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We need to take five and consider the future of our GE-free reputation

By Bob Phelps - posted Wednesday, 13 August 2003

On July 25, Australia's Office of Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) granted a licence for the national release of seven varieties of genetically engineered (GE) canola to corporate giant Bayer, without conditions. Despite the licence being issued, no commercial GE canola can be planted until next March as this season's sowing-time has passed. This provides the community with a small window of opportunity to say "no" to the crop.

The OGTR claims to have found no environmental, public health or safety reasons not to grant the licence. The herbicide-tolerant crops are engineered to survive being over-sprayed with Bayer's "Liberty" poison, more often and at higher doses to kill weeds quicker. Monsanto also wants a licence to sell Roundup-tolerant canola. Direct environmental impacts include more chemical residues in soil and food, and weeds that are more difficult and expensive to manage as canola is already a weed.

GE canola will also contaminate grain-supply chains, imposing costs for testing and segregation on GE-free grain growers and marketers. At risk is Australia's reputation for clean, green GE-free foods that ensures access to most markets. Food buyers everywhere prefer GE-free foods, giving Australia a marketing edge that should not be sacrificed to the false promises of GE crops or foods. The organic industry, with a zero threshold for GE contamination, risks losing its certification.


Bayer and Monsanto have offered no evidence that their GE canola varieties can deliver benefits to anyone except themselves. Yet the Australian government sides with our main competitors in world markets - the corporate owners of patented GE technologies and the US government that backs them. Australia's acceptance of GE products is on the agenda of the Australia/US Free Trade negotiations. The US wants Australia to:

  • dismantle its GE food labelling laws, even though they are weak;
  • compromise strong quarantine standards which may hamper trade;
  • refuse to sign or ratify the international Biosafety Protocol; and
  • back a US challenge in the WTO to the EU's GE crop, food and label laws.

GE-free food for markets

Since 1996, US and Canadian grain exports to Europe have fallen, from lack of confidence in gene technology products. Thus, Australia's GE-free produce gained new markets. About 15 per cent of Australian canola production (362,000 tonnes) went to Europe last year. US corn sales in Europe also plunged from 3 million tonnes in '96/97 to near zero last year, after GE crops were introduced.

Australia's multi-billion dollar grain and oilseed industries are also at risk if GE canola is grown here:

  • Europe and Japan could refuse Australian Wheat Board shipments;
  • Saudi Arabia warned the Barley Board that purchases may end;
  • Japan says farmed tuna fed on GE grain could wipe out our sushi market;
  • Australian food processors go GE-free, in response to shopper demand;
  • the Grain Harvesters Association wants Bayer and Monsanto to indemnify them against liability; and
  • the organic industry seeks compensation for losses from GE contamination.

Aware of these threats, on July 31 Australia's eight state and territory (all ALP) governments confirmed their powers to establish local and state-wide GE-Free Zones. Under the law, the OGTR is banned from licensing GE releases in GE-free Zones. All canola-growing states decided to ban GE food crops, at least this year:

  • Tas: until 2008;
  • NSW: until 2006, but with Ministerial discretion to vary the ban;
  • WA: is debating a Bill for a five-year ban, backed by an inquiry report;
  • SA: this year only, but an inquiry recommends some GE-free Zones;
  • Vic: this year only, with an inquiry into markets; and
  • ACT: the Health Committee backs a five year freeze.

At present most of Australia is still GE-free. Just 30 per cent of the cotton crop in Northern NSW and Southern Queensland is GE, and some carnations also contain foreign genes that make the flowers blue or last longer in the vase.

GeneEthics and other public interest groups now seek a new consensus among all parties, that a national five-year freeze on all commercial GE crop releases is necessary. However, both Queensland and the Northern Territory are eager to set up a cotton industry across Australia's North. It would be based on Monsanto's two-gene Bt cotton, which produces its own insecticide. This crop makes the false promise of "chemical-free" farming. Instead, this GE crop may allow the most destructive and polluting rural industry into the continent's most fragile and valuable environments.

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About the Author

Bob Phelps is Executive Director of Gene Ethics.

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