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The questionable future of genetic engineering

By Jeremy Tager - posted Thursday, 18 August 2005

Jennifer Marohasy’s argument (On Line Opinion article) that all of us, including Greenpeace, should accept the inevitability of genetically engineered (GE) crops and food because the industry cannot control or prevent genetic contamination, is deeply disturbing.

In fact there is nothing inevitable about GE foods and crops in our lives. While the biotech industry has gone to great lengths to give us no choice in the matter - either through contamination of our seeds and farms or through slack labelling requirements - countries and consumers around the world continue to reject GE.

The recent discovery that Bayer’s genetically engineered Topas canola has contaminated canola stocks in Victoria and Western Australia (and quite likely farms and farmers in up to four states) reveals a worrying degree of negligence and incompetence in the biotech industry. The manner in which we respond to that genetic contamination will have long-term implications for our status as a GE free food producing country.


I stand by my statement that this is the largest and most serious genetic contamination Australia has ever faced. A contamination threat which is dismissed by Marohasy and the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) as trivial.

This trivialisation and contempt for concerns over GE contamination is disturbing for a number of reasons. First, it ignores the fact bans exist on GE in all states where this rogue Topas GE is likely to be found. In other words, every major canola growing state has taken the position that GE canola represents a threat to their farmers and markets. Jennifer Marohasy may not like or agree with those prohibitions, but to advocate that GE contamination should be considered “inevitable” and acceptable, effectively rewards those who violate the moratoriums.

Second, Marohasy assumes the complete safety of GE, in this case Topas. Even our rubber stamp regulator, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator won’t say that GE is safe. The regulator consistently says there is “no evidence” that GE causes harm, but no one should confuse an absence of evidence with evidence of safety. If there is an absence of evidence in this case it is because no one is looking. The “don’t look and you won’t find” school of regulation, which is increasingly the norm in a government culture that espouses industry self-regulation and assessment, is nowhere near the same as demonstrating that GE is safe.

There is now a substantial body of scientific work - peer reviewed - that raises serious concerns about both health and environmental impacts of GE. For instance, Greenpeace Germany recently sued Monsanto to require the release of a rat feeding study Monsanto had conducted with its GE corn known as MON863. Monsanto didn’t want the study public because laboratory animals fed the GE corn were showing serious organ damage. Monsanto lost the court case, but our regulators here did nothing to revise their safety assessment of this food product. They ignored the feeding study, as they have ignored every scientific study showing that GE and non-GE are not the same and do not effect live animals in the same way.

Instead industry and our regulators assume that GE and non-GE are “substantially equivalent” and that GE therfore requires no special testing or studies. The government imposes no burden of proof on the industry. It does not require any proof of safety. The government can approve a GE food or crop based solely on documents and data produced by the GE company.

Government imposes no legal responsibility on the industry for risks associated with GE. If contamination or harm occurs to the environment, it is the taxpayer and farmers who are most likely to foot the bill.


Recently in the UK it was discovered that Bayer’s GE canola had crossed into a distantly related weed species, charlock or wild turnip - a plant that happens to be a major weed species in New South Wales. Scientists had said it wasn’t supposed to happen. And it was only found because of a longer-term study conducted in the UK. No such studies have been conducted here, and our GE Regulator consistently refuses to require or commission the kind of long-term ecological work that is critical in assessing the potential impacts of GE crops.

How often do the claims and hype of the GE industry have to be shown to be wrong before we wake up to the fact GE agriculture is being driven by corporate motives and corporate science and not the public interest or environmental care?

Marohasy intriguingly claims the current GE crop bans have interfered with the competitiveness of Australian canola. Where? How? Where’s the data? Name a single country that isn’t buying Australian canola because it’s GE free. In reality it is Canada’s canola sales that have suffered since that country became overrun with GE canola. This year Canada’s canola sales to Europe were zero: Zero seed. Zero oil. Zero meal.

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For sources or data on claims made in this article please contact, Greenpeace GE campaigner, Ph: 07 3892 7538.

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About the Author

Jeremy Tager is the Greenpeace GE campaigner.

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