Biotech Industry Wins, Organic Farmers Lose in Australia

By Bob Burton

CANBERRA, Australia, December 8, 2000 (ENS) - After a second marathon all night sitting this week the Australian Senate passed legislation early this morning to regulate the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Environmental, consumer and organic producers groups have condemned the legislation as containing dangerous loopholes while the main GMO industry lobby group has declined to comment until next week.

cotton

GM cotton with a gene that causes the plants to make a natural pesticide. (Photo courtesy CSIRO)
The Senate was sitting concurrently with the House so that once amendments passed in the Senate they were immediately relayed to the House for passing. In the next formal step the legislation will be signed into force by the Governor General, a formality expected within the week.

The hopes of environmentalists and organic farmers for a strict regulatory regime were raised last month when a Senate committee tabled its report on the draft legislation, "A Cautionary Tale: Fish Don't Lay Tomatoes." The committee, dominated by non-government members, proposed major amendments to the government's draft bill.

The hopes of environmentalists and organic farmers for a strict regulatory regime were raised last month when a Senate committee tabled its report on the draft legislation, "A Cautionary Tale: Fish Don't Lay Tomatoes." The committee, dominated by non-government members, proposed major amendments to the government's draft bill.

The committee criticised the tactics of the GMO lobby in dismissing community concern. "Protagonists of gene technology who described opponents as 'a noisy minority' or 'extremists' did not reflect the breadth of concern in the community or the weight of serious and scientific opposition. And they did little to persuade people to their point of view with such derogatory language," the committee wrote.

Nor was the committee persuaded about reassurance from GMO supporters that GMO products are safe. "Assurances that there is 'no evidence' of harm may in fact mean no research has been done, and that worries the community. While there may be genetic exchange between species occurring in nature, genes from fish do not get into tomatoes under normal circumstances," they wrote.

caterpillar

Heliothis caterpillar, one of a farmer's many insect enemies (Photo courtesy CSIRO)
But the Senate Committee's backing for amendments to the government's draft bill prompted a major lobbying campaign from industry groups and state governments supporting GMO agriculture. The Opposition Labor Party, whose members had backed amendments in the committee, made significant concessions in negotiations with the government to ensure passage of the legislation.

Calls for the legislation to provide for state and local governments to opt out and declare GM free zones were opposed by the peak industry lobby group, Avcare, whose members include Aventis, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and Novartis. "An opt-out is an opt-in for one kind of farming at the expense of others, and Avcare does not support such provisions," Avcare wrote in its submission to the Senate committee.

After protracted negotiations with the government, the opposition Labor Party supported an amendment that would allow for state governments to opt out but only on "marketability" grounds. Local or state governments would not be able to declare GMO free zones on the basis of health, environmental or ethical concerns.

Phelps

Bob Phelps of the non-profit organization Genethics Network (Photo (c) Bob Burton)
The final bill also provides for the regulator to exempt applications for GMO crops and products from assessment, a loophole that troubles the director of the Genethics Network, Bob Phelps. "A major concern is the broad exemptions for human genetic engineering, animals for organ and drug production, vaccines and the regulators wide discretion to exempt the release of GMO's from risk assessment, licensing and public scrutiny," he warned.

"It makes no sense at all to decide that something a priori is so innocuous that you are not going to bother to assess it," Phelps said.

Amendments requiring public disclosure of crop locations were defeated. An alternative amendment, requiring that GMO planting locations be made public unless the regulator considered there were good reasons not to, was successful.

"The fact of the matter is the regulator's going to have to have very good reasons for not disclosing the location of a trial," said the Labor Party's chief negotiator, Alan Griffin.

Griffin

Alan Griffin, parliamentary secretary for the shadow minister for health (Photo courtesy Parliament of Australia)
For its part, Monsanto successfully lobbied to ensure the legislation imposed strict penalties on anyone who damages GMO crops. The legislation, they argued in their submission, "should provide criminal offence penalties for wanton destruction of biotechnology trials, which have been duly licensed."

The legislation provides for up to two years in jail or a $12,000 fine for people convicted of damage to GMO crops.

"Under the legislation, claims that it is in the public interest or that the organism might contaminate other crops is ruled out as a defence. It's a bit like one strike and you're out, which is pretty interesting given how little notice the genetic engineering companies have taken of the voluntary guidelines," Phelps complained.

Monsanto successfully lobbied against the legislation providing liberal access to the courts for citizens wanting to appeal against decisions made by the regulator. "It is important that the Bill does not facilitate vexatious appeals creating ongoing delays to the regulatory process," Monsanto argued.

Phelps disagrees. "The regulator's decisions under the bill are only appealable by proponents, so they can keep coming back and just wear them down," Phelps said. "It was our view that there should be open standing provisions to enable people other than those with a commercial interest to appeal against decisions if they wanted to," he said.

It is a view shared by the chairman of the Organic Federation of Australia, Scott Kinnear. "Without the right of appeal - then having the weakened precautionary principle in the legislation is really window dressing," he said.

Griffin acknowledges organic producers have grounds to be unhappy with the legislation. "They are fair enough to go crook about a couple of things that are in there. If I was them I would too," he said.

The main food safety and environmental issues surrounding GMOs are:

The ethics of some applications of gene technology, for merit, inserting animal genes into plants, raises strong concerns, particularly among vegetarians.