim to have been running a “Keep Australia GE free” campaign because there has been GM product on the supermarket shelves for longer than the campaign has been running.
Greenpeace campaigning has, however, successfully and significantly reduced the competitiveness of Australian canola growers. Indeed GM crops offer the only real solution to continued high agricultural productivity and cost competitive food and fibre production. The ideological opposition to the commercial production of GM food crops is extremely damaging to our farm sector.
I can buy donuts made from GM soy at my local supermarket and I can be sure that the soy is imported - that I am not buying Australian-grown.
It really is time for Greenpeace to move on and accept the opportunities presented by the new GM technology - accept that their campaign is doomed.
I would join Greenpeace in a campaign for a new Australian GM beer. A large Australian brewer already has the technology to produce a special low calorie GM beer. If I could drink diet beer, I might feel less guilty eating the six donuts.