What is Genetic Engineering?
* Genetic engineering, also called genetic modification, is the process which allows genes to be moved between different species to create lifeforms that don't occur in nature.
* Genetic engineers use viruses, bacteria and a device called a "gene gun" to move genes (small lengths of DNA found in the cells of all living things) from one organism to another. In the genetic engineering of food, these techniques are used to make crop plants grow differently.
* GE is currently used to produce two main types of crops: 1. Herbicide-tolerant crops genetically altered to resist weed killing herbicides and 2. Bt crops where the gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis is inserted into the plant DNA as a built-in pesticide to kill certain insect pests.
* In Australia, GE ingredients in food are derived from four main crops: imported corn (or maize) and soy; and local and imported canola and cottonseed products.
* Most GE crops are not used to feed people directly, but are used as animal feed. Fresh meat, milk and eggs may be derived from pigs, cows and chickens fed on GE grains such as canola meal.
* Other GE ingredients may be found in many processed foods such as bread, pastries, baked good, vegetable oils, margarine, flours, starches, sauces, fried foods, soy foods, lecithin, sweets, soft drinks and sausage skins.
Photo: MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA- OCTOBER 1, 2009: Greenpeace campaigners setting up a Biohazard Research Center at a canola field near the city of Geelong, about 100 km South West of Melbourne on October, 1, 2009. Greenpeace has found commercial beehives contaminated with genetically engineered (GE) canola pollen near Geelong and are calling on the Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon to use her powers to properly assess the health and environmental risks of GE crops. Image © Greenpeace/Luis Ascui.
We Aussies are a laid back lot. Certainly, life runs at a faster pace than a decade ago, but to outsiders looking on we're still relaxed and easygoing. It makes us lovable, but maybe we're a little too easygoing for our own good.
Consider this for a moment. In opinion poll after opinion poll, we have overwhelmingly rejected the prospect of eating Genetically Engineered (GE) food. We've gone further. In a Newspoll in September 2008, 90% of respondents wanted all GE food to be labelled, including highly processed ingredients and products from animals fed GE feed. In just one month, over 17,000 Australians signed an online petition organised by Greenpeace calling for the comprehensive labelling and stringent safety testing of GE food. That number has now grown to 30,000 at (http://www.truefood.org.au/OurRightToKnow/)
It seems that there are some things that do stir our passions, and at a very deep level.
It makes it all the more surprising then that the Western Australian Government should choose this time, when other, informed, voices around our country are growing louder in their chorus of opposition, to review its long standing opposition to commercial GE crops. Just a month or so ago, when WA was harvesting its first trial GE canola crop and the government reviewing its GM Crops Free Areas Act, even more multinational food companies were adding their names to the growing list of major brands committed to keeping their products GE-free. Nestle, Fosters, Schweppes and Lindt are the latest big names to join the Greenpeace True Food Guide in its 2010 edition. Since the release of first Guide in 2003, more than half of Australia's top food brands have committed to non-GE policies. That's a very strong statement from the Australian marketplace.
The obdurate WA stance, though, just gets more and more puzzling. And as a West Australian myself with family roots going back four generations into these sandy, nitrogen-deficient soils, I think I can dare to question without being dismissed as someone from the other side who knows nothing about "life out West".
Here's something else to ponder. This year, following the first GE canola harvest in NSW and Victoria, the two states that relaxed their GE bans in late 2007, two major grain buyers, Elders and CBH, have listened to the demands of their markets and refused to buy it. Major grain handler Graincorp was also forced to reverse its decision to mix GE canola in with the conventional grain crop following an outcry from farmers and industry.
We can't overlook the importance of canola - this grain accounts for half the edible oil stock in Australia. Not only do we find it in margarine and vegetable oils as we might expect, but also in less obvious foods like baby foods, bread and icecream.
We can only assume the WA Government, in which the National Party holds a small but very vocal and powerful influence, is simply unaware of a few other salient facts. And this despite WA's status as the largest source of non-GE canola in Australia and thus vitally important to preserve the nation's clean, green status at home and in our international markets.
Market Support for Non-GE
Let's look locally first and then at the broader global picture and its implications for human health, the environment and, ultimately, nothing less than control of the world's food supply.
Greenpeace tells us that most of the major end-users of GE-canola have now adopted non-GE policies for their own brand products. They include Goodman Fielder (Meadow Lea and White Wings), Unilever (Flora), Peerless (Tablelands), Coles, IGA and Foodland. A notable exception is the other half of Australia's supermarket duopoly, Woolworths.
Leading chefs throughout Australia have thrown their passion for healthy eating behind the GE-free campaign by signing Greenpeace's Chefs' Charter for non-GE food. The group now numbers 180 of our most prominent food identities including Margaret Fulton, Neil Perry, Stephanie Alexander, Matt Moran, Maggie Beer, Ian Parmenter, Holly Davis and NOVA's food writer, wholefood cook Jude Blereau. Nutritionist and cookbook writer Dr Rosemary Stanton who has taken a leading role against GE-foods entering the Australian foodchain, is unequivocal in her position: "If we are to get GE canola, it should be labelled. And if it is not labelled we should all ask why."
Quite apart from the unknown risks to human health, as the decision by Elders and CBH to boycott the GE canola crop from NSW and Victoria makes blatantly clear, GE crops just don't make commercial sense. Japan, still an enormously important market for our fresh produce and which takes 450,000 tonnes of Australia canola each year has voiced great concern at the move towards GE canola - and has already taken protective action.
Speaking at the WA launch of the True Food Guide, prominent food producer George Kailis whose company, Kailis Organic Olives, is the largest integrated olive oil producer in the world, was scathing in his dismissal of the WA decision. Not only did it fly in the face of market reality - "There is no market for GM" - he told us that Japan would now implement a food traceability system to ensure its own food chain was not contaminated.
Growing a Lie
Broadacre farmer and spokeswoman for the Network of Concerned Farmers, a nationwide network of conventional and organic farmers opposed to GE crops, Julie Newman cut a dramatic figure at the WA launch. Limping on crutches after a serious horseriding accident, she had nevertheless made the journey from her property at Newdegate in WA's southern wheatbelt to Perth to voice her grave concerns. She told the gathering that despite starting off "pro GE", now "at least a decade and $100,000 later", she and her husband had come to the conclusion that "everything we have been told about pro-GE was a lie."
While she has earned the ire of the State Government and its pro-GE lobby, Julie is adamant in her view that GE crops are nothing more than a strategy for farmers to become contract growers for a single supply chain, ultimately leading to biotechnology companies controlling the world's entire seed bank.
And if we think that's a bit extreme, it probably pays to look at the experience in recent years of farmers in India and other developing nations where they have been denied their time honoured practice, rooted in frugality and sustainability, of harvesting seed from each year's crop to plant for the next season. Patents on GE seed, including the notorious "terminator" gene which effectively self destructs after its one use with a suicide sequence of exotic genes rendering the seed infertile, have threatened to bring to an end thousands of years of sustainable agriculture and the communities that depend on it. Many desperate Indian farmers have been driven to suicide, but now, a rearguard action is being mounted to reclaim their own land and their own seed and their own future. Nevertheless, it is estimated that with dozens of patent claims lodged by the biotech giants, this so called "traitor technology" (so named for negative traits bred into a seed) could, by 2010, a month away, control 80% of the world seed market. In the process of course, these same farmers are becoming utterly dependent on the same companies, not only for expensive seeds, but also for fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides.
As Julie Newman attests on behalf of other concerned farmers, when we push the door even further ajar to allow the entry into our own country of these same biotechnology companies, we are fooling ourselves and turning a blind eye to the suffering their practices have caused to people less able to defend themselves.
It's because the WA Government - and others before it of course - has chosen to invest in biotechnology that WA farmers and ultimately the WA community are being exposed to unacceptable risk. "The proposed legislation is a blank cheque to the biotech industry. It is appalling that the government is neglecting the legitimate concerns of farmers and ordinary people," says Mrs Newman.
In her impassioned speech to the gathering, she also raised the economic nonsense of any move to embrace GE farming in Australia's biggest State. "Ninety per cent of our canola market is Europe which won't accept GE."
During the past two years, WA exports to the European Union have increased significantly - largely on the back of Canada's dramatic loss of its canola export market because it adopted GE canola. The Canadian experience stands as a glaring warning that GE contamination cannot be contained. Now, 90% of that country's certified non-GE canola seed samples contain GE material.
GE claims uprooted
The economic argument against GE cropping tends to get overlooked among the other concerns that perhaps take our more immediate attention, most notably risks to our health and environment. But some intelligent and disinterested minds have been at work in this area, too.
Take the UN-World Bank International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology, a report involving 400 scientists that concluded GE crops would not solve the world's hunger crisis. While drawing attention to the problems patenting of GE crops caused to farmers wanting to save their own seed, it also found little evidence to support claims by the GE lobby of higher yields.
The same concern is voiced in a 2009 report by the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists which, after reviewing the performance of GE crops concluded that, "Traditional breeding outperforms genetic engineering hands down." It's exactly the sort of selective breeding that farmers, in their traditional role in this country as stewards of their animals and the land, have employed to produce drought and rust resistant wheat strains and sheep that have been able to withstand harsh conditions yet still yield the fine wool for which Australia was renowned. All those advances were achieved without the need to manipulate the genes of different species in a way that simply defies nature.
Far from being the saviour of Africa, another major UN study concluded that GE was outperformed by organic farming practices which offered the best chance of breaking that continent's cycle of poverty and malnutrition. And equally far from being our world's saviour against drought, Greenpeace informs us that, "no drought resistant GE crops are grown commercially anywhere on the planet." Western Australia, of course, is no stranger to drought - who knows, we might be the first to succeed!
There is so much that needs to be said about the GE incursion into our country and one place I'd urge you to begin your reading is the book Genetic Roulette by Jeffrey Smith who also wrote the bestseller Seeds of Deception. The former work is published in Australia by Melbourne-based group Gene Ethics (www.geneethics.org) Rather than repeat myself, I'll draw on one paragraph in the article I wrote in in January 2008 titled "Rolling the GE Dice". These examples bear thinking about and drawing to the attention of our governments and food regulators at every possible opportunity:
Over the past two years, Smith has worked with more than 30 scientists to document known proven health risks - and that is the strength of what is essentially an impressive compilation of investigative journalism. It presents no fewer than 65 health risks, the first 20 dealing with adverse findings linked to GE products. It records literally thousands of toxic and allergic reactions, thousands of sick, sterile and even dead animals - chickens, rats, sheep, cows - and multiple organ damage in laboratory animals. Along with the reports on the 12 cows in Germany that mysteriously died after eating corn engineered to produce Bt toxin; the rats that either developed stomach bleeding or died after being fed GE tomatoes; soy allergies skyrocketing in the UK in a single year after the introduction of GE soy; the heavier livers in rats fed GE canola; one report bears stark testament to the wisdom of nature contrasted with the aberrations that man can inflict on it. It documents eyewitness accounts of animals avoiding whole fields of GE crops - geese turning their beaks up at GE soybeans so completely that they left a demarcation line down the middle of the field with grazed natural beans on one side and untouched GE beans on the other; squirrels leaving Bt corn untouched even when they'd consumed all the natural corn cobs left out for them by an Iowa farmer, and this in the coldest days of winter; cattle that broke through a fence and walked through a field of GE corn just to eat the non-GE variety on the other side. If only we'd learnt from our animal friends!
- From "Rolling the GE Dice" by Margaret Evans (Issue 14.10 January 2008)
The book has an impressive weight of detail for all people concerned about GE cropping in our country, legislators included.
Meanwhile, find out more about what this technology really entails for us, our environment and future generations. And this Christmas please buy certified organic if only because you know it is free of compromise.
Some useful websites
* www.truefood.org.au (you can download the True Food Guide)
* To avoid GE foods, shop organic, support non-GMO labels or check out shopping guides that identify GE and GE-free food brands. US brands are listed at www.Responsible.Technology.org
* Visit NOVA Magazine's website www.novamagazine.com.au for recent stories on GE and Epigenetics. In the Articles archive you'll find "The Missing Link" - Dr Peter Dingle's exploration of Epigenetics (Issue 13.6, August 2006), "Gearing up for GM" by Margaret Evans (Issue 14.7, September 2007) and "Rolling the GE Dice" by Margaret Evans ( Issue 14.10 January 2008)
* Write to your local MP and the appropriate Federal Ministers
* Or look out for this book: Genetic Roulette Jeffrey M. Smith Gene Ethics RRP $28.95
Margaret Evans has a background in teaching, journalism and publishing. She is the editor of NOVA Holistic Journal.