Gene Technology (New South Wales) Bill
Gene Technology (Gm Crop Moratorium) Bill
Debate resumed from an earlier hour.
The Hon DUNCAN GAY (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) [2.34 p.m.]: Given earlier debate on the Gene Technology (New South Wales) Bill, it has probably escaped the notice of some honourable members that this bill is cognate with the Gene Technology (GM Crop Moratorium) Bill—an issue to which the Minister referred in his second reading speech. When this legislation was introduced in the lower House the then shadow Minister for health said that the Opposition would not oppose it. The only difference now is that that the Gene Technology (New South Wales) Bill is cognate with the Gene Technology (GM Crop Moratorium) Bill. The objects of the Gene Technology (New South Wales) Bill are to adopt in this State a uniform Australian approach to the regulation of genetically modified organisms.
The Coalition does not oppose the legislation. We believe it is essential to have a national regulatory regime for this important and contentious issue. The new regulatory scheme involves the adoption and application of the Commonwealth gene technology laws by the States and Territories. This bill, which is the New South Wales component of the nationally consistent regulatory scheme, follows the Commonwealth Gene Technology Act and the Gene Technology (Licence Charges) Act, which commenced in June last year. The Commonwealth gene technology legislation provides for the establishment of the gene technology regulator, an independent decision maker on licence applications who reports directly to the Commonwealth Parliament. The Gene Technology Ministerial Council has now been established to oversee the operation of the gene technology regulator, and to issue policy principles and guidelines. That council comprises Ministers from the Commonwealth and each State and Territory.
Under the legislation all activity involving genetically modified organisms is prohibited unless the activity is an exempt dealing or notifiable low-risk dealing licensed by the regulator or entered on the register of genetically modified organisms. In considering licence applications the gene technology regulator will undertake scientific risk assessment in consultation with interest groups. The regulator will undertake research on risks posed by genetically modified organisms, monitor activities involving genetically modified organisms. At the moment the regulator who occupies the position is a woman, and rightly so. She has a broad range of enforcement powers. The gene technology legislation establishes three gene technology committees. The first is the Gene Technology Technical Advisory Committee, which provides scientific and technical advice to the gene technology regulator on each licence application.
The second is the Gene Technology Community Consultative Committee, which provides community views. The third is the Gene Technology Ethics Committee, which provides advice on ethics, guidelines and prohibitions. The Commonwealth legislation bans the cloning of human beings and certain human animal cell experimentation. Those prohibitions were included as an interim measure until the States had nationally consistent legislation in place to comprehensively ban cloning of human beings. The New South Wales Government has previously indicated that it believes the national scheme has significant advantages over each State and Territory establishing its own regulatory system. The Coalition does not disagree with that position. Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia and Victoria have already introduced legislation to implement the national scheme. It is entirely appropriate that New South Wales joins those States and the Commonwealth in enacting this legislation. As I indicated earlier, the Coalition supports the Gene Technology (New South Wales) Bill. I last spoke in debate on these cognate bills prior to question time, the suspension of the sitting for lunch and the introduction of other legislation.
Since then consultation has taken place between Government, crossbench and Opposition members, and I acknowledge that the Government has generously accepted the suggestion that the Committee stage of the bill should not occur until next Tuesday, given that the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator will not take any action until at least 9 June and probably not before 19 June. To that end, I thank the Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, who is at the table, his staff and the Leader of the Government in this place for their assistance. I think it is important that we take as much time as we can—within the constraints of the deadlines we all face—to consider legislation such as this in a bipartisan manner. We must get this bill right. We must guarantee the policy of zero contamination and protect our markets.
I am concerned about buffer zones. I would like to see buffer zones of at least 400 metres, preferably 800 metres, between GM and non-GM crops. I had some difficulty finding information on this subject—what information I have is gathered partly from seminars—but I acknowledge that views about buffer zones vary widely. For example, some protocols recommend buffer zones of only five metres. I do not pretend to be an expert in this area—far from it. I would like to see the establishment of a committee of experts who could formulate properly the correct buffer zone protocols. A balanced group would comprise those people named in the Minister's press release and representatives of organisations that I have mentioned in my contribution today, such as the Grain Harvesters Association and the Australian Wheat Board. Such a committee could produce effective regulations to protect farmers from any possible problems.
I am concerned about the proposal to plant 5,000 hectares of trial crop. That is an extraordinarily large area. It would be difficult to control, supervise and evaluate such a crop properly. I believe the trial planting should be about 1,000 hectares—perhaps even less. I understand that in the first year companies will probably be unable to plant more than 100 hectares given that it is late in the season and the recent season was not terrific for any crops, GM or non-GM. I gather that only one person will want to plant in the first year and that another will join in later. Some honourable members who speak in this debate will advocate planting smaller trial crops, and concerned farmers across the State have put it to me that smaller trials would be better. However, given that it will be difficult to scrutinise and enforce the policy of zero contamination, I believe we would be better having a lesser number of larger individual trials. In other words, rather than having 100 9-hectare trials it would be better to have 10 90-hectare trials. That is a commonsense way of protecting the interests of the people of this State.
We believe in that philosophy very strongly. We believe also that the representatives that I have mentioned should be included on the ministerial advisory committee. We appreciate that in order to gauge the effect on markets a critical mass of grain must be harvested from the GM crop trials. That is essential if proper appraisal is to occur. However, we have said from the outset that we must ensure that the trials are not used as a de facto commercial release. We plan to move amendments in Committee to enshrine in legislation the status of the ministerial committee. It must be able to put its guidelines into effect through the Minister. We think that is important and it is the proper way to proceed.
The Opposition is not closing the door on a potential commercial release of GM material in the future. We are simply saying: not yet. We have never said never. As one farmer commented to me, it is not so much a moratorium as a postponement until we are sure of the effects on our markets. We must not take any steps from which we cannot retreat that will adversely affect our potential overseas markets not only in canola but also in wheat, sheep and cattle. The Opposition will support both the bills. Although we believe the provisions are inadequate, they impose a moratorium of sorts and we would contradict our election policy if we were to oppose them.
Mr IAN COHEN [2.47 p.m.]: The Greens are pleased that the Government is honouring its promise made prior to the last election to suspend the production of genetically modified food crops until at least 2006. However, the Greens have serious concerns about the interpretation of the moratorium as proposed in the Gene Technology (GM Crop Moratorium) Bill 2003 and the loopholes that could permit the planting of genetically engineered food crops. The Greens, environment, consumer and farmer groups are concerned that the bill as it stands contains serious loopholes that may undermine the Government's original intention to impose a three-year moratorium in spite of massive community concerns about the risks associated with genetically modified crops.
I was pleased to hear from the Deputy Leader of the Opposition that the Government does not intend to proceed today to the Committee stage of the bill. Many complex issues must be considered and Parliamentary Counsel is still preparing numerous amendments. My office received advice from the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator that it would not be prepared to collate all the information provided by the many people who have made representations on these issues until at least 9 June. It will only then make some clear decisions regarding that information. Therefore the time pressure is no longer so acute and I am pleased to hear—albeit indirectly via the Opposition—that the Government is prepared to have the second reading debate today and to proceed to the Committee stage next week, which is still well within the time limitations that apply to this important legislation.
The legislation as it stands does not provide for a moratorium. What it will achieve is total discretion in the Minister to decide whether he will declare a moratorium. It does not state which crops will have a moratorium on them. If the Minister decides to declare a moratorium on a crop it will be done so by an order printed in the Government Gazette. There will be no parliamentary oversight and no possibility of this Chamber disallowing the decision of the Minister. Apart from this giant loophole in the legislation there is still an even bigger one. The legislation allows the Minister to provide for exemptions at his whim for trial crops. New South Wales Farmers want a 5,000 hectare trial canola crop to be allowed under this legislation, which just happens to be the same size as the crop currently being considered by the Gene Technology Regulator. The executive of New South Wales Farmers and their friends in the genetic engineering industry declare that this 5,000-hectare crop is a market trial and farmers told us yesterday that they need to be able to walk around the crop. This 5,000-hectare crop is clearly a commercial crop and if allowed by way of exemption by the Minister it would make a mockery of the Government's stated intention of declaring a moratorium.
Will the Minister, who is strongly in favour of genetic engineering, assure this House and the public that he will not allow so-called trial crops of this size? If so, will the Minister back this up by supporting amendments closing the loopholes? The Greens believe—I am sure the majority of the community would agree—that a moratorium actually means there is to be a prohibition on the growing of all GE food crops, including GE trials, such as the moratorium recently announced by the Victorian Government which does include a prohibition on genetic engineering¯
The Hon. Ian Macdonald: That is not right.
Mr IAN COHEN: The Minister says that is not the case. However, I have received that information and I am certainly open to be informed of any changes in the situation. If the Victorian moratorium is somewhat different, that does not change the Greens unequivocal position supporting a moratorium in the true sense of the word. I thought the Minister would understand what a moratorium means given his personal history of activities in society years ago. The Greens stay with that concept but I will be open-minded about any press release from Victoria about the nature of the moratorium. Unfortunately the bill does not propose a moratorium at all but simply gives the Minister the discretionary power to make an order to prohibit the planting of certain GE food crops if he so chooses on the one hand, and on the other it gives him the power to make exemptions to that order to allow for so-called GE trial crops of an unspecified size to go ahead. Before I began my contribution to this debate I put to the Minister that there is no specification of the intended size of the trial, and that is something the Greens want resolved if trials are to be a part of this so-called moratorium.
The bill provides no mechanism for genuine community participation, no reassessment of the moratorium after three years as promised by the Premier and an inadequate ministerial advisory council which is clearly biased towards the pro-GE lobby and to ensuring canola is planted by exemption. The Government's press release of 3 March announced the moratorium but made no mention of allowing GE trial crops to proceed. The only exclusion the Government referred to is GE cotton because it is essentially a non-food crop and is already extensively grown in New South Wales. This may be a reasonable compromise but I remind honourable members that GE cottonseed oil is extensively used in blended vegetable oils without the public's knowledge and GE cottonmeal is also included in animal products which are fed to cattle.
According to the new European Union GE labelling laws, New South Wales meat would need to be labelled to indicate that animals had been fed with GE product. I believe New South Wales is jeopardising its meat trade by allowing animals to feed on genetically engineered products, and I am certain that once consumers actually have an unambiguous choice in the supermarket through fair labelling, the real market for GE food will be exposed. It was interesting that in submissions to the crossbenches yesterday the non-GE farmers said that GE cotton trash fed to cattle is so much cheaper that it makes it very difficult for them to use non-GE cotton trash. I wonder whether it is just the productivity cost or whether the restrictions that have to be undertaken to guarantee the non-GE nature of the material is increasing the price artificially.
The Gene Technology (GM Crop Moratorium) Bill is essentially a trust-me piece of legislation and it is not what the Government promised the community. It would be reasonable for the community to conclude at this stage that it has been dudded on the promise for a three-year GE moratorium. I hope that the Minister has some good news to tell us about the details and timing of his first order to at least reassure the community that he is genuine. The Greens have a number of problems with both cognate bills today, which I will detail in the course of my speech. I will also foreshadow amendments that the Greens and other crossbenchers propose to address these serious flaws.
Honourable members will recall the Gene Technology (New South Wales) Bill came before this House last year. At that time a joint crossbench letter signed by all but one of the crossbench members at the time—it was not signed by the Hon. John Tingle who instead made a personal call on the Premier on the issue—asked that the bill be delayed in order to allow time for the completion of the Standing Committee on State Development inquiry into genetically modified food. An interim report from the inquiry was finally released but the inquiry did not complete its task. It is fair to say that the inquiry raised more questions than it answered and we are still no clearer today about how the risks associated with the introduction of genetically engineered crops will be eliminated in New South Wales. Having participated in the inquiry and having listened to serious concerns raised by farmers and consumers, I believe it would be extremely unwise for any government to proceed with the introduction of genetically engineered food crops without further consultation with the community. I hasten to add this is why most States are probably introducing GE moratorium legislation. Surely that signals a lack of confidence in the Gene Technology Regulator's assessment process as well.
The Greens will move an amendment to enshrine the Government's Advisory Council in legislation and ensure it has balanced representation and undertakes thorough community consultation in its deliberations and advice to the Minister. This will be an essential forum for ongoing debate over the next three years. While the Greens have serious reservations and do not support the introduction of genetically engineered food crops at all, we recognise that because gene technology has moved ahead at such an unbridled pace in New South Wales and Australia, it is vital that a rigorous and transparent regulatory regime is firmly in place. The Gene Technology (New South Wales) Bill formalises those arrangements between New South Wales and the Commonwealth Gene Technology Regulator and the operation of the national scheme in New South Wales. However, by adopting this mirror legislation we also inherit the shortcomings of the Commonwealth Gene Technology Act. The Greens will move amendments in the Committee stage to address some of the fundamental problems associated with the Commonwealth GE legislation. On 3 March the Premier announced in his press release that:
Both farmers and environmentalists are concerned about the possible effects of planting GM food crops. I support the nationally consistent approach to the regulation of gene technology set up by the States and the Federal Government through the Gene Technology Act 2000. But it cannot be left to the Federal Gene Technology Regulator to approve these crops that can be released commercially in NSW.
I wholeheartedly agree with the Government on this point. We must not give away our right to choose whether GE crops will be grown in New South Wales. Despite the stated position of New South Wales Farmers, any general release of GE canola should be postponed until all segregation and trade issues are addressed. They still argue for large-scale crop trials—up to 5,000 hectares, no less—to simulate commercialisation of GE canola. The Greens believe that such commercial trials would be a perversion of the concept of scientific and safety trials. It is no coincidence that the current application before the Gene Technology Regulator is for a 5,000-hectare commercial GE canola crop. This is a blatant attempt to rebrand a commercial application as a trial, to gain backdoor approval and open up an avenue to circumvent the Premier's promised moratorium.
A moratorium in no uncertain terms is critical at this stage. Many powerful vested interests are pushing to have GE crops released in New South Wales. This was clearly indicated on the Insight investigation "Canola: Ready or not?" on SBS last week. It is evident that Monsanto's money is behind much of the so-called independent research on the benefits of GE crops. The company's fingerprints can be found all over so-called independent industry advisory bodies, such as Agrifood Awareness and AvCare. It even pays farmers to travel round the world espousing the dubious virtues of its products. It is terrible that Australia does not have independent, objective, scientific investigation undertaken by government so that it is free of the purse strings of industry. That is absolutely essential.
The Hon. Rick Colless: Hear! Hear!
Mr IAN COHEN: I appreciate the support for that concept by the Hon. Rick Colless of the Coalition. We have lost a lot when we lose such independent scientific investigation. We have already lost a lot through lack of Federal Government funding to support objective scientific research. The United States of America and Australia are currently discussing a free trade agreement that will involve Australia relaxing its regulation of GE crops and joining the United States of America in its opposition to the European Union's ban on GE food and crops. How much more blatant can it get? There is no market for GE food. No-one knowingly wants to buy it. Even starving African nations have refused it. So the United States bullies and their Australian followers of fashion want to create a market demand and force-feed the citizens of the world with their GE products against the will of those citizens. We have seen a precedent in the role that Australia has taken in the Middle East of following the United States. At least the Greens have consistently opposed that type of international political organisation and support for a superpower. That is not in the interests of Australia, and it is certainly not in the interests of the majority of Australians.
Clearly, there is an urgent need for community participation and debate on the serious risks posed by GE food crops to our farmers and their markets, the environment and our health. There is a severe shortage of credible information on the benefits of GE crops but plenty of evidence to suggest that we should be extremely cautious. GE crops should not be given the benefit of the doubt. Nor should the New South Wales community be asked to wear the risks and costs associated with the trialling of high-risk gene technology products. Certainly, the economic and environmental disasters that have already occurred in other countries that grow genetically engineered crops, such as Canada, Argentina, China, Mexico and the United States of America, should sound alarm bells about the significant economic and environmental risks involved. The Government pointed to the problems in its 3 March press release when it said:
Following the introduction of GM canola in Canada, sales have significantly reduced. US corn is no longer sold to Europe and has lost market share in Asia.
Even the United States Government is now admitting its farmers have lost billions of dollars in their markets. In 2001, for example, United States corn growers lost $US12 billion as a result of the Starlink corn disaster, which was essentially a failure of buffer zones—an issue that constantly raises its head in this debate—to stop the intermingling of GE and non-GE crops. A report of the United States Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service in 2001 found no advantages to United States farmers growing GE crops and could not explain farmers' earlier ready acceptance of biotech industry promises. An article in The Ecologist of October 2002 titled "Why Argentina can't feed itself—How GM soya is destroying livelihoods and the environment" details the disastrous experience that country has had with GE soya beans giving lower yields, farmers using more pesticides because weeds have developed chemical resistance, and markets being lost because of the rejection of GE soya for human consumption. Argentina is going to spend $US200 million helping farmers revert to conventional crops.
Monsanto itself is in rapid decline too, losing $US1.75 billion in the first nine months of 2002, compared with a profit of $US399 million a year ago. Monsanto's sales have declined by 19 per cent and the company has cited a continued decline in Roundup sales in the United States and lower than expected sales in Argentina. The company has recently announced 700 job cuts, sacked its president and chief executive, because of the company's poor financial performance over the past few years. It would be a disaster for farmers to be involved with a company that is going down. Even the Deutsche Bank has declared "GE is dead" and has withdrawn its support for it.
The GE industry and government agencies perpetuate the myth that once the community is provided with "independent" information about GE food, they will over time accept it, and markets will therefore open up. It is apparent, however, that the more informed the community is about genetic engineering, the more passionately it rejects genetic engineering. Underlying that rejection is a growing understanding about where power in this debate lies and how it is used. It is not about science; it is about the way in which corporate secrecy and self-interest have eroded public trust. The community is rightly uncomfortable with the separation of food from nature and the threat to democracy and social justice which is inherent in the concentration of power in the hands of a small number of global agribusiness corporations.
Nor has the community fallen for the lie that GE will feed the world. The community understands that enough food is produced globally to feed the world's population and that a redistribution of resources is needed. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has published figures showing that the world's starving people could be fed without the use of a single genetically engineered grain. Despite this, USAID has launched a $US100 million program to bring biotechnology to developing countries, because it is United States firms that stand to benefit the most from such deals. Frankly, the community is turning away in their droves from industrially produced food. They are seeking organic, locally produced food that supports farmers and looks after the land, limiting any further environmental destruction.
Organic food is the fastest growing segment of American agriculture. According to the United States Organic Consumers Association, on current estimates, most of the $US360 billion in food sold at the retail level in the United States will be organic by the year 2020. In Europe the organic market is growing even more rapidly and spectacularly. Farmers in 130 nations are growing certified organic food, yet only a handful are growing GE crops on a commercial scale. Over 35 countries, including substantial export customers in Europe and Asia, have legislation controlling GE commodity imports. I think we would be backing the wrong horse if we make concessions for GE. Instead, let us see some serious commitment to genuine sustainable agriculture in New South Wales, the sort of agriculture that is being demanded by the community all over the world.
We do not need GE food crops, and we will not be isolating ourselves from technology that can improve yields, disease resistance, improve soil, reduce pesticides and address environmental problems such as salinity if we ban GE crops. At any rate, GE crops do not address fundamental environmental problems. They maintain the status quo at best, and at worst will exacerbate problems and create new ones. Interestingly, earlier I spoke in the House with the Hon. Rick Colless about increased productivity and yields that can follow the application of proper scientific measures, while improving the quality of soils through regular crop processes. It has been proven that spending the appropriate quantity of time and energy on scientific investigation, with a view to creating a proper balance in our soils, will enhance crop production. That is a matter on which I would like to continue talking with the National Party about, because in that way from the bottom up we can help people on the land to be more productive and get the most out of their land without destroying it. The Hon. Rick Colless made a valid point. It is clear, with his background in soil science, that success in the rural sector can be achieved without adopting genetic engineering.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: You are giving all this praise to the National Party branches on his behalf.
Mr IAN COHEN: Certainly, and it is given where it is deserved. The honourable member knows that I will not stand on politics. When people say the right thing I support it, and I always have. I even support the Minister when he says the right thing.
The Hon. Rick Colless: That wouldn't happen very often.
Mr IAN COHEN: We will see. Dr Les Levidow, a United Kingdom research fellow at the Open University, has published several papers on risk assessment of gene technology products. Recently he was invited by Australia's premier research organisation, the CSIRO, to give advice about the application of the precautionary principle in genetically modified organism [GMO] risk assessment. Dr Levidow argues that in the case of genetically engineered crops it is important to know what counts as serious or irreversible damage. The national scheme in Australia accepts that risks will be associated with the release of GMOs in the environment, and proposes that these risks will be managed. Dr Levidow says that, in the assessment of those risks, it is critical to ask: What is the baseline it is being compared to? In the case of GE crops, for example, the approach to risk assessment is to exclude from consideration any problems that are already caused by the non-GE versions of the same crop.
This approach accepts as the baseline problems such as pest or weed resistance, reliance on synthetic input, soil degradation, salinity and loss of biodiversity, which provides a relatively favourable comparison for any GE crop that may offer short-term improvements to some problems. The result of this approach in the long term, however, only further entrenches agricultural problems and makes farmers even more dependent on expensive technology and slaves to the spiralling costs of that technology and artificial inputs. It would be far more realistic and useful to compare GE crops to agricultural practices that address environmental problems and seek to improve on past practices by addressing soil nutrition and adopting holistic approaches to pest and disease management, for example. GE crops may not look so favourable under these circumstances.
In Austria and Denmark, where there is a policy to expand organic agriculture, GE crops have been found to compare less favourably than in countries comparing GE crops to conventional agriculture. Genetic modification of crops also makes it possible to extend growing into new areas such as drought or salt-affected areas. Although some may say this is a benefit because more land becomes productively useful, it could also be argued that extending the environmental damage associated with agriculture into new and vulnerable areas certainly will not address the underlying environmental problems inherent in that type of agriculture. Dr Levidow said that the European Union risk assessment process took into account the impact of such extension of crops into new areas, and that Europe was now looking at more stringent comparators than simply the most chemically intensive farming methods to make their assessments of GE crops.
The interpretation of the precautionary principle is full of opportunities for scientific and public discussion, but government and policymakers rarely open up such debates. Instead, fundamental judgments about what should count as damage that should be prevented and whether the scientific evidence is adequate to make judgments about such potential damage are often concealed under the banner of sound science, which is used often as a political slogan to silence doubts about safety. It is fundamentally misleading about the role of value judgments in science, and places the strongest burden of evidence on those concerned about risk.
Licensed applicants generate a great deal of so-called objective science that is provided to the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator. This is totally unacceptable in this context and would not be accepted in many other contexts. The Greens have long said that we want to see the same sort of controls and understanding of the development of genetically engineered products that exists with medical products. We have said consistently that we would like to see trials in the hothouse. The control and care taken with the medical development of gene technology, which is widely used and not objected to by the Greens, is the type of scrutiny we need.
The Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans: I would like to believe that the medical experimentation was married to an objective.
Mr IAN COHEN: I take the point, but comparatively far greater scrutiny is placed on the medical development of gene technology than currently exists in the agricultural sector, and that is rather worrying. It is also telling that the objectives of the Commonwealth Gene Technology Act do not contain ecologically sustainable development, and the chosen definition of the precautionary principle is watered down to suit industry needs and is at odds with the definition of the precautionary principle in the New South Wales legislation. This inconsistency was identified by the standing committee inquiry. The Greens will move an amendment to the Gene Technology (New South Wales) Bill to address this inconsistency in the definitions. It is alarming that universities throughout Australia are issuing directives to departments to steer their research towards genetic engineering to attract funding. It is atrocious and cuts off another avenue for independent research.
Recently Syngenta, a major biotech player, terminated a research partnership with the University of California. Biotech companies are pulling out of research contracts all over the globe. I hope that universities are not relying on this funding support for too long. Last year the Greens hosted a forum on genetically engineered crops and food. Luke Anderson, author and international speaker on genetic engineering, gave an informative presentation about the international context of GM food and crops, and this presentation only deepened our concerns. It was pointed out that, as with other agricultural products, research on the possible environmental consequences of introducing technology lags far behind the development of engineered varieties. As we have found from experience with some exotic plant species that were introduced into ornamental gardens before the beginning of this century and have only recently spread into the wild, it can take well over 100 years for the ecological effects of introducing new types of plants to become apparent.
GE raises complex scientific, health, medical, political and ethical issues that have not been debated adequately in the community. It poses a serious risk to public health, the environment and our markets. It also has serious legal ramifications and economic implications. The Greens are concerned that members are being asked to make important decisions about the future application of gene technology in the absence of objective information and without adequate legal advice. No avenues are available for the public to be meaningfully engaged in a debate in New South Wales. I urge members to at least support the Greens amendment to the GE advisory council. The Government emphasises that the Gene Technology (New South Wales) Bill is part of a joint Commonwealth-State approach to the regulation of genetically engineered organisms.
However, the subject matter of the bill is primarily a State issue. The bill is not based on any clear Commonwealth constitutional power. It relies upon power given to the Commonwealth by the State. New South Wales policy on GE should not be determined in accordance with the dictates of the Commonwealth: the people through their elected representatives in this Parliament should decide. The State Government should ensure that an appropriate regulatory framework is in place to safeguard the environment and interests of the people of New South Wales. The interim report of the Standing Committee on State Development on genetically modified food identified more than 17 substantive issues that need further investigation.
The committee established that it would further research the implications of genetically modified food on international trade, and that would include examination of potential costs and benefits to New South Wales on export markets in relation to either restricting or facilitating the production of genetically modified food. The committee also undertook to examine the rights and responsibilities of producers of genetically modified food products in relation to the community, as well as producers of non-genetically modified food products. In particular, the committee undertook to investigate the implications of the gene technology regulatory framework for State government, local government and community interests.
None of this has occurred, yet we are being asked basically to give the go-ahead to GE in New South Wales by passing the Gene Technology (New South Wales) Bill on the one hand, and by introducing some tentative arrangements for a potential moratorium on the other hand with the Gene Technology (GM Crop Moratorium) Bill. Although the Commonwealth Gene Technology Act 2000 establishes the national regulatory scheme for gene technology and is a far better arrangement than the previous voluntary scheme, New South Wales and other States will adopt fundamentally flawed legislation and a resulting national scheme.
There is an opportunity to amend this bill and that opportunity should be taken to address the shortcomings of the Commonwealth Act as it applies to New South Wales law and the shortcomings of the national scheme as it applies to this State. During debate on the Commonwealth legislation, Labor members, Democrats and Greens raised concerns about the serious deficiencies in the bill. For example, in Senator Forshaw's second reading speech he stated, when referring to the Commonwealth-State Senate Reference Committee Inquiry into Gene Technology:
Of the 130 public submissions to the Inquiry there was not much support of the bill nor the scheme from the public.
The New South Wales public is similarly concerned about the adoption of this bill. Members of the crossbench and Opposition have had discussions with representatives of concerned organic and conventional farmers from country areas of New South Wales, particularly with respect to proposals for introducing GE canola. There has been a complete failure by this Government to consult with the farming community on the potential impacts of introducing GE canola, which has been identified by the European Environment Agency as a high-risk crop that is likely to lead to cross-contamination. Senator Forshaw also raised concerns about the serious nature of the decisions that the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator has to make—decisions that in some cases will have major health, safety and environmental ramifications and that will place a huge responsibility of the office as well as the regulator. Labor proposed at that time that the office be structured in a very different way, with three persons rather than a single statutory office holder. Of course, that proposal was rejected.
The point I make is that the independence of the regulator is critical if the public is ever to develop any confidence in the regulatory regime and indeed the technology. Greens amendments that will be moved at the Committee stage will address the problem of the extensive discretionary powers of the regulator. In addition to the independence of the regulator, one of the major concerns raised in the Federal inquiry's public hearings was the need for assurance that the objects of the legislation, namely, the protection of human health and safety and the environment, will be met. Some key directions must be given to the regulator about the accepted definition of the precautionary principle and how the principle should be applied when considering licence applications and other dealings with genetically modified organisms. The community has raised its concerns about various aspects of the bill. For example, as it stands the bill will allow only applicants to appeal against decisions of the regulator in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Not allowing third parties a right of appeal regarding decisions of the regulator is both discriminatory and against the principles of natural justice.
Other crossbench members will be moving amendments in Committee that will provide for third party appeal rights in both procedure and merit. Federal Labor amendments to the Commonwealth bill proposed that licence applications should be reviewed by the statutory community consultative committee, not just the technical advisory committee—which is the current arrangement. The Greens amendment will require the regulator to consult with the community consultative committee and the ethics committee in respect of every application, ensuring that the requirement for transparency of the process is upheld. It will also ensure that the views of the broader community, as reflected in the community and ethics committees, will be taken into consideration during the risk assessment process for licence applications. Honourable members will be interested to know that the latest communique from the community consultative committee dated 20 February 2003 states:
The CTCCC expresses concern that a state of community unreadiness exists concerning the risk to the environment and the commercial release of GM canola, so significant that the applications should be declined at this time.
Federal Labor's amendments also flag the issue of liability and insurance. The Commonwealth Gene Technology Act does not require licence holders to have insurance. It is beyond belief that, given the level of risk involved in gene technology and the potential for harm, insurance is not mandatory. Perhaps insurance cannot be made mandatory because insurers will not insure against the risks involved with GE crops for the reason that they cannot quantify the risks, and the risks are likely to be too great. It is a complete contradiction, therefore, that the foundation of the Gene Technology Regulator's assessment of applications is an assessment of risks and risk management. It is crucial that the risks in introducing genetically engineered crops in New South Wales are thoroughly assessed. There is already clear evidence that there have been disasters in other countries such as Canada where there is a widespread contamination of non-GE crops, and where farmers have suffered losses as a result. There are also very clear signals from the market that some people do not want to buy GE produce. Genetic engineering is such that once the genie is let out of the bottle, there is no turning back. It would be far wiser and more sustainable in the long term to support the GE-free farmers and certified organic farmers, who currently cannot supply enough of their produce to a world market that is clamouring for clean, green and GE-free produce.
New Zealand and Tasmania have the right idea. They are protecting their clean, green and GE-free status for which they will reap financial rewards while at the same time they protect the environment. However the therapeutic application of gene technology is a very different issue that raises different questions and requires a separate debate. There are perhaps more defensible arguments for the continuation of research in that field. There needs to be extensive public debate to work through community concerns. The debate about GE food and crops has been obscured and confused by discussing these two major applications of gene technology as if the issues were the same. They are clearly different and raise different scientific, ethical and community concerns. As admitted by the industry itself, clients for these two sectors are completely different and the issues involved in the application of the technology require completely different management.
Before proceeding any further I wish to define what I mean by genetic engineering as it applies to crops, as there is a common misconception that plant breeding and genetic engineering are one and the same thing. The argument is that plant breeding has been conducted for many years, so what is the big deal about genetic engineering? Plant breeding and genetic engineering are different and the perpetuation of misinformation serves only to illustrate the level of ignorance about the science behind GE and the pathetic deception by the proponents of GE.
The Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans: It helps the big boys.
Mr IAN COHEN: Indeed. Genetic engineering forces genetic material from wildly different species—plants, animals, viruses, bacteria and even human beings—into the genome of plants and animals. GE bypasses the normal regulatory mechanisms inherent in natural breeding processes within a species. The application of GE to create genetically engineered organisms breaches species barriers, disregarding each species' unique genetic make-up—for example, putting fish genes into tomatoes. Meanwhile, a paradigm shift is occurring in genetics with the central dogma being a linear model of cell functioning that no longer fits the facts. In an article published in the Australian Financial Review on 1 March 2002 eminent biologist Professor Barry Commoner argued that one gene can give rise to multiple proteins—a fact confirmed by the human genome project—which essentially destroys the theoretical foundation of the genetic engineering industry. Professor Commoner warns that this information should compel regulators and governments to reassess the safety of genetic engineering using a revised model of complex genetic and protein systems. He rejects industry and government assurances that GE is science based and safe, because the testing assessments are fundamentally flawed.
The process of gene insertion is random and imprecise and can give rise to unexpected and unpredictable effects. Such was the case recorded in the journal Nature in 1998, which reported on the discovery that GE herbicide resistance mustard plants were found to be 20 times more likely to outcross than the same plant with a conventionally introduced mutation. That was not an isolated instance. The danger of using viral and bacterial genes in GE was revealed in an experiment by Australian scientists at the Australian National University. Scientists who were trying to develop a mouse contraceptive engineered a protein into a mousepox virus. The result was unpredictable. Unexpectedly the scientists had created a deadly virus that killed 100 per cent of the mice used in the experiment. Not only did it kill mice without immunity to the mousepox virus but also 50 per cent of mice with immunity to mousepox as well. In other words, it was able to bypass the immune system of mice.
The main problem of the bill is that it places the onus upon the community to prove that GE is unsafe. This is an unfair and impossible task. The technology is completely unproven and the community should not carry the risks associated with that technology. It is impossible for it to be proved unsafe; equally, it is impossible for it to be proved safe. This is the key problem with GE. There is no doubt that it carries a risk that the extent of the risk is unknown and unpredictable. Many independent scientists are warning that GE foods introduce new risks because of the potential for new allergenic, toxic and carcinogenic compounds that they may create in foods. Let us not forget the 37 people killed by the GE L-tryptophan dietary supplements in 1987 and more recently reports of allergic reactions to tortilla chips that tested positive to StarLink corn. StarLink corn was only intended for non-human consumption. However, it begs the question, what harm is it doing to animals? How is it that we have foods on our shelves and crops growing in our fields that pose such risks? On 14 November 2001 in this House the Hon. Tony Kelly, who is now the Minister for Rural Affairs, said:
We need a system akin to the process of safety and efficacy assurances required of new drugs.
I am inclined to agree, but currently the community is subjected to a massive experiment, against its will and choice, and is literally force-fed genetically modified foods on a safe until proved unsafe philosophy. Policies such as this have proved to be a disaster historically. One has only to look at the blind-eye approach taken to exposure to asbestos and the dangers of smoking to realise that that is a very stupid approach to the regulation of genetically engineered food. All the warning signs are here now. A precautionary approach should be adopted to this technology so we do not have a repeat of such significant and preventable disasters. It is a flawed scientific premise that genetically engineered food is substantially equivalent to other food and introduces no greater risk. The basis for that claim has been that the amount of new genetic material introduced is very small and poses no risk.
Proper application of the scientific method requires that researchers should assume that GE food is substantially different from other food and is unsafe, and set about proving otherwise. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It has also transpired that because the GE industry cannot keep its GE material from contaminating other crops the definition of "GE-free" now means that food can contain 1 per cent GE contamination. That is truly outrageous and inappropriate. When I buy something that claims to be 100 per cent gluten free, I expect that the product is 100 per cent gluten free. However, if I buy food labelled "GE free", the food could have 1 per cent GE contamination. No studies have been done to prove the long-term safety of GE products. That approach has been severely criticised by scientific groups, including the European Union/US Biotechnology Consultative Forum in its report of December 2000 and the Canadian Royal Society. Both groups have called for more extensive testing to prove safety and have highlighted the need for mandatory comprehensive labelling so adverse effects can be traced.
The Australian Government has commissioned a three-year CSIRO study into the ecological effects of GE crops, but evidence has emerged overseas and in Australia of detrimental effects to soil ecology and non-target insects from genetically engineered crops with built-in pesticides. Beneficial insects such as bees are affected by GE pollen. In 1999 in the House of Commons Michael Meacher, the United Kingdom environment Minister, stated:
[Despite precautions] it has to be recognised that bee activity may in some cases involve the dissemination of GE pollen beyond the isolation distances used.
It has since been shown in farm-scale GE trials that bees can carry pollen up to 10 kilometres from test sites. That illustrates that buffer zones in GE management plans are practically useless, especially for open pollinated crops such as canola. It would be virtually impossible to maintain a GE-free canola industry in New South Wales if GE canola is commercially released in this State. One claim made about GE crops is that they require fewer chemicals because they can be engineered to withstand herbicides and pesticides. For example, industry claims that Roundup Ready soya beans are an environmentally friendly crop, but there is considerable evidence that plants are developing resistance to GE crops and that such crops require increased use of chemicals. Certainly that was the case in Argentina. During the crossbench briefing, Juliet McFarlane from the Network of Concerned Farmers told members that canola growers may even have to start using 2,4-D again to kill volunteer Roundup Ready canola in between cropping cycles. That would negate any savings on pesticide use and would reintroduce a more hazardous pesticide.
The data provided by the biotech industry on pesticide savings in canola is based on the Canadian experience. Canada does not have a problem with volunteers simply because of snow during the winter months. Australia, however, is a completely different proposition. Target insect pests are developing resistance to the Bt toxin engineered in cotton, and this is forcing farmers to use more pesticides on the crops. This defeats the whole purpose of genetically engineered crops that were designed to reduce pesticide and herbicide use. In order to compensate for the resistance, farmers now must allocate more of their land to insect refuges to prevent resistance developing. Scientists claim they can prevent further resistance happening by engineering even more potent Bt genes into cotton. Where does this end? Bt is a relatively low toxic and useful pesticide, but its useful life is shortened by its use in cotton.
Herbicide resistance is another major problem, with weeds and volunteer crops already developing resistance to the chemicals. For example, in Canada a nine-point management plan has had to be introduced to control herbicide resistance in canola. Ryegrass in Australia is already proving to be resistant to some herbicides. How long before broad-scale herbicide resistance occurs in New South Wales? If we pretend it will not happen to us, we are surely being extremely naïve. Genetically engineered canola is being trialled in many secret locations across New South Wales and there is a high risk of contamination of conventional canola from these crops grown for so-called experimental and seed purposes. A large proportion of canola trial crops are apparently grown to supply the overseas market with bulk GE-canola seed. It is unacceptable that those secret trials have been established under the guise of experimentation and carried out without the public's knowledge for what is essentially already apparently a commercial enterprise.
The proponents of GE claim that it promises significant benefits for consumers. The Greens say that any potential benefits are far outweighed by the potential risks. GE results in less choice for consumers because of the potential for widespread contamination of conventional crops and potential loss of GE-free and certified organic markets. There is no method of guaranteeing the segregation of GE and non-GE crops. The result is that the community loses the ability to make a choice and is force-fed GE against their will and knowledge. Despite the promised benefits of GE, it is being rejected by consumers worldwide. As a result, markets for GE produce are shrinking and the markets for sustainably produced foods are growing. Organic markets are growing at 40 to 60 per cent annually; Japan will pay a premium for GE-free soybeans and the European Union wants more GE-free produce than we can possibly produce.
The introduction by stealth of GE crops also exposes farmers to litigation by the corporation that owns the seed, as in the notorious case of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, who was sued by Monsanto for growing their GE canola seed, even though he had never purchased seed from the company. His crop was contaminated by seeds and pollen from neighbouring crops. Farmers who participate in GE crop trials can be compromised if they wish to grow non-GE crops at a later stage. For instance, canola volunteers can lie dormant for between 6 and 10 years depending on the variety and can reappear in farmers' fields, as occurred in Tasmania, much to the alarm of farmers. It was reported in the April-May 2002 edition of Acres Australia, the national newspaper for sustainable agriculture, that the latest audit carried out by the Commonwealth Department of Primary Industries, Water and the Environment in conjunction with the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, of former trial sites for genetically engineered crops has revealed seven sites with evidence of flowering GE plants that have volunteered after the site was apparently cleaned up.
Contamination of farmland in this manner has the potential to affect the value and usability of land in the future. That concern was also expressed by the Chartered Institute of Surveyors in the United Kingdom, which warned that certain farms and even regions could become stigmatised for their GE status. Certainly, if one looks at the very rudimentary maps on the regulator's web site it is clear that Wagga Wagga is the GE capital of New South Wales at this stage. If GE contamination occurred on the North Coast, it could devastate the viable organic producers in that area who have reinvented themselves after dairy deregulation. Are we willing to jeopardise this viable new industry? Segregation of GE and non-GE crops is likely to be impossible and the costs to farmers for segregation and identity preservation would far exceed any cost savings from growing GE crops. A study on genetically modified grains funded by the Grains Research and Development Corporation published by ABARE in 2001 stated:
There is now a substantial literature on the cost of segregation and identity preservation to do with GM grain. The literature generally suggests, for a mixed production system of conventional and GM grain, that identity preservation in terms of certifying non-GM status adds 5-15% to the cost of the grain delivery.
The same study reports that the Federal Government is now spending $3.65 million of taxpayers' money to establish a program to assess the requirements and costs of segregating products developed with gene technology and to ensure that those products can be traced through to their origins. Why is the community paying to pave an easy way forward for the Monsanto and Bayer crop scientists of this world? The Network of Concerned Farmers has been trying to get figures on the costs of growing GE canola, but none are forthcoming. It cannot even get results from the 200 GE canola trial crops in New South Wales. It has tried to work out its own figures and it has calculated that it will cost approximately $80 extra per hectare to grow GE canola.
The Starlink corn disaster in the United States of America showed how a lack of segregation can lead to health risks and cost farmers their markets. Starlink corn was approved only for animal feed but it became mixed up with food that was destined for human consumption. It contaminated the human food chain, resulting in billions of dollars in recalled products. The cost to our farmers and manufacturers is ongoing. That episode highlights the inability of segregation to prevent contamination. At our crossbench briefing yesterday Juliet McFarlane from the Network of Concerned Farmers talked about some of the mistakes that occur when farmers are handling such vast quantities of grain. One type of grain could be put in the wrong hopper and unloaded from these massive machines. She referred also to shandying it down to make its protein content acceptable.
Those are the sorts of mistakes that can occur on farms when massive harvesting operations are in process. The protein content in GE crops cannot be corrected, so we could be faced with great losses if mistakes are made in the handling and transport of these grains. Trials of GE crops producing pharmaceutical plastics and industrial enzymes are next on the GE agenda and threaten the security of our food supply. How would we manage if crops grown for an acute medical problem ended up in crops destined for our general food supply? What would be the consequences to soil ecology and what remediation measures would be required? Can we afford to use valuable agricultural land for industrial purposes? That is especially relevant to Australia as we face increasing degradation of our land from salinity and soil loss.
Since the introduction of genetically engineered crops in 1996 United States agricultural exports have declined 15 per cent. Our major trading partner, Japan, is demanding GE-free produce. Korea will not accept United States GE corn. Canadian farmers have asked the Government not to approve GE wheat for fear of losing their market to Australia's GE-free wheat. Major supermarket chains in the United Kingdom and Europe, and even in the United States, are eliminating GE products on their shelves. They also demand food sourced from animals that are fed a GE-free diet. Are we segregating GE cotton trash so that it does not end up in animal feed? What would our significant trading partner, Japan, do if Australian cattle were being fed GE food? Japan is still nervous about mad cow disease and it is sensitive to these issues. At a presentation to the Australian Institute of Health, Law and Ethics last year, Gary Goldberg, Chief Executive Officer of the American Corn Growers Foundation, said—
The Hon. Ian Macdonald: GE residual canola is licensed for sale in Japan as a food for animals and for oil imports.
Mr IAN COHEN: I remain firmly unconvinced about the oil issue raised by the Minister. The cotton that is grown in New South Wales essentially is seen as a non-food product, but it ends up as blended oil. I have asked questions in the House about that issue, but I have not received an answer.
I believe the Minister was talking about canola. These products, which are subsequently included in oils, become lost on the general market. In many cases these products are then consumed by humans, which highlights the global style of marketing that is occurring. It is easy for contaminated products to be included in food that is destined for human consumption. These products should also be properly labelled—another major problem in this area of genetically engineered food. Gary Goldberg, Chief Executive Officer of the American Corn Growers Foundation, said:
So what have genetically modified organisms done for the American farmer? They have made us liable for pollen contamination from other farms, forced us to segregate our GMO from non-GMO crops, diminished our export markets, made our customers lose faith in the ability of US farmers to provide the products they demand, increased corporate concentration within the seed industry and have cost the American farmer billions of dollars through lower commodity process. All this in the name of science.
It is not surprising that some countries are now choosing to go completely GE free. Even though the European Union has lifted its ban on GE crops, individual countries have maintained their GE-free policies and enforced them. Ireland, Denmark and Germany have frozen GE crop trials and experiments. Sri Lanka, Cuba and Thailand ban GE food. There has been a great deal of one-sided debate about this complex issue.
I thank those who helped to prepare my speech and the Greens amendments that will be moved in Committee. Jeni Emblem, a former staffer of Richard Jones, and Richard Jones, who is visiting the Parliament, have done a wonderful job preparing my speech. I am fortunate to have Richard Jones assisting me with this legislation. Jo Immig, a former staffer of Alan Corbett, is passionately concerned about genetically engineered food. I appreciate the support of all those people and I thank them for preparing material that I have been able to use in debate and that will be used later in Committee. I believe that I have a fairly balanced view, but many honourable members might disagree. Honourable members should be aware that this issue, which will have a massive impact on agriculture in New South Wales, should be treated seriously.
The Hon. Dr ARTHUR CHESTERFIELD-EVANS [3.47 p.m.]: I enter debate on the Gene Technology (New South Wales) Bill by expressing my concern as I do not believe that the Federal and State governments have treated this legislation with the gravity that is warranted. The Commonwealth Gene Technology Act 2000 was the origin of the Gene Technology (New South Wales) Bill, which was first introduced in 2001. That bill adopted or applied the principles contained in the Commonwealth legislation as the gene technology area had been fairly ad hoc and directionless. There is no argument that this area must be regulated but we do not know whether the present Commonwealth legislation and the New South Wales bill are adequate.
The Australian Democrats' position on gene technology is that genetically modified organisms [GMOs] require effective isolation risk management and independent assessment before their environmental release. Over the past 10 years a number of field trials have been conducted in a number of States. It has been difficult to find the location of those trials as the obligation to inform the public or even neighbouring landowners was non-existent. It is an appalling situation as the effect on the ecosystem of an area was not evaluated and the effect on neighbouring crops of the non-GM variety of a similar species was not considered.
There are a number of major concerns: segregation of GM crops and non-GM crops in silo storage, contract harvesters travelling from farm to farm, and the decontamination of machines. The Australian Democrats' Federal policy calls for an environmental impact assessment of all GMOs as per the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The environment Minister must approve all GMOs for environmental release. GMOs require effective isolation, risk management and independent assessment before their environmental release. It is imperative that risks are both understood and minimised. That means significant ongoing research and an appropriate regulatory environment. The Democrats do not oppose every aspect or application of genetic technology and its potential benefits. We recognise that States have differing industry bases and market advantages and we support an individual State's choice to promote GM-free industries statewide via an opt-out provision in the Gene Technology Act 2000.
The Australian Democrats fought hard to secure improvements under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Council labelling regime for genetically modified foods. Under the new regime, labels are required when modified DNA and/or proteins are present in the final product and the food has altered characteristics. However, the labelling requirements do not go far enough. We support labelling for highly refined foods such as oil made from modified corn, even though there is no modified DNA or protein in the final product; for all food using GM processing aids and additives; for foods using GM flavours, even if they are less than 0.1 per cent of the final product; for takeaway and restaurant food that uses GM ingredients and is prepared at the point of sale; and for all foods from 7 December 2001, including those long-life products already on supermarket shelves.
My Federal colleague Senator John Cherry has highlighted the conflict that New South Wales in particular and Australia as a whole may have with the United States of America, which has challenged the European Union's GM crop ban. I have given notice of a motion regarding our trade in primary products with the United States, which cannot be assumed to act for our interests—indeed, America is our rival in many trade areas. It would be extremely convenient for the United States, which has lost its GM status, if we were to lose our GM status also as we would then be forced to take its side against the Europeans and attempt to force GM products onto European markets. If Australia remains GM free we will continue to have a marketing advantage over the United States, and it would be in the Americans' best interests to remove that advantage.
The research issue has interested me for some time. Years ago research was conducted by interested amateurs, who fought against the establishment in the days when the church controlled all things. Galileo was told that he would be burnt at the stake if he did not recant and withdraw his support for the view of Copernicus that the Earth revolved around the sun. His research, which was privately funded, was not supported by the state. Then came a phase when the state funded research, and beneficial products such as penicillin were made freely available to the entire community. There was an attempt in the United States at one time to patent the use of anaesthetics—which were probably discovered in Scotland but that assertion is disputed. As a result of the ensuing dispute anaesthetics in the United States were of a lesser quality than those in Britain and Australia for some time. That technology should have been universally available yet the desire to patent intellectual property in order to make money denied the public its benefits for a long period.
Drugs and vaccinations have become extremely expensive. The battle between patenting intellectual property for profit and acting in the public interest is becoming acute in many areas. We should consider some salient historical examples. The harmful effects of tobacco on health is the most studied subject in the history of science. Yet the industry denied the research, forced the repeat of studies and fought the findings at a political level. I believe it is still holding out against that research. Indeed, this Parliament has been supine on the issue, bowing to political pressure and failing to proclaim the smoke-free environments legislation. In other words, the Government did not, and does not, listen to science.
The Government venally—and for reasons that are incomprehensible to anyone with the slightest interest in public health and welfare—ignores scientific evidence and bows to pressure from the tobacco industry. The New South Wales Parliament has a very un-proud history in this area, and both major parties have behaved abominably. The tobacco industry has demonstrated that it is totally without ethics by lying systematically for two generations—and the lies continue today. The pharmaceutical industry fares little better in a discussion about corporate ethics. As a doctor, I was a target for its propaganda for some years.
I watched the effects of the industry's marketing tactics during my days with Billboard-Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions [BUGA-UP], when I took an interest in the ethics of advertising and of corporations, using the tobacco industry as a model. Increasingly, professors who conduct research depend upon grants, as do their large departments. Researchers are flown around the world and hailed as experts, and multinational companies facilitate their research papers. If their conclusions are not favourable to the drug company their research grants are stopped at the stroke of a pen, their staff disappear, their prestige vanishes and they can no longer travel overseas. As a consequence, researchers have difficulty claiming independence.
This battle is being fought in the medical field. The Government allocates fewer and fewer funds to independent research and the national research effort has been hijacked by the Wills report's references to joint development and trials—all designed to make money and thus free the Government from funding independent research. In the face of cargo cult like demands that every research effort must show a profit, researchers think they are clever if they can link with a commercial organisation to gain expertise, enter the marketplace and make money. However, they then lose the ability to evaluate their findings impartially and free themselves from the market. As a consequence, their fate is regulatory capture.
As university funding becomes more marginal, these institutions must seek funds from sources other than government and students. One solution is sponsored chairs, and the quid pro quo for sponsoring a chair is the use of products and technologies from the company sponsor. Some years ago I attended, as an expert on tobacco control, the annual meeting of the Atheroma Society of New Zealand, a small society that specialised in arterial disease. The entire weekend workshop was sponsored by the manufacturer of a new drug, and the key-note speaker was flown from the United States to the conference in Dunedin. He had conducted sponsored research of the drug that prevented atheroma—the blocking of arteries—and claimed that it was a wonder drug. Doctors who attended the meeting subsequently prescribed the drug widely.
They became leaders in their field, which led to an explosive increase in the marketing of the drug. So that neutral special interest group effectively became an advocate for the drug company on the basis of a relatively small investment that was very well targeted. All education and drug research in the field was dominated by the company selling the drug. I explained that much better results could be obtained from exercise and tobacco control but of course no interest was shown in that point of view. I was permitted to speak for only 15 minutes while the experts from America and those from New Zealand who had also conducted experiments funded by the drug company spoke for six hours.
In a sense that analogy relates to the difficulty of maintaining independent research in an environment in which the public interest is being continually and increasingly subverted by corporate imperatives. The same thing occurs in the gambling industry, where gambling research is slowly being carried out and is battling for independence from the gambling companies. The gambling problem is huge, with $994 per head per year being spent on gambling in New South Wales. There is still no good sociological research into the effects and harm of gambling, but the industry, by exerting pressure, gets away with doing what it wants.
A salient book on gene technology, How the other half dies by Susan George, examines world agribusiness and how it has stopped countries producing subsistence agriculture and forced them to use their land to produce market crops, often for export, which have been treated with pesticides. What is not mentioned in the equation is that displaced subsistence farmers and their families do not have anything to eat. The gross domestic product [GDP] of the country may go up but the welfare of its citizens may go hopelessly down. People are quick to point to the changes to the GDP, but if the extra GDP money is spent on seed and fertiliser it is of little practical use to its people. Governments forget that their key function is to govern and regulate companies in the interests of their people. The purpose of governments is to act for their people against other global and very powerful forces.
There is a lack of government-funded research, and there are problems with the joint venture agriculture programs, which lead to regulatory capture by some groups. On 15 May on the SBS program Insight it was pointed out that many of the supposedly neutral players in debate on this matter are, in fact, being paid by Monsanto: it is indeed regulatory capture. What is actually needed is independent testing. If people are genuinely involved in the testing they must share in the intellectual capital. Groups are not clearly visible—they are not merely farmers and consumers. There needs to be segregation, and the cost of segregation and cleaning equipment must be met by the proponents. Other costs must be met by independent scientists. The increasing use of herbicides will affect the soil bacteria, and may affect the ecosystem.
The Network of Concerned Farmers, which lobbied for this bill, talked about volunteers, which are the plantings that come after a harvest. They pointed out that in Canada if a crop of canola is planted and then harvested the field is not used during winter because nothing else will grow. However, in Australia after a canola field is harvested wheat is planted and the so-called volunteers spring up, and if certain herbicides are not able to be used then others may be used. That may negate any benefit. The idea that one can use less herbicide is a nonsense because the Roundup Ready seedlings may interfere.
In How the other half dies it is stated that corporate interests have overcome countries and regulators by appearing to have superior technology but do not act in the interests of the people. It is not hard to see that if Australia became contaminated with GM food we would have to support the United States of America in its attack on Europe. I believe we are already joined in the legal action in the world trade court. Australia and the United States are rivals. If we had a lot of GM-free food and took the United States markets, Europe would not be forced to accept GM crops.
How the other half dies also refers to the creation of dependence on companies for seeds and pesticides. It is interesting that insurance seems to have been pushed to one side: it would be impossibly expensive and, thus, there would be no requirement for it. It is said that the market demands these things, but the market—if one believes insurance companies have a reasonable market, which I think is a dubious proposition—has spoken and said that insurance is prohibitively expensive. That means people will take the risk of not having insurance. Effectively, the Government is the insurer with the risk on the downside. That issue has not been adequately addressed in this bill.
In relation to the Gene Technology (New South Wales) Bill, much has been made of Dolly the cloned sheep. Some people have jumped to the conclusion that soon we will have platoons of cloned people marching down the street, like something out of Brave New World. What is not so well publicised is that it took several hundred attempts to produce one Dolly—which was a defective organism and caused its death. All other attempts to produce organisms like Dolly were deficient in one way or another. Similarly, early attempts by Unilever to clone oil palms for their plantations in Malaya worked beautifully in the laboratory but when the seedlings were planted out, they never set fruit. Both Dolly and the oil palms illustrate the difficulty of reproducing a complete living organism by cloning. To talk about being able to clone humans is either fantasy or fraudulent at this point in time.
Examples of producing a living organism by cloning is the technique of inducing bacteria to produce human-compatible insulin, which makes the treatment of diabetes cheaper and more widely available. Other examples are a vaccine for hepatitis B, a human growth hormone and a blood-clotting agent. In these applications a substance is extracted from the genetically modified organism [GMO] and there is no possibility of its escaping into the environment as a viable organism. In these cases, both the risk and the benefit are to the user of the technology. The complexity of gene systems makes it unlikely that gene technology will be successful on its own to improve the yield of a crop plant. It has been found that the process of fixing nitrogen depends on 17 genes in bacteria and on 50 genes in plants. Many GM crops have indeed been found to give lower yields than varieties bred by classical methods, for example, Roundup Ready cotton and maize. That makes us very suspicious of the claims that yields will be higher, and one wonders if it is marketing nonsense in order to get the crops into the field.
The benefit gene technology promises to producers comes from simplifying and lowering the cost of producing a crop. There are also benefits for the producer of the GM seed and the chemicals needed to grow the crop. The risks associated with the technology on the other hand are to the consumer and the environment. For this reason it is important that the use of GM crops be strictly and effectively regulated and that extensive tests of all aspects be carried out before general use. A small percentage of the population is highly sensitive and may have an allergic reaction to a particular genetically modified organism. This happened in the case of soybeans with a gene taken from brazil nuts to improve its nutritional value.
The percentage of allergic people is small but it seems to be increasing. Nonetheless, the fear of gene technology induced damage to health is highly exaggerated. Many consumers have this fear and object to using GM products. They constitute an important and growing market for GM-free products. Moreover, they are prepared to pay a premium for such products. Producers who wish to supply that market are affected by the use of GM crops by others in various ways Contamination of GM-free crops can occur in various ways, such as by cross pollination from a GM crop grown somewhere in the district, and is very difficult to avoid.
The Gene Technology Regulator requires a buffer zone to be determined for each licensed GM planting. This may be up to a few hundred metres, but in Canada a canola crop was claimed to be contaminated by cross-pollination carried by an insect from a GM crop four kilometres away. We were told by the Network of Concerned Farmers that even a Monsanto-sponsored trial found contamination of a crop from a GM canola crop that was three kilometres away. Contamination can occur through distribution of seed from a combine previously used during seeding or harvesting. Such machinery is often used by contractors on many farms, and it is difficult to clean those machines of residual grains or seeds between jobs. This applies also to post-harvest transport and storage.
There is a worldwide growth in the demand for non-GM produce, and in some countries and to some multinational food companies only GM-free produce is acceptable. For example, Canada and Saudi Arabia will accept only livestock that has not been fed GM produce. However, GM cottonseed and cotton trash have already been used in cattle feed in Australia. Bonlac Food, Murray Goulburn and the National Food Company do not use produce from GM fed livestock, according to an article in the Herald and Weekly Times of 18 October 2000. Unilever, Kraft and Nestle exclude GM ingredients from some products, according to an article in the Sunday Tasmanian of 11 June 2000. The export of American corn and soya bean to Europe has dropped by more than half because of resistance to the use of GM produce.
There are many ways in which the use of specific GM crops can harm the environment. Properties introduced into a cultivated species by gene technology can be transferred to a wild species, with disastrous results. This can occur by cross-pollination, if the species are related, or via pests, parasites or non-pollinating foraging insects to non-related species. I instance that the use of Roundup Ready crops, such as canola and maize, led to herbicide resistance being transferred to the wild radish, which is related to canola, making it a super weed which requires a much more toxic herbicide for its control.
Although the use of Roundup-ready crops has the benefit of requiring less conservation of the soil, it leads in practice to greater use of Roundup because of greater resistance of weeds. This benefits the manufacturer, but it also interferes with soil bacteria that are essential to keep the soil healthy. It interferes with the fungal mycorrhysomes which are essential for mobilising nutriments for plant growth. It increases the amount of residual glyphosate in the crop, leading to pressure to increase the maximum residue limit in food products. An equivalent situation has arisen from the widespread use of BT cotton. This includes a gene from the bacillus thuringiensis and leads to the emergence of insects that are resistant to the toxin produced by the bacillus. This diminishes the effectiveness of one of the few environmentally acceptable insecticides available to organic growers.
There are also more general ways in which the use of genetically modified organisms causes damage to the environment. The transfer of genes through gene technology from one species to another involves the use of viruses that can overcome the defensive systems of many different organisms. These viral vectors are used to carry the desired gene from one species to the other. They become incorporated in the gene system, the genome, of the genetically modified organisms and retain their ability to transfer genes and invade other species. This leads to an increase in spontaneous mutations and thus to the destabilisation of species. An example of this is the rapid emergence of the BT-resistant insects that I have mentioned previously.
Another tool used in gene technology is the marker gene. These genes make genetically modified organisms resistant to antibiotics. This enables genetically modified organisms to be selected from among the unaltered organisms, which are killed by the antibiotic. Some of these antibiotics are used in treating human diseases, and if resistance to them spreads throughout the environment they lose their effectiveness. This was the reason that the use of a particular genetically modified maize was rejected in the United Kingdom. It contained a marker gene that conferred resistance to ampicillin. This antibiotic is widely used in medicine, and it would be a great loss if it became ineffective. Naturally, of course, the cost of this would not be borne by the agricultural company. Alternative marker genes can be used and, according to a recent United Kingdom Government report, there are methods of eliminating the marker genes from the final genetically modified organism.
When a farmer decides to use genetically modified seeds, he has to enter a contract not to collect some of the crop for future seed. The genetically modified organism is patented, and in buying the seed he is given a licence by the owner of the patent for only a single use. The farmer also has to have a licence under the Gene Technology Act that regulates such things as: the size of the buffer zone to be kept fallow, or to be planted with the non-GM crop; the removal of "volunteer plants" growing after the removal of the crop; and the amount of liability insurance to be taken out, et cetera. On top of that, he has to buy the pesticide and fertiliser needed to grow the crop. All this diminishes the power of the farmer to use his own discretion in running the farm according to his experience and local conditions.
Each licence for genetically modified organisms dealings raises its own problems and own risks. It is good to have a central, competent authority to deal with these. Many involve specifically local factors, so it is important to have local input into the decisions. The factors may be geographic, economic or social. Although it is very good that there is, more or less, uniform legislation and regulation of gene technology matters in all the States and Territories, the ultimate responsibility for such matters still lies with individual governments. It is therefore important that the State Government have some source of independent—that is, independent from the Federal Government and from industry—knowledge and advice in these matters. There should, therefore, be a New South Wales advisory committee on gene technology, which could be called upon when questions arise that are specific to New South Wales. Such questions can be scientific, economic, social, legal or operational. The committee should thus represent a wide range of knowledge and expertise. The committee should have about 10 members and be administered by a neutral authority, such as the Chief Secretary. It should meet as required when problems arise, but at least twice a year. The sorts of problems that the committee might be expected to deal with are enumerated in the summary sheet.
Under the Gene Technology Act the Ministerial Council can set policy guidelines, but it cannot interfere with any particular applications before the Gene Technology Regulator. There should be some mechanism by which the State can express its concern about a particular case. Although the State Department of Agriculture can advise the Gene Technology Regulator, the Gene Technology Regulator need not accept or follow such advice. Obviously, in the case of the cognate bill, nor does the Minister. The Gene Technology Regulator is not obliged to follow the advice of the organisations that he consults. This includes State agriculture departments, the SGTAC and local government. The Gene Technology Regulator is empowered to initiate his own investigations and, presumably, will have funds for this. The SGTAC will have no funds to carry out its own investigations. There should be some mechanism by which the Gene Technology Regulator is made to take up important problems raised by the SGTAC.
Under the Gene Technology Act only two avenues are open for appeals against decisions of the Grain Technology Regulator. An applicant for a licence can appeal for review by the Gene Technology Regulator or directly to Parliament, or to the Administrative Decisions Appeals Tribunal for a legal, which hopefully would mean a substantive, review. The last-mentioned avenue is also open to an aggrieved party who is directly affected by a decision. The only other avenue is a common law claim for damages due to a decision by the Grain Technology Regulator or to an infringement of a licence. This avenue is also open to an aggrieved party only and does not offer the possibility of a third party being involved in the common interest, or otherwise.
The Gene Technology Act does not define any liability that the user of gene technology or the Gene Technology Regulator may have for environmental damage or for damage caused to a third party. Such damage is envisaged in section 62 (3), in dealing with licence conditions which may "require a license holder to be adequately insured against any loss, damage or injury that may be caused to human health, property or the environment by the licensed dealing". However, companies that go belly up may not necessarily pay those sorts of damages.
If that were not enough, I should now talk directly about the Gene Technology (GM Crop Moratorium) Bill. This bill, in its draft form, gives absolute power to "the Minister", without even stating which Minister. This absolute power is entrenched in the legislation and cannot be challenged in many of its aspects. Clause 12 prevents the challenge, review or questioning of any order made by the Minister. This is an impossible situation for the Minister and the growers affected by the bill. The Minister may not have been in his portfolio for many months and could not possibly know all the answers to all the aspects of a complex field, such as genetically modified organisms—even if those answers were known with some certainty by an independent committee. Of course, in science the definition of "certainty" tends to be a statistical definition. The problems that arise in the field differ from region to region and change in time, and the Minister cannot rely on the decisions made by the Federal Gene Technology Regulator for the whole of Australia. It is therefore essential that there be an ongoing, statutory advisory committee charged with evaluating and planning the use of genetically modified organisms in New South Wales. It is proposed to establish such a committee under an amendment of the cognate Gene Technology (New South Wales) Bill.
Clause 14 prevents the Minister from making any directions unless he can give positive proof that a GMO is involved in that activity. This would prevent him from acting on a suspicion or a report given under clause 21. Clauses 17 and 18 provide that directions under the bill can be appealed only by an aggrieved party to the Supreme Court. Such an appeal does not inhibit the execution of a direction until the court hears the appeal. Challenges under the Administrative Appeals Tribunal also appear to be excluded. Once again, we will be caught up in court waiting times. Clause 38 gives very wide powers of delegation to the Minister and the Director-General of Agriculture. In the last section authorised persons include "any person of a class prescribed by the regulations". This seems to open the way for self-regulation by the industry, or the situation created in the case of building inspectors when the whole regulatory function was abandoned to the private sector.
The committee must be independent, have an adequate budget for experiments and be totally separate from control by companies. The omens are not propitious. The cost benefits must be analysed and the ecological effects on soil bacteria, pestilence and other organisms, et cetera must be examined extremely carefully. The gung-ho approach to the writing and introduction of the bill does not in any way suggest that the Government is assessing the situation seriously. I thank John Hepworth from Greenpeace, who said that there is no real evidence of benefit in yields. He is concerned about the total ministerial power and NSWAgriculture being part of the joint venture, as is the Victorian Department of Agriculture. Consequently, funding pressure will come from the corporate sector and the department will pressure the Minister to go ahead.
I wonder how the Minister can resist this, with the expertise in his department, but obviously his office does not have this same degree of expertise. Greenpeace pointed out that in the United States, Monsanto has sued farmers who have used seed from the year before and farmers whose land or products are contaminated as if it is their fault. Clause 16 should work the other way around. The bill will be repealed in 2006, but surely it should continue until it is clear that GM crops are safe, and in what form they are safe. Greenpeace pointed out that the legislation does not clearly outline the conditions attached to the three-year moratorium on GE canola crops in New South Wales and, thus, does not clearly fulfil the Government's pre-election commitment.
Clause 6 states that the legislation will expire on 3 March 2006, which makes little sense if the legislation establishes a framework to put in place a moratoria on different food crops. Clause 7 will allow the Minister to establish a moratorium order. The details of the specific moratorium order are not contained within the legislation and would need to be added. It would be more sensible for the moratorium order to contain the end date rather than the legislative framework. The repeal date makes sense only if the legislation is structured such that the terms of the moratorium are included in the legislation. If the legislation remains open-ended as a framework to establish a moratorium, then the moratorium order for GM canola should be tabled with the legislation. If the repeal date remains in place then details of the moratorium for GM canola should be part of the legislation.
The discretionary capacity of the Minister to prohibit cultivation in New South Wales is not adequate. The mechanism to advocate a GM moratorium should require parliamentary approval. Clause 16 leaves it open for non-GM farmers who have been subject to contamination to be liable for clean-up costs. Liability for contamination should rest with the responsible party, including the technology provider and the proponent. The advisory committee is not referred to in the legislation, but its role should be outlined. Greenpeace would like the legislation to achieve, either in the moratorium order or the legislation itself, a moratorium on the commercial release, which includes prohibition on the cultivation and/or growing of genetically engineered canola in New South Wales and prohibition on the introduction of GE canola into agricultural supply chains in New South Wales.
Exemptions must be subject to approval in the first instance by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator [OGTR] as an experimental dealing; technology providers, proponents and growers are able to guarantee no contamination and are fully liable for any contamination that occurs, including all clean-up costs; there are no prudent and feasible alternatives to the use of GE in the proponent's trial; and proponents must demonstrate the purpose of experimental dealing and the need for the experiment. Greenpeace states that the advisory committee is similar in composition to the Gene Technology Grains Committee, which has failed to adequately represent farmers and the wider grain industry. It suggests there is no point in creating a new committee that embodies the failures of the existing committee and recommends that representatives of the Australian Consumers Association, the Grain Harvesters Association, non-GM farmers, the Organic Farmers of Australia, the Local Government Association, the Twynam Agriculture Group, the Stock Feed Manufacturers Association of Australia, the food industry, dairy companies, the honeybee industry, grain exporters, grain marketers, grain handlers, the New South Wales Farmers Association and an environmental representative be appointed to the committee.
The Food Policy Officer of the Australian Consumers Association states that every consumer has the right to make an informed choice and to expect that governments will make decisions to protect them and their interests. The concern of the association is that the approach taken by some governments and bureaucracies is to convince consumers that GM is necessary and inevitable. There is no consumer demand for GM because consumers are concerned about its impact on public health and the environment. Some consumers are opposed to GM on the basis of ethical or religious beliefs. Biotechnology companies will benefit by increasing control over food production and consumption. The more information consumers have about genetically modified food the more cautious they become. Currently, available research has been carried out by or on behalf of biotechnology companies with an interest in showing that GM is not harmful. There is a severe lack of truly independent research.
Most studies are carried out on animals such as rats and chickens over a short time frame of four days to four weeks. Much of the research is incapable of reaching conclusions about the long-term implications of genetic modification on health. The Australian Consumers Association points out the precautionary principle which, in medical parlance, is: above all do no harm. The possibility of serious harm or lack of scientific certainty should not be used as a reason to postpone measures to prevent harm. The Gene Technology Regulator is concluding that GM crops are safe but currently available evidence proves otherwise, which is effectively a reversal of proof. Lack of evidence of harm does not indicate safety; rather, it indicates that more research is required before a concrete conclusion can be drawn about the safety of GM crops on health and the environment.
State and Territory governments attempted to address consumer concerns in GM labelling legislation, but the Federal Government preferred to ignore these concerns. The Federal Government is supporting United States action over the European Union GM moratorium, and the States and Territories are taking a similar precautionary approach. The Australian Consumers Association supports the State and Territory moratorium, as they will allow an opportunity to further investigate the implication of GM on health, the environment, international markets and trade. The Australian Consumers Association believes that the Gene Technology (GM Crop Moratorium) Bill will not deliver on Premier Carr's pre-election promise of a three-year moratorium on the commercial release of GM crops. Under the legislation the Minister will take on a similar role to the Gene Technology Regulator, approving or denying individual GM applications. This does not constitute a moratorium.
The bill must encompass GM trials rather than leaving a loophole for quasi-commercial large-scale GM field trials, and it must be consistent with the Gene Technology Act acknowledging the role of the Gene Technology Regulator while giving the New South Wales Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries the ability to intervene should the regulator's decision pose significant risks. The Minister's advisory panel fails to include adequate consumer representation and, therefore, must be amended. The New South Wales Farmers Association is seeking provision in the legislation for a three-year trial of GM canola of a size that reflects real production conditions, no more than 5,000 hectares but likely to be much smaller. They want the trial to include the sale of GM crops to overseas markets to ensure that export is possible.
New South Wales Farmers also want an independent committee to report to the Minister on the supply chain and market access issues. They recommended that the committee be comprised of an independent chairperson, canola growers, a scientist, an agronomist, and representatives from the Grain Harvesters Association, bulk handlers, marketers, and NSW Agriculture. We are concerned that on balance the bill has been introduced hastily. It gives far too much power to the Minister and there is insufficient budget and time for an independent assessment. The composition of the committees creating the assessment must be changed. We will certainly move amendments and support other amendments in the hope that it will be regulated. We do not oppose the concept of the bill, but its nature and the haste with which it was put together needs a great deal of further attention.
Reverend the Hon. FRED NILE [4.29 p.m.]: The Christian Democratic Party supports in principle the Gene Technology (New South Wales) Bill and its cognate bill, the Gene Technology (GM Crop Moratorium) Bill. The Christian Democratic Party shares the concerns that have already been expressed by other honourable members during this debate. We are moving into unknown territory when we treat food with gene technology. As other honourable members have observed, the debate is similar to debate on changes to human beings through cloning. Many people feel that science is rushing ahead too quickly for our society. Questions have been asked about tests that show no harmful results of gene technology. In many areas of scientific endeavour, it is not a matter of what happens in one, two or even three years: the effects may not be evident for generations. Although innovation may be undertaken with good intentions, sometimes there is a cumulative effect of technology which may not show up for a long period. I hope and pray that that is not the case, but that is one of the concerns of the Christian Democratic Party.
I remember seeing a recent television program on a very healthy young mother who followed every rule and regulation about food she should eat while pregnant. Because she had been told that fish is very good for pregnant women, she ate a great deal of deep-sea fish. She suffered many miscarriages and did not realise until she obtained the results of scientific tests that she had accumulated an almost fatal dose of mercury. Even after she stopped eating a particular species of fish, her mercury levels dropped very slowly. Such contamination occurs only because the larger fish eat smaller fish and consequently deep-sea fish had accumulated mercury. Unexpected side-effects can occur from changes to the food chain, and in the case of the technology the effects may only be evident in the long term. For that reason, gene technology must be monitored carefully by scientists and responsible authorities.
As honourable members know, the Gene Technology (New South Wales) Bill gives effect to a nationally consistent statute-based regulatory scheme to protect public health and safety and the environment from risks associated with gene technology. It is worthwhile remembering that powers for the protection of public health and safety and protection of the environment are vested in the Commonwealth. I was pleased to note that this legislation is designed to be part of a national approach and to complement Commonwealth legislation that was passed in 2000. The Commonwealth Gene Technology Act 2000 clearly states:
The object ... is to protect the health and safety of people, and to protect the environment, by identifying risks posed by or as a result of gene technology, and by managing those risks through regulating certain dealings with GMOs.
The Commonwealth legislation spells out that there will be a regulatory framework to provide that where there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, a lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation, and to provide an efficient and effective system to the application of gene technologies. The powers to legislate to protect health and safety and the environment are vested in the Commonwealth, although I am not suggesting that this Parliament should be uninterested in such matters. The point I make is that it is a matter of establishing a proper order of authority and sequence in dealing with these matters so that honourable members do not approach the legislation before this House as though this State is operating in a vacuum.
In my view some honourable members who participated in this debate are really debating the Commonwealth's legislation which covers the protection of public health and safety and the protection of the environment. My reading of the Commonwealth legislation suggests that the Commonwealth Parliament deliberately intended to cover the field. Because that legislation originated at the Federal level, it provides all the definitions of terms which will be adopted by all State Legislatures in complementing the Commonwealth Act. The definitions include:
gene technology means any technique, modification of genes or other genetic material, but does not include:
(a) sexual reproduction.
The Commonwealth legislation does not apply to any technology that relates to human beings. The Commonwealth Act also states:
genetically modified organism means:
(a) an organism that has been modified by gene technology.
That definition provides further detail that I will not go into. Because protections are provided in the Commonwealth legislation, that relieves this State of the responsibility of formulating provisions under State jurisdictions. Severe penalties are provided in the Commonwealth Act against persons who do not conform to regulations relating to gene technology. The Commonwealth Act provides for a number of offences, including aggravated offences which cause significant damage to health or safety of people or to the environment. Section 38 states:
An offensive is an aggravated offence if the commission of the offence causes significant damage, or is likely to cause significant damage, to the health and safety of people or to the environment.
I will not go into detail, but that provision shows that a great deal of care has been taken in moving into gene technology innovation. I note also that the regulator will be a Federal entity. My attempts to establish whether the regulator will be a board or a commission have led me to the belief that the regulator will be one person who acts on the advice of a technical advisory committee and a gene technology community consultative committee. At the Federal level there is also an ethics committee. Because those controls have been established at the Federal level, there is no need to have State counterpart ethics committees. The Federal Gene Technology Ethics Committee is comprised of people with expertise and ethical experience in matters concerning the environment, health, applied ethics, law, religious practices, population health and agricultural practices, among others.
The Hon. Ian Macdonald: They are working currently. The members have been appointed.
Reverend the Hon. FRED NILE: Yes. The Commonwealth Act covers the fields of protection and safety in the application of gene technology, although some honourable members who have participated in this debate have been speaking as though the State Parliament is operating in a vacuum which justifies the State Minister setting up similar bodies—as if New South Wales has independent responsibilities for gene technology innovation. We are part of a national network. The Minister has the power to provide exemptions, but does he do that in consultation with the regulator so that the exemptions would be approved by the Minister and/or the regulator?
The Hon. Ian Macdonald: No. The trials employ the regulator's protocol, on the advice of the advisory committee.
Reverend the Hon. FRED NILE: But the regulator does not have to confirm the Government's decision?
The Hon. Ian Macdonald: No. They have a structure which would be applied.
Reverend the Hon. FRED NILE: The Minister explained at the crossbench briefing that the Gene Technology (GM Moratorium) Bill basically deals with marketing, and that is why it contains nothing about safety, health, environment—those matters are covered in the Federal legislation, which applies to New South Wales. Obviously there is tension over the use of GM products. The European Union has been strongly opposed to GM products, but apparently it has now lifted that ban. GM products have been widely used in the United States of America, Canada, the Argentine, China, India, and other countries. If Australia moves more strongly into this area, its future markets may be affected and countries may not purchase our GM products. Apparently the countries to which we currently sell our products will not be affected. Obviously, those involved in marketing would ensure that if GM crops are produced there would still be a market for all our products.
There would be no point in having advanced technology that would prevent us from selling our products. However, there are other practical problems with trials, including their size. At briefings crossbenchers heard that the plots would be 1,000 hectares or more, because to be beneficial they need to be fairly large. Small-plot trials did not deliver conclusive results. The Minister will need to resolve the size of the buffer between GM and non-GM areas when he considers any exemptions. The Gene Technology (GM Crop Moratorium) Bill fulfils the commitment by the Premier given prior to the March State election to place a three-year ban on the commercial release of GM food products in New South Wales, such as canola, mustard and field peas. The moratorium applies from 3 March 2003.
Pest-resistant cotton products, which have been grown in New South Wales for several years, will be exempt from that moratorium. About one-third of the New South Wales cotton crop is GM cotton. Of course, as other honourable members have said, we do not eat cotton. Therefore GM cotton production is not as controversial as is the production of GM foods. I have a recollection, however, that product from cotton farmers was being treated and sold to animals for stock feed. Does that mean that GM products were consumed by animals in stock feed and then by humans via the food chain? Perhaps I should not have said that: the Greens may not have been aware of that fact. The crossbenchers have received briefings from a number of organisations concerned about gene technology. Greenpeace was concerned about the discretionary capacity of the Minister to prohibit cultivation. The briefing paper from Greenpeace stated:
Clause 16 leaves it open for Non-GM farmers who have been subject to contamination to be liable for clean up costs. Liability to contamination should rest with the responsible parties including the technology provider and the proponent.
The non-GM farmer should not be penalised for the practices of GM farmers. I ask the Minister to explain whether that interpretation is correct. The New South Wales Farmers Association appears to be sitting on the fence. In a document entitled "GM moratorium allows more time for research" the association stated:
The State Government's moratorium on GM crops has been welcomed by the NSW Farmers' Association, which says more research needs to be done before there's a general release of the technology.
Association President, Mal Peters, says a lot of questions still need to be answered from a farming perspective, such as the performance of GM crops, whether they can be kept apart from non-GM crops and their ability to be sold.
The association wants more trials held so that final decisions can be made. Its statement continued:
These trials must be tightly controlled, but big enough to test the claims of the biotech companies about how the crops perform in the field, along with the capabilities of the supply chain and both domestic and international markets.
In some respects the New South Wales Farmers Association is hedging its bets, but obviously it supports both bills. A deputation from the Network of Concerned Farmers, which is concerned about some aspects of the moratorium bill, addressed the crossbenchers. It submitted:
Any new trials must be decided by the [advisory] committee and must comply with the following criteria:
A 10 km notification zone;
Zero contamination within the notification zone.
The Minister, in his wisdom, will have to weigh up those matters, as well as determine the size of the trials.
The Hon. Ian Macdonald: The advisory committee will address that, taking into account the national protocol.
Reverend the Hon. FRED NILE: And the committee will advise the Minister of its resolution. The Australian Consumers Association was fairly negative about the use of gene technology. The association is unhappy about some of the conditions of the moratorium. It stated:
This legislation will not deliver on Premier Carr's pre-election promise of a three-year moratorium on the commercial release of GM crops.
That is because the Minister can grant exemptions. But the association wants a total moratorium.
The Hon. Ian Macdonald: We never said we would ban research.
Reverend the Hon. FRED NILE: The Christian Democratic Party supports the bills. There is no point moving amendments that would reverse some of the objectives of the bills. Maybe in Committee members will debate whether the amendments are in line with the objects of the bills. We will vote on the amendments on the basis of trying to maintain the objects of the two bills.
The Hon. RICK COLLESS [4.48 p.m.]: The Gene Technology (GM Crop Moratorium) Bill relates to the Government's pre-election commitment to enact a three-year moratorium on the commercial release of genetically modified [GM] plants. The bill enables the Minister to make an order prohibiting the cultivation in New South Wales of a GM food plant and to make an exemption order under the moratorium to allow the cultivation of GM food plants. It enables the Minister to elect a person or persons to destroy or dispose of any GM food plant found to be grown in contravention of the moratorium. The bill makes it an offence to fail to comply with the direction of the Minister and allows the Director-General of NSW Agriculture to appoint inspectors with wide-ranging powers to examine sites and crops to determine whether the moratorium under the bill has been complied with. Finally, the bill enables the Supreme Court to grant an injunction restraining a person from contravening the proposed Act.
The Minister has also indicated that a GM advisory council will be established to monitor field trials under a moratorium. The bill enacts a moratorium on the release of GM food crops consistent with the New South Wales Coalition's policy, although the Government's moratorium is shorter than the five-year moratorium proposed by the Coalition. As the shadow agriculture Minister, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, has indicated, the Coalition has some serious concerns about this bill. Let me reiterate those concerns. First, the Minister becomes the sole arbiter of whether an exemption can be granted under the moratorium. Second, the bill does not give any details on how the trials may be conducted under the moratorium, including what contamination issues might be addressed and what guidelines will be enacted to protect conventional crops from potential GM contamination. Third, the bill does not specify how genetic plant material that is seized in contravention of the moratorium will be disposed of, and it makes no reference to what measures will be put in place to ensure that GM contamination does not occur during the disposal process.
The bill contains no reference to the advisory council referred to in the Minister's press release of 15 May and it does not allow any appeal process against the Minister granting an exemption to the moratorium. As has already been said in this House on a number of occasions, the bill also enacts the repeal of the Act on 3 March 2006. I believe that is inappropriate as it automatically repeals the Act even if the forthcoming research trials ultimately preclude the widespread release of GM crops. The Opposition does not oppose this bill but it proposes to move amendments in Committee along the following lines: to replace the advisory council structure and functions in the bill based on the structure used to enact the New South Wales Game Council under the Game and Feral Animal Control Bill 2002; to include strict definitions on how trials may be conducted under a moratorium, including guidelines and requirements relating to contamination issues; to allow a defined appeal process against the granting of a ministerial exemption order; and to specify methods of disposal of seized GM material and specified guidelines for the transport of GM-contaminated material.
The Coalition has openly consulted with the New South Wales Farmers Association, the Australian Wheat Board, the Network of Concerned Farmers, the Natural Produce Network and Greenpeace Australia. The Federal Gene Technology Act 2000, which underpins the new regulatory system, took effect on 21 June 2001. The new system, which is Australia's first national regulatory system for gene technology, is designed to protect the health and safety of people and the environment by identifying risks posed by or as a result of gene technology, and to manage those risks by regulating certain dealings with genetically modified organisms. The new regulatory system replaces the former voluntary system overseen by the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee. The legislation also establishes a statutory officer, the Gene Technology Regulator, to administer the legislation and make decisions under that legislation. The regulator is supported by the Office of Gene Technology Regulator [OGTR]—a Commonwealth regulatory body located within the health and ageing portfolio.
The Act prohibits persons from dealing with genetically modified organism GMOs unless the dealing is exempt, is a notifiable low-risk dealing on the register of GMOs, or is licensed by the regulator. The OGTR has received an application from Aventis CropScience Pty Ltd for a licence for the limited and controlled release of genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant canola registered under the trade name InVigor. InVigor canola plants have been genetically modified to introduce a hybrid breeding system based on male sterile and fertility restorer lines, and to be tolerant to the herbicide glufosinate ammonium. Lines T45 and Topas 19/2 have been genetically modified to introduce glufosinate ammonium tolerance but do not contain the hybrid breeding system. Glufosinate ammonium, a herbicidal chemical marketed as Liberty Herbicide and Basta, is used to control a range of weeds as a post-emergent herbicide over the top of the genetically modified canola crop. Commercially grown canola yields from 1 to 2.5 tonnes of seed per hectare, with an oil content of between 40 and 50 per cent. The post-crushing meal is also used as a high-protein animal feed.
Before I became a member of Parliament I was an agricultural consultant. I did a lot of work with canola, soybean and maize growers, and growers of many other crops. We obtained some interesting results for those three crops. I refer, in particular, to yield increases of 20 per cent in canola with an increased oil content of 6 per cent—rising from 43 per cent to 49 per cent. This was achieved by better crop management, more appropriate fertiliser use, and developing with the farmer an understanding of biological fertiliser management. Weed control was also improved. I will refer to a couple of different types of plants to reveal how this improved weed control can occur. The plants that are generally used as crop plants and which are high in protein can be referred to as proteinaceous plants. They are encouraged by high and better crop nutrition.
The other sorts of plants—weed-type plants that can be referred to as carbonaceous plants—can survive under conditions of lower calcium, lower phosphorous and lower sulfur in the soil. The plants are called carbonaceous plants because they only have access to the nutrients of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. They are the weed species. When we manage the soil correctly, the proteinaceous plants, or the high-value crop plants—wheat, canola, barley, corn, soybeans and those sorts of plants—are favoured by better nutrition conditions in the soil and will compete much more effectively with the carbonaceous plants or the weed species. I also had similar results with soybeans and corn, with a 20 per cent increase in yield and higher oil content in soybeans and a 20 per cent increase in maize crops just by better understanding the crop nutrition requirements and the biological activity of the soils.
The literature for InVigor canola states that yield increases of up to 15 per cent can be achieved when compared with yields for conventional open-pollinated canola species. One must ask: Why were the yield increases not compared to currently available non-GM hybrid varieties such as the Hyola lines, which also have a considerable yield advantage over the open-pollinated varieties? Apples are not being compared with apples; they are being compared with onions. The yield increases that my client farmers achieved were with the Hyola hybrids. They were compared to the same variety in the same year but with conventional fertiliser management as recommended by the mainstream agencies.
Canola oil is used in the manufacture of a variety of products. Canola meal is primarily used as a feed for livestock, but it is also used in poultry and fish feed, pet foods and fertilisers. The OGTR's risk assessment and risk management plan states that none of the canola plants from the release, or their by-products, will be used in human food or animal food. I wonder what will happen to the meal that is obtained from the crushing of this genetically modified canola seed? Oil derived from InVigor canola has been approved for human consumption by Food Standards Australia New Zealand—formerly the Australian New Zealand Food Authority. In the research that I have done on this topic I have not been able to locate the research papers that confirm its suitability for human consumption that must have been reviewed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand. I am sure that they exist, but I have not been able to find them.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: That is not uncommon when one is trying to research a subject.
The Hon. RICK COLLESS: It is difficult to find the opposing view promoted by the proponents of the GM technology.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: I have found that when statements are made and it is hard to find supporting evidence for them.
The Hon. RICK COLLESS: Absolutely. I have also found it difficult to find such supporting evidence. Given that deoxyribonucleic acid [DNA] is an amino acid—all amino acids are the building blocks of proteins—and it has been modified in genetically modified crops, the question that remains relates to the amino acid molecular structure of GMO crops. Has the structure of the resultant proteins been changed and by how much? That is the question to which I have not been able to find an answer. What effect will these changed proteins have on the health and wellbeing of animals, including humans, who ultimately consume these proteins?
InVigor Canola has been grown in various locations and conditions in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania. The largest approved trial site was 712 hectares. The regulator has made an initial assessment that the potential release does not pose a significant risk to human health or the environment. However, I am concerned that some of this genetic material may have already escaped into the environment. Is it already too late to prevent the contamination of wild populations of Brassica species? With so many unanswered questions regarding vested interests and complex health, environmental and economic issues involved in this debate, the Coalition welcomes the moratorium.
At present three genetically modified agricultural crops are commercially available in Australia: Ingard BT Cotton, Roundup Ready Cotton, and Ingard/Roundup Ready Cotton. Canola may well be the next GM crop commercially available in Australia, irrespective of whether the majority of farmers and the wider community want it. Agrifood Awareness Australia promotes itself as an industry initiative established in May 1999 to increase public awareness of, and encourage informed debate about, gene technology. The organisation was founded by six peak bodies, including the Grains Research and Development Corporation, Avcare, the National Farmers Federation, the Seed Industry Association of Australia, the Australian Biotechnology Association and the National Agricultural Commodities Marketing Association.
Agrifood Awareness Australia has released the results of a survey involving 1,000 participants that was conducted in June 2002 by Market Attitude Research Services on behalf of the Commonwealth Government agency Biotechnology Australia. As to the perceived benefits of GM foods, 75 per cent of survey respondents reported decreased use of pesticides and chemicals on crops, 69 per cent believed agricultural land would be used more efficiently and that higher yielding crops would lead to less expensive food, 53 per cent of respondents believed the risks of GM food currently outweigh the benefits, and 43 per cent of respondents felt that the risks will decrease with time. Some 73 per cent of respondents believed that they required more information about the technology.
It is worth noting that the perceived benefits of decreased use of pesticides and higher-yielding crops can be achieved by more appropriate agronomic practices and by growing healthier crops. Healthy crops are more resistant to insect attack and weed invasion, as I explained earlier. The Network of Concerned Farmers [NCF] is a loose network of farmers who are concerned about the economic, environmental and social impacts of genetic engineering. The network aims to protect the rights of farmers to grow non-GE crops. Due to what they consider to be the impossibility of co-existence and segregation, they are working to stop the release of GE crops in Australia. Their concerns about GE canola relate to marketability, herbicide resistance, environmental impacts, patents and the corporate control of farming.
The NCF is supported in its concerns by the Australian Wheat Board [AWB], which recently announced its opposition to the commercial release of genetically modified canola. In a submission to the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator [OGTR], the AWB said that there are not enough adequate safeguards to protect the integrity of the wheat crop. Andrew Lindberg, AWB managing director, said that the introduction of genetically modified canola might place at risk export markets in the Middle East and Asia. The AWB is one of the world's largest wheat management and marketing companies. It is responsible for the management and marketing of all Australian export bulk wheat and accounts for about 3 per cent of the total value of Australia's exports and about 12 per cent of Australia's total farm exports. The AWB joins a long list of grains industry organisations that oppose the release of genetically modified canola, including the Australian Barley Board, Pulse Australia, Twynams Agriculture Group, ICM Agribusiness and others. Farmers are concerned that State governments have not prepared appropriate legislation. Issues such as moratorium legislation, GM-free zones, licence conditions applying to economic assessment and comparisons of supply chain models, and contingency planning and insurance matters must be prepared and instigated prior to the release of GMOs.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: Twynams is an interesting case because it grows GM cotton.
The Hon. RICK COLLESS: Yes, but it is opposed to the release of GM canola.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: And quite rightly so.
The Hon. RICK COLLESS: Yes. Twynams is certainly a mainstream agriculture company. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition makes an interesting point. There are two distinct groups in this debate: those who farm organically for the sake of it and mainstream producers who have identified an advantage in selling to the organic market. We are obviously most concerned about those mainstream producers who see a huge benefit in producing crops with organic certification and gaining a subsequent market advantage.
Non-GM farmers do not approve of the OGTR crop of management plans, which they say place unacceptable impositions on the non-GM grower. They believe the risk management assessment prepared by the OGTR does not address adequately the control of volunteer plants post harvest of the GM crop. Contrary to statements made by the OGTR, many farmers believe there is a major difference between GM-modified canola and non-GM canola and there is a need to keep GM crops and non-GM crops segregated at a far greater purity level. Farmers want other concerns to be addressed. They believe the five-metre buffer zone determined by the OGTR is insufficient to control contamination. GM canola becomes a weed and, unlike other weeds, it is impossible to remove from non-GM canola crops. The consequence and management of gene stacking has not been risk assessed adequately. Non-GM seed production is not possible under existing plans using 400-metre buffer zones. The exclusion of the risk assessment of economic and social risk is unreasonable and the OGTR must consider economics. There is no field testing kit available to detect contamination in non-GM crops.
Licence conditions must identify GM canola as a notifiable crop. Neighbours must be notified that GM crops are being grown in order to ensure effective risk management. This requirement is consistent with requiring farmers who use herbicides such as endosulfan that have an impact on export markets to notify their neighbours of that usage. Cotton farmers who use that herbicide must notify their neighbours who run cattle to give them the opportunity to take appropriate action to avoid potential endosulfan contamination. The same regime should apply to genetically modified material. Responsibility for a contamination clean-up plan must be demanded of Bayer as part of the risk management of its product.
The NCF argues that the results of recent research in Britain have shown that gene transfer from genetically modified food occurs within the guts of humans and that gene transfer from crops to nearby weeds is also higher than expected. In fact, that is openly acknowledged in the OGTR's risk assessment and risk management plan. The NCF also claims that other research from Canada and the United States of America suggests that the growing of crops that are genetically modified to be herbicide resistant could result in the increased use of some herbicides, with adverse health and environmental effects.
Should the herbicide-resistant gene escape into non-GM crops and wild populations, higher herbicide concentrations would need to be applied in order to control the genetically modified weeds. Other concerns of the NCF are, first, that it is a difficult crop to contain as it is open-pollinating and spillages are commonplace. They are often evidenced on the side of the road and on railway lines, and throughout pasture and cereal crops volunteer plants are often seen in abundance. It is worth noting that recently the Government attempted to blame a canola seed spillage on a railway line for one of its Tangara trains suddenly accelerating. It claimed the canola seed on the line reduced the traction of the train, but I do not think anyone really believes that. Is that an open admission that it is impossible to keep canola seed in a rail truck?
The second concern is that the Federal Government's GMO legislation deals only with health, safety and the environment and does not consider any commercial impacts. Third, conventional farmers will have to bear the costs of segregating GM seed at silo delivery points. These concerns must be addressed. The European GM ban and the Australian moratoria on the development of GM crops provide breathing space for proper and further research. This can be done with the proposed field trials. Paula Fitzgerald from Agrifood Awareness Australia confirms in her article "The Grains Millennium Opportunity or a Great Myth Overload" that canola may well be the next GM crop commercially available in Australia. She says that overseas, particularly in Canada, transgenic canola accounts for much of the canola grown.
The canola industry in Canada recently commissioned a study to qualify and quantify the agronomic and economic impacts of transgenic canola. The study surveyed 650 growers in western Canada, with half answering questions on transgenic canola and the other half responding to questions on their conventional canola. In addition, 13 case studies were conducted with growers of both transgenic and conventional varieties. In answer to the question why they chose transgenic varieties, more than 50 per cent of growers said that the key benefit and motivator for adopting transgenics was more efficient weed control and ease of herbicide management in preventing weed resistance. Nineteen per cent noted better yield, better return and more profit.
Ms Fitzgerald briefly summarised other findings from the study, which includes the finding that more than 80 per cent of growers of transgenic canola said that weed control was more effective and 59 per cent said herbicide management to delay weed resistance was easier. In regard to managing volunteer canola, 76 per cent of growers of transgenic canola said that it was the same as or easier than managing conventional canola. On average, transgenic systems resulted in three bushels to the acre, or a 10 per cent yield advantage over conventional varieties in 2000. The growers of transgenic canola used less fuel due to fewer field operations—tillage, harrowing, fertiliser, less summer fallow, et cetera. Growers reported using slightly more fertiliser for transgenic canola, which translated to a higher cost when compared to conventional canola. Growers of transgenic canola used less herbicide than growers of conventional canola.
These are all very desirable outcomes, but it is important that we do not substitute good agronomic science with untested and questionable biotechnology. Mal Peters, President of New South Wales Farmers, said recently that any trials must be tightly controlled, but big enough to test the claims of the biotechnology companies as to how the crops perform in the field, along with the capabilities of the supply chain and both domestic and international markets. There is a huge division in public opinion in New South Wales, and the only way to resolve it is to ensure that there is an economic assessment, based on scientific judgement sourced from an independent trial. I want more intensive research into variations in the amino acid and protein structure, and any potential variations to human health, animal health and environmental risks that may emanate from the broadscale production of GM canola.
I do not believe that the research that has been carried out with mice is sufficient in the short term. We need to look at the long-term cumulative subclinical effects on various animal and plant species in the environment. I want much more research into the fundamental agronomic health of agricultural soils and the impact on crop, animal and human health. There is plenty of evidence around the world to suggest that healthy soils lead to healthy plants and healthy plants lead ultimately to healthy animals. If humans eat healthy plant and animal material they will ultimately be healthy. It is a tight-knit circle of which we need to be aware.
Canola is a self-pollinating plant but cross-pollination is possible. It reproduces by wind and insect pollination with the potential for the pollen to disperse about a metre through plants brushing together in the wind. Also, canola pollen attracts a range of nectar-feeding and pollen-collecting insects, the most important of which is the honey bee. Beekeepers advise that bees regularly fly up to 10 kilometres in search of and to collect pollen, although there has been heated debate about that distance. Recently the Belgium Government refused to approve an application from Aventis to conduct field tests with GM herbicide-tolerant canola because the Belgium Minister for Consumer Interests, Health and Environment noted that pollen may be transferred up to four kilometres by bees.
Generally, GM canola trial sites are separated by 400 metres from other Brassica crops—this is often referred to as a buffer zone—and the sites are surrounded by a 15-metre buffer of non-GM canola or a non-Brassica crop with a similar flowering time. In addition, a 50-metre zone around the site is monitored for sexually compatible species one month before planting, and from a week before the crop begins to flower until it stops flowering. Any sexually compatible plants found in the area must be removed. These guidelines are established to minimise the risk of any GM canola plants escaping from the site or of pollen spread. It is desirable that that process be implemented on the release of these field trials, but if it is to be implemented after the general release of GM canola it will result in considerable conditions being imposed on canola farmers.
In reality, it will not happen and the escape of GM material into the wild populations will result. The OGTR's risk assessment and risk management plan acknowledges that the risks exist. It states that the risk of InVigor canola establishing as a weed is low and the transfer of introduced genes to non-GM canola crops is low. It states that there is potential for transfer of the introduced genes to weedy relatives of canola via outcrossing. The likelihood of transfer of the introduced genes to other organisms is also low. Even though the plan insists that the risks are low, the fact that they are acknowledged in any form concerns me.
Last year much publicity was given to a Canadian grain farmer who came to Australia to spread the word that GM canola was safe. He addressed meetings all over this State. On 15 March the SBS program Insight claimed that the farmer, Bruce Dalgarno, was paid a daily allowance of $150 by Monsanto, plus his travel expenses. This caused a major scandal in Canada. Insight claimed that Paula Fitzgerald, from Agrifood Awareness Australia, knew of Bruce Dalgarno's links with Monsanto when it invited him to come to Australia. In May 1999, when Agrifood Awareness Australia was launched, it described itself as an industry initiative, established to increase public awareness of, and encourage informed debate about, gene technology.
It says it is committed to providing quality, factual information on the use of gene technology in agriculture, and the implications this may have on the entire food chain. It is an alliance supported by three peak bodies: the National Farmers Federation, the Grains Research and Development Corporation and Avcare, which represents chemical companies including Monsanto and Bayer. The Grains Research and Development Corporation [GRDC] is one of the world's leading grains research organisations, responsible for planning, investing and overseeing research and development, delivering improvements in production, sustainability and profitability across the Australian grains industry.
One has to ask how independent is the factual information being released by this organisation and why the National Farmers Federation so closely aligned itself. Insight also reported that new studies conducted by the Research Centre of the University of Adelaide recently suggest that the chance of contamination between GM canola and non-GM canola is extremely low. However, those studies were partially funded by—surprise, surprise—Monsanto and Bayer. The Gene Technology Grains Committee is a voluntarily established industry committee that has been given the role by the State Government to represent the grains industry. There is concern that there is no transparency or obvious criteria regarding guidelines for how this committee intends to involve or acknowledge industry stakeholders in its decisions.
Many farmers have criticised the committee's protocols. The Network of Concerned Farmers has criticised the membership of the committee with a make-up of GM developers, 34 per cent; Avcare, 11 per cent—an organisation funded by chemical and biotech companies; farm chemical suppliers, about 3 per cent; government, 20 per cent; consultants, 3 per cent; grains industry lobby and research groups, 18 per cent; trading companies, 5 per cent; and the organic industry, 3 per cent. Insight claims that Avcare established this committee and runs its meetings. It was also claimed, and confirmed by the chairman of the Gene Technology Grains Committee, that Avcare paid for an outside consultant to prepare the chairman's public relations strategy. So how balanced is the debate out there? There is not enough research, not enough people being heard.
On the other side of the argument is Dr Norman Borlaug, renowned as the father of the green revolution for his role in the development of miracle wheat and who assisted in developing high-yielding disease-resistant strains of wheat, transforming agriculture and averting famine in many parts of the world. Dr Borlaug has raised the interesting concept, which should appeal to many of my upper House colleagues, that growing more crops per acre leaves more land for nature and, furthermore, that without higher yields peasant farmers will continue to destroy wild lands and species to keep from starving. Sustainable higher yields could save both. The world is already farming 37 per cent of its land area, and the wild forests are what are left over after humans harvest their food and forest products.
Currently there are 55 million hectares planted to GM crops globally. It is imperative that we push ahead with trials of genetically modified crops. We cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand over this issue. The biggest challenge that faces wealthy western nations such as Australia in the future is how we feed the 150 to 180 people born every minute in developing countries. As I said earlier, we should not be forfeiting good science in agriculture for the adoption of trendy genetic engineering before all unknown aspects of the science and the potential pitfalls are fully researched. I am not opposed to genetic engineering per se, but I am opposed to genetic engineering before all the research is completed and when it is being promulgated as a solution to poor agricultural science. I look forward to the debate in Committee.
Reverend the Hon. Dr GORDON MOYES [5.23 p.m.]: I note a number of criticisms of the bills. The Leader of the Christian Democratic Party indicated that we will support both bills in principle, but I foreshadow that in the Committee stages I will move an amendment that will answer some of the criticisms regarding membership of the advisory council, some of which were made by the Hon. Rick Colless, and the functions of the council. I feel sure the amendment will answer some of those criticisms that have already been made in the House. I foreshadow that I will recommend that the members of the advisory council should be representatives of the peak farming bodies, the grain industry, the department, environmental groups, the biotechnology industry and scientific research organisations, as well as an independent chair. I will also outline the functions of the advisory council. I mention that at this stage in the hope that it will obviate the concerns of some honourable members about those matters.
The Hon. Dr PETER WONG [5.24 p.m.]: I will make only brief comment on these bills. It is obvious that the bills we are debating today have created great concerns for many Australians, including farmers, environmentalists and communities, as well as many members of Parliament. It is obvious also, from listening to the debate, that at present there are no answers to many questions that are being asked. I believe this is a clayton's moratorium. It is a done deal. What remains to be discussed is how we can protect the interests of at least some of our farmers, how to minimise the harmful impact of this proposal on our environment, and how to extract from the multinationals a better deal for our farmers and consumers.
I have a feeling that, regretfully, we are being forced to debate and implement policy on genetically engineered foods, and that many Australians are not in favour of that policy. In this case we are being asked to follow an agenda that is not initiated by Australia itself. It is not a happy situation in which we find ourselves. Advocates of GE canola, for example, highlight the success of increased yields of up to 15 per cent. By the way, there was not even a guarantee by the providers of GE seeds. It was also claimed that GE canola requires less use of insecticides and herbicides. Again, this is a point that is debatable. One of the strongest arguments is that there is a strong market for GE canola oil; and, by the way, the whole world is going that way anyway, and why do we not follow?
Even assuming that all those goals are achievable, albeit in a trendy way, a number of honourable members have mentioned that many farmers are concerned about the risks they must take for crops that are imposed upon them unnecessarily. No doubt, for some, their crops will be harder to sell. There is no doubt that the risk of crop contamination by GE canola is more than small. Worst of all, eventually those farmers affected may be asked to meet the costs of contamination themselves. Therefore, I am concerned that, on behalf of the New South Wales Government, we are forced to befriend biotech companies, and that in turn the livelihood of New South Wales farmers could be severely disadvantaged, without offering them or consumers a better choice.
The Government obviously cannot guarantee that GE trial crops will not contaminate GE-free crops. Therefore, I do not believe at this stage that this pseudo moratorium represents the interests of, or will benefit, either consumers or farmers. We have to remember that at the moment New South Wales farmers are going through a drought. This proposal will only add to their plight. The pressures that farmers are under at present are already causing social impacts such as depression, suicide and family breakdowns.
Ms LEE RHIANNON [5.29 p.m.]: I support my colleague Mr Ian Cohen, who has comprehensively outlined the growing concerns of people around the world about genetically engineered crops and produce. The common demand is that a moratorium be put in place while we learn more about the consequences of these crops. We can learn a great deal from some very interesting developments overseas. I refer specifically to the current situation in the Philippines, where a number of people have been on a hunger strike since 22 April to oppose the introduction of a genetically modified corn crop, Bt corn, which is patented by Monsanto Corporation, and contains in every cell, including the grains, a built-in poison to kill the corn borer. This has created a number of problems, including the possible contamination of the local corn industry. As we have heard from previous speakers, once GM crops are in place, non-GM crops can be contaminated.
Evidence of the damage that Bt corn can do to people's health is already available. A histopathologist from the United Kingdom, Dr Stanley Ewen, has warned that Bt corn can increase the risk of stomach and colon cancers. The hunger strikers in the Philippines are protesting about this variety of GE corn. These incredibly courageous people include Robert Verzola, a member of the Philippine Greens and a former member of the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines; his compatriot Luisita Esmao, who was unfortunately hospitalised on 10 May; Ann Larracas; and Father Robert Reyes. Their contribution and the significance of their protest are enormous because they reflect the degree of concern of people around the world with the introduction of GE crops, similar to that of the Greens and many other groups in Australia. I urge the new Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries in the carriage of his first bill to do the right thing by the people and the environment of New South Wales.
The Hon. IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries) [5.32 p.m.], in reply: I thank honourable members for their comments on the bills. On 3 March when the Government announced that it would proceed with these bills it was clear that a moratorium would be imposed on the commercial release of crops for primarily food consumption. Honourable members have had 2½ months to prepare themselves for the debate. In early May I announced in this House that the bill would be introduced on 20 May, it would be debated, and it was the Government's intention that it would be dealt with this week. I made that very clear-cut commitment in answer to a question during question time about what the Government was doing with the bills. Consequently, honourable members had plenty of time to ready themselves, and it is obvious from today's debate that they have prepared themselves well. They have provided a range of views on the application of genetically modification technology.
I have listened intently to each speaker, and I intend to reply at some length to the objections and questions raised by each member. The bills provide a very workable and important regime. Together they will ensure that New South Wales participates effectively in the national scheme for the regulation of genetically modified organisms through the Federal Office of the Gene Technology Regulator [OGTR]. Participation in the national scheme will have significant advantages over this State trying to establish its own regulatory system. The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator will provide a transparent regulatory scheme with the strength that only a nationally consistent scheme can offer. The moratorium bill will guarantee that farmers and the broader community have the time to ensure that the potential of this technology for the betterment of humankind is achieved with an absolute minimum of adverse impact on the marketing potential of New South Wales both domestically and, more importantly, internationally of non-GM food plants.
As I said, it is realistic to hope for plants that will either cope with environmental stresses, such as soil and water salinity, or even improve the environment to better compete with severe environmental weeds or the bioremediation of contaminated land. The Government is keen to ensure that this State does not miss out on the potential benefits promised by this technology. The science in this area and the world situation in regard to the marketing opportunities for GM crops and food products are moving so fast that a moratorium lasting any longer than three years, which the Opposition put forward during the election campaign, would pose a risk that this State could miss out on these benefits. Three years is adequate to consider these issues. The GM advisory committee I announced today will assist in reviewing the situation. The committee will investigate such matters as affecting the management of the GM moratorium on food crops as the Minister refers to it for investigation.
The GM advisory committee will report to the Minister on advances in science that may affect the management and use of GM technology as it affects agriculture and related industries. It will provide a capacity to seek consensus from stakeholder members on important GMO matters, including marketing issues when GM crops are approved for release by the Gene Technology Regulator and GM food crop trials. A number of matters must be canvassed further than the contributions to the debate. I do not think a number of members understood the OGTR processes. The committees structured under the OGTR consist of a very broad range of individuals that encompasses thoroughly most of the aspects of the debate.
During the debate and when referring to the Greens amendment, the Hon. Ian Cohen mentioned pollen being transferred by bees and he suggested that pollen could be spread over 10 kilometres from its source. My advice is that Australian investigations have shown that the vast majority of pollen travels less than 10 metres. In extreme cases when there is evidence of wind transfer it may travel up to 1.5 kilometres and up to 4 kilometres by insect transfer. The size of buffer zones to manage pollen transfer will vary with type, size and location of each research trial. The restriction of pollen transfer can be addressed on a case-by-case basis by requiring pollen traps to be located at trial sites and by requiring the GM plant to be bagged or covered when flowering. Those detailed protocols are required by the OGTR when issuing licences for research trials to address the unintended environmental contamination.
The key issues raised by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition during his contribution to the debate included a request for a moratorium, more detail in the bill and a guarantee of zero contamination. My response is that we do not live in a world which guarantees zero risk in any area of human endeavour. No aspect of farming has a zero tolerance and there is no such guarantee in any part of life. Even the most stringent market for the importation of food in the world, the European Union, allows a tolerance of 0.9 per cent for unintended GP contamination. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition also complained that the bill does not set out any details of the advisory council to which I referred in my second reading speech.
The key points of clarification sought by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition are the functions of the council and its reporting obligations. I indicated clearly in my second reading speech the role and membership provisions relating to the advisory council. I would have thought it obvious that a ministerial advisory council report to the Minister. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition also commented that no grain marketing representative was proposed to be a member of the advisory council, and a similar concern was expressed by the Hon. Rick Colless. I indicated in my second reading speech that the Australian Wheat Board International would be invited to take up membership of the council.
The Hon. Duncan Gay: We are pleased to hear that. Why was that not part of your press release?
The Hon. IAN MACDONALD: As I stated, it was mentioned in my second reading speech. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition also mentioned that currently there are no details on how trials would be approved. He seeks clarification on what a Minister will take into account in deciding whether to approve a trial, what the size of required buffer zones will be, and what will happen to the material that is harvested from trials. He also points out that there is no appeal from grants of exemptions to orders for trials. As I indicated in my second reading speech, the details of research trial design are far too complex and variable for honourable members to expect them to be set out in detail in legislation. That subject is properly the domain of experts and should be dealt with by the advisory council.
I also have indicated that the conditions imposed on the conduct of research trials under exemption orders would mirror those that the OGTR has imposed on trials under Commonwealth legislation. In other words, the protocols that will be in place for trials granted under exemption orders in this State will import the Federal rules for conduct of such trials. Licences for trials are available publicly on the OGTR web site and honourable members may see for themselves the detailed conditions that apply. It is not secret information: It is publicised on the Internet and honourable members are free to examine it.
Issues mentioned by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, such as buffer zones, the fate of harvested material and lots of other issues, will be more than adequately addressed in exemption orders. While I give this undertaking, I must insist that these issues cannot be addressed in the legislation. I will refer all these points to the advisory council and require it to advise me on the conditions that should be imposed on the conduct of research trials under this legislation. I reiterate that under no circumstances will I permit trials to be conducted in New South Wales under less stringent conditions and standards than those imposed by the OGTR. I give that absolute guarantee.
The Deputy Leader of the Opposition also pointed out that there is no right of appeal against the promulgation of an exemption order, especially for neighbours who may feel that their rights are being infringed by a trial that is being conducted on an adjoining property. This is another issue that I will refer to the advisory council. While I will require the council to conduct a rigorous examination of the issue and provide me with expert advice, I anticipate that exemption orders will require that immediate neighbours must be notified of a proposal to conduct a trial. Under the rules applying to the OGTR, I understand that that is already the practice. There are parallels in other aspects of life: for example, in an agricultural environment, a neighbour must be notified of a proposal to build on adjoining land, but that person will not necessarily be able to prevent the building from going ahead.
While I do not accept that neighbours should have a total right of veto over the conduct of a trial, I will be guided by my advisory council, as I have already stated. During the debate the Deputy Leader of the Opposition also mentioned that the Australian Grain Harvesters Association has indicated its concerns over the production of GM crops as it believes that contamination is inevitable. As honourable members would know, large headers are not easy to clean, but header owners are already required to clean them at the New South Wales border to prevent contamination by Queensland wheat and they must also clean out the headers when moving from one type of crop to another. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition has sought to elevate this issue to a higher plane by seeking a guarantee of zero contamination.
All food labelling standards allow a small tolerance for the unintended presence of genetically modified organisms [GMOs] and as I stated earlier it is unrealistic to expect zero tolerance. I have used contract harvesters a number of times on various crops grown on my property, including canola, and I would not allow a header to work on my property without making sure that it had been adequately cleaned. Concerns of that nature can be addressed, and they are currently being addressed under Commonwealth legislation. They can also be dealt with adequately in the protocols that have been implemented under the Commonwealth Act.
The Australian Wheat Board will make a very good contribution to the advisory council. Some honourable members during the debate intimated that they had inferred the council would be a pro-GM body. However, my understanding from a reading of the literature relating to organisations that have sought representation on the advisory council is that probably the majority of council members will support the moratorium for various reasons. For example, they may not necessarily support the proposition that gene technology cannot be developed at some time in the future. That might be a position held by the Hon. Ian Cohen, but the council will no doubt adopt a sceptical approach to arrangements and protocols for the safe handling of GMOs to avoid contamination. I believe the representative organisations will examine the concept of trials in a comprehensive manner and will give a great deal of thought to how the trials should be conducted. I say that because I am convinced that they really want the answers.
It is all very well for honourable members to be against the bill based on something they read on a web site indicating that the proposal has some type of downside. On that basis, they seek to prevent the Government from going ahead with its proposals. As I have stated very clearly in my second reading speech and throughout debate on the bill, the proposal is for scientific trials to be conducted. The proposal is not for the commercial release of canola at all. The trials are exactly what the Government has said they are—research trials based on proper proposals that are designed to operate effectively in meeting research criteria for addressing issues that may be important in the future. Having said all of that and despite my wish to debate many more of the points raised by the Hon. Ian Cohen and the Hon. Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans, I believe it is time to conclude the second reading debate. I commend the bill to the House.
Motion agreed to.
Bills read a second time.
Committee consideration to stand as an order of the day.
[The Deputy-President (The Hon. Tony Burke) left the chair at 5.50 p.m. The House resumed at 8.00 p.m.]