Australia has one of the most rigorous and transparent gene technology regulation Acts in the world, and is achieving its objective in protecting the health and safety of people and the environment.
This was one of the key findings of the Independent Panel Review of the Gene Technology Act 2000, published in 2006. To those involved in the life sciences industry the act is considered almost draconian in its level of rigor, but most accept the fact that if we are to build public confidence in agricultural biotechnology it is both necessary and should be respected. However, this is clearly not the viewpoint of certain NGO’s ideologically opposed to biotech crops, and certainly not the viewpoint of Kim Chance, Western Australia’s Minister for Agriculture.
Under Australia’s Act the areas of human health and safety are a Federal mandate, while the states do have certain marketing rights. However Minister Chance, not content with imposing a state moratorium in April 2004 on the growing of all biotech or GM crops in Western Australia, took it upon himself to openly criticise Food Standards Australia - New Zealand (FSANZ) for not adequately safeguarding human health.
In late 2005 he made public his intent to commission an independent feeding trial on GM crops so that supposedly unbiased data would be obtained. He openly expressed a concern shared by Greenpeace that, because the companies submit data to the Gene Technology Regulator it is somehow automatically subject to bias.
Lost in all this was the fact that Australia subscribes to the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CODEX), which mandates world’s best practice in food standards, and FSANZ not only uses the information supplied by companies and independent laboratories commissioned to do the specialised animal feeding trials, but also takes account of peer reviewed university studies and the findings of other regulatory systems such as the US, Canada, and the European Union.
The group he selected to conduct the feeding studies was the Institute for Health and Environmental Research (IHER) in Adelaide, comprising three individuals (led by Dr Judy Carman), none of whom have scientific records in conducting or analysing long term feeding studies.
Dr Carman toured with UK activist Dr Mae Wan Ho to speak against GM crops and food safety. Ho has a relentlessly anti-science agenda against GM crops (and modern Darwinian theory), while Carman has constantly attacked FSANZ for alleged food regulatory inadequacies, and had two articles (“Health Concerns” and “Threats to our Health”) published in Greenpeace’s True Food Guide 2003. To most individuals this might have raised a potential conflict-of-interest flag about Dr Carman’s competency to conduct “independent” trials, but not to Minister Chance.
In December 2005 Professors Stephen Powles (University of Western Australia) Graeme Robertson (Muresk Institute - Curtin University) and Mike Jones (Director - State Agricultural Biotechnology Centre - Murdoch University) pointed out to Chance that the IHER is in fact only a website and post office box, without employees, laboratories and infrastructure that one would reasonably expect to be associated with an organisation purporting to undertake research and analytical work on health and environmental matters.
They called into question the degree to which Judy Carman’s research could be construed as being independent. They also drew attention to the national framework for gene technology regulation. This advice was ignored.
This was followed up by a group of international scientists writing to then Premier Geoff Gallop expressing concern over the approach of Minister Chance in whom he selected to do the research, and also the manner in which the research was funded.
The study was not submitted to the normal tender process and Chance has since claimed that this was not necessary because it was approved by Cabinet. In response to a question in the WA State Parliament (May 2006: Hansard 179) by Anthony Fels to the Minister regarding his attack on the regulatory system and the letter from distinguished scientists, Chance responded by saying (under Parliamentary privilege) that he had looked into these people and found: “Every one of those eight or nine scientists is in the pocket of the GE companies. They are all recipients of grants from Monsanto, Bayer or another such company.”
Perhaps two paragraphs from the response to this allegation that was provided by one of the signatories, Professor Bruce Chassy of the University of Illinois, might be appropriate:
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