The Debate in Australia

01 Oct 2008

Read the papers and you’d think that 2008 was the year Australia went GM with the first commercial plantings of GM canola. The true story, however, is that Australians have been eating foods made from GM-derived products for over a decade. This would come as quite a shock to most Australians.
At the beginning of the year two state governments, Victoria, then New South Wales, lifted bans on growing commercial GM crops. The first commercial GM canola seeds were then sown in the southern autumn. The government in Queensland has always supported GM and the state has extensive plantings of GM cotton. Bans on planting commercial GM crops have been retained in South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia.
Genetically modified foods have been on Australian shop shelves since the 1990s. Imported manufactured foods using GM soy products and GM corn products such as canned meats and soft drinks were at the time imported under existing laws. In 1999 a specific food standard, A -18, came into effect, banning the sale of GM food unless certain conditions were met. This was rolled over into Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) Standard 1.5.2 that strictly prohibited the sale of GM foods unless they are one of the 33 approved and listed GM foods, including corn, cotton seed, soy, potato, canola or sugar beet. Labelling of all GM foods came into force in 2001, so foods containing GM ingredients, such as ‘Soy Flour. Genetically Modified’, must be labelled.

Tricks of the Trade
There is, however, what many have called a loophole in this standard. Foods made with genetically modified ingredients that have been ‘highly refined’, as defined by the standard, such as GM cotton seed oil, GM canola oil and GM corn syrup do not need to be labelled as GM. This was a decision made by FSANZ under the Liberal (centre-right) government at the time, which had a pro GM agenda.
The legacy of this loophole is confusion and uncertainty at the supermarket checkout. A shopper could buy a tub of margarine made entirely from GM canola without a single word about genetic modification appearing anywhere on the packaging. Australian shoppers buy imported soft drinks made with modified corn syrup from GM corn, but as the GM corn syrup is ‘highly refined’, the drink does not carry GM on its labelling.
Foods made from animal products are not covered by the standard unless the animal itself is genetically modified. So milk from a cow that is fed GM cotton seed trash or one of the glyphosate tolerant lucernes will be in the fridge next to a carton of milk from cows that eat nothing but grass without any difference in packaging between the products.
By the same definition a steer fattened in a feedlot for 60 days on imported GM soy and GM corn could be slaughtered and its meat sold without a word about GM on the pack. Years of drought in Australia has made it more cost-effective for some owners of feed lots to import feeds from foreign nations, with a considerable percentage of the feed being GM. The same economics and labelling situation applies to the chicken, pig and farmed fish industries.
There is also a 1 percent tolerance for GM ingredients allowed in foods before they need to be labelled and additives under 1 percent do not need to be declared.

Dear Consumers…
With so much uncertainty about foods in the market place big food companies such as Goodman Fielder, bakers of bread and makers of margarine, have very publicly reassured an uneasy public that they do not and will not use GM foods in a letter to all state ministers of agriculture.
Supermarket chains, sensing customers’ concerns over food provenance, have made very public announcements on GM foods. Woolworths takes one in every three shopping dollars spent on food and groceries nationally through its more than 900 supermarkets operating under Woolworths and Safeway trade names. It has highlighted its concerns over the labelling of GM products, particularly in association with the ‘highly refined’ loophole and have called for clear ‘labelling of all GM ingredients in food products to protect the interests of our customers and to enable informed decision-making’. Its opposition, Coles, has a policy of not using GM ingredients in its house brand but has stated it feels the present labelling is sufficient. Coles was recently taken over by Wesfarmers, a company that also produces agricultural chemicals.
Greenpeace’s GM campaigner Louise Sales says that, with the moratoria lifted in New South Wales and Victoria, ‘There’s going to be a large influx of GM canola, which is going to make its way unlabelled and unwanted into the food chain’. As most food manufacturing occurs in these two states, unlabelled GM derived foods will spread nationally even into the states with GM planting bans.
The plantings of GM canola were in no way out of the blue. They were the culmination of nearly a decade and a half of lobbying and pressure from GM seed and chemical companies and farming interest groups on government at both the state and federal level.

Whose Side Is Who On?
The culture of Australian government is ostensibly pro-GM. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, a government funded research body that works closely with and accepts funding from industry, has been actively promoting GM foods and stating that, “Public concern about genetically modified (or transgenic) food is unfounded,” and that, “Designer produce may be safer than food produced by conventional breeding techniques.” FSANZ, the body responsible for food safety in Australia and New Zealand, refutes statements and research questioning the safety of GM foods.
When the new Labor (centre-left) federal government was elected in November 2007, there was a feeling that perhaps the politics of GM in Australia would move too. A pre-election statement made by the party reads that “safe and beneficial standards (for GM foods) must be established beyond reasonable doubt…”
Months later the new Labor Federal Agriculture Minister was enthusiastically supporting the dropping of the GM crop ban by New South Wales and Victoria, welcoming their decision to allow farmers to grow GM crops. “I can see some really good opportunities with respect to agriculture for GM food, and the research and development in these areas will have to be part of the changes that need to be driven, if we are going to have people properly prepared for climate change.”
With drought gripping the fertile south of Australia, the idea that the GM technology purportedly helping farmers survive climate change is very appealing to many. But Future Farm Industries CRC CEO Kevin Goss has warned that genetically modifying plants for drought tolerance would take more time and money. “Farmers should look to perennial grasses and strategic mowing to cope with drought conditions,” he said.
The way the GM game plays out in Australia is has yet to unfold. The public is caught in an information maelstrom. On one side are the complicit government agencies, well organized farm groups pushing the ‘GM is green’ mantra and outspoken university academics all advocating an embrace of a GM food future. On the other side are various opposition groups offering a variety of anti-GM messages and suffering a lack of funds. In the middle is a confused population, noted more for its love of sport than of politics, being fed information through a media that prevaricates between hysteria and complacency. The argument at present is over science and economics with the public being asked to take sides. What is missing in the GM debate in Australia is a discussion of what sort of food future the people want.

Richard Cornish
Australia, food writer.

This article is published on the Slow Food Almanac. Click here to read the whole issue.

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