Illicit crops cultivated and dumped
by Peter Mac The public uproar over genetically modified (GM) foods reached a crescendo recently, following revelations that GM canola was being cultivated in South Australia with no protection zones, that GM seed had been dumped in the open, and that illicit crops are being exported to northern hemisphere countries. According to the reports all of these activities (about which the government "watchdog", the Interim Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, claims to have known nothing) were conducted in secrecy and in contravention of government regulations. There is a growing movement to resist the use of genetically modified crops because of the possibility of long-term adverse effects on humans, animals, other crops and the environment. The debate has been fuelled by revelations that GM foods are already being marketed, without the purchaser being made aware of any difference in the product. The cultivation of GM crops is being promoted by the big agribusiness companies such as Monsanto and the French-German conglomerate Aventis. They argue that there are no known adverse impacts from the consumption of GM foods, and that they should therefore be allowed to carry on the production and marketing of their products. However, the development of genetically modified products is historically recent, and little research has been done to determine the long-term effects of consumption of the products. Opponents such as the Australian GeneEthics Network argue, not unreasonably, that the onus should be on the proponents of genetic engineering to reveal the potential hazards of their proposals, not on governments or citizens to demonstrate the dangers. The potential hazards of inadequate research were illustrated recently by Canadian scientists, who, while investigating the alarmingly accelerating global incidence of birth defects in human and animal species, discovered that their plastic laboratory dishes actually induced the hormonal changes that lead to the defects. The implications for the health of humans and the planet are enormous, but all attempts by the Canadian scientists to discover the chemical composition of the plastic concerned were met with a "commercial in confidence" wall of silence. The experience of Australian scientists was similar. Scientists working for the Australian Government have warned that the use of herbicide-resistant GM canola could result in the development of "super- weeds". The President of the Victorian Farmers' Federation has dismissed these claims, and has stated that a "super herbicide" could easily be developed to counter the threat. However, not all farmers or grain marketing organisations are happy with that statement. AWB Ltd (formerly the Australian Wheat Board) has revealed that its main customers in Asia and the Middle East definitely do not want GM wheat. Many farmers are concerned to maintain their traditional markets, particularly in view of the public apprehensions about GM food, but are fearful about the impact on their crops of adjacent GM planting. The Tasmanian Government would prefer to keep their state "GM free", but the Howard Government has refused to go along with their request, as they did with the previous request to prohibit the import of stocks of potentially diseased overseas salmon into that State. In fact, the Federal Government appears to have supported the GM foods industry at every turn. With remarkable understatement, the Chief Executive of the Australian Consumers' Association, Ms Louise Sylvan, this week declared that "There is a perception that the Government is taking the side of the companies." The Australian GeneEthics Network has called for strong legislation to block the illicit cultivation of GM crops. They state that "Now (that) scientists want to experiment outside their laboratories, and companies plan to manufacture and sell genetically engineered organisms, compulsory notification, assessment and monitoring must be assured through strong, clear and nationally uniform legislation."