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Generically Manipulated Optimism: fast track for GMOs

By Bob Phelps - posted Sunday, 15 October 2000

The Australian government’s efforts to push genetically engineered (GE) crops and foods onto farms and our dinner tables has been stalled by public mistrust. Unauthorised releases, weak regulatory options, empty promises and PR posing as education have made people very wary about GE in both the cities and country.

The federal government’s disinformation campaign organisation, Biotechnology Australia, was set up a year ago with $10 million from the public purse to promote the benefits of GE. Transnational public relations firm Turnbull Porter Novelli is advising Biotechnology Australia on its $7.4 million public awareness strategy.

The first of a series of forums was held in South Australia to calm public disquiet soon after the unauthorised release of GE canola plants near Mount Gambier by the transnational agrochemical giant, Aventis. Canola harvested from the Aventis site was left in a roadside dumpster and on the local tip, recklessly flouting the conditions for safe disposal of this material.


The company had not even told the farmer the crop was genetically engineered, using misleading terms such as "hybrid". Local councils and neighbouring farmers were also not informed of the location of the plantings.

Biotechnology Australia is orchestrating a concerted push for maximum media coverage of their pro-GE views. This needs to be met with strong public opposition through letters to newspapers, contributions to talk-back radio, letters to politicians and all other means of showing concern. Last year Aventis, and its corporate competitor Monsanto, grew nearly 2,000 hectares of herbicide-tolerant canola at almost 200 sites across Australia. The Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee (GMAC) ruled that 400m wide "buffer zones" must be established around each GE site. These will have been totally ineffective because international research shows canola pollen can travel up to 6 km to infect other canola crops. This means that seed harvested from canola crops within a 6 km radius could contain foreign herbicide-resistance genes. Canola pollen can also cross-fertilise related plants such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and many common weed species to enter the food chain and environment through these plants.

GE canola also threatens organic and "GE-free" markets, which may be destroyed if GE pollen drifts into certified crops. Despite GMAC’s recommendation against these herbicide tolerant crops being approved for general release, much of the canola was exported for commercial use. Now GMAC is set to recommend the planting of a further 2,200 hectares of GE canola by the same companies.

Australian governments will establish an Office of Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) by 3rd January 2001 to replace the GMAC advisory system which is unenforceable and open to abuse. The Aventis canola fiasco was only the latest of thirteen unauthorised releases.

Yet the Government’s draft Bill for the OGTR merely enshrines the failed GMAC system in law, giving the OGTR a minor gap-fill role. A roadmap guides people through a maze of existing product regulators, such as the Australia and New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA), the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), or the Quarantine Service (AQIS) which would continue to receive proposals, with the OGTR as a backup. Many uses of GE would be exempt and most others will continue under guidelines. The Senate Committee on Community Affairs is now reviewing the Gene Technology Bill 2000 and invites public comments.

My organisation, GenEthics, has an alternative model. It would establish a ‘One Stop Shop’ where all applications to use GE processes or release their products would be submitted directly to the OGTR.


The OGTR would co-ordinate an integrated, user-friendly, and transparent system to ensure the mandatory assessment, monitoring and licensing of all GE activities. Environment Australia would do pre- and post-release environmental assessments and audits under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

If GE products are to be forced into our food supply and environment, comprehensive labelling of these products should also be mandatory and immediate. A decision on the labelling of foods produced using gene technology was made at the end of July.

State and federal health ministers decided that some foods would be labelled but additives, processing aids and refined foods produced using gene technology are exempt.

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About the Author

Bob Phelps is Executive Director of Gene Ethics.

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