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Australia plays the biotechnology cowboy

By Duncan Currie - posted Friday, 16 May 2008

In the global biotechnology arena, Australia has once again taken on the cowboy role, by refusing to participate in the international United Nations Biosafety Protocol negotiations being held in Bonn, Germany this month. This meeting will deal with the impacts of genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) contaminating the food chain. Issues of liability and redress for damage caused by GM contamination will culminate at these negotiations with no input from Australia.

This is a crucial misrepresentation of Australian interests. The recent lifting of the New South Wales and Victorian bans on commercial genetically modified (GM) food crops has brought GM contamination and liability issues into sharp focus. Australian farmers, communities and the environment face threats as a result of gaping holes in state, national and international law.

By standing outside the Biosafety Protocol negotiations, Australia has joined the minority group of pro-GM countries. The United States, Canada and Argentina, all big exporting countries of GM foods and seeds, also refuse to be bound by the protocol - yet they are profiting the most from the trade. If their products are safe, why not stand behind them, with liability provisions and an international fund to ensure that any damage caused as a result of GM contamination can be cleaned up?


On January 29, 2000, the Conference of Parties of the Biodiversity Convention - the United Nations organisation set up in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to protect the world’s biodiversity - agreed a Biosafety Protocol to regulate the international trade in GMOs. The protocol provides countries with information, procedures and the ability to control the import of GMOs into their territory.

The protocol gathered massive support internationally with 103 signatures by June 2001. Australia however, was absent. Now the protocol is in force and 147 countries have joined it. But still not Australia.

GMOs, if they escape or behave in an unexpected way, can cause damage to plants and biodiversity as well as injury to humans, such as through eating or otherwise ingesting GMOs not intended for humans. Countries have been meeting intensively for four years to determine how the protocol can best include liability and redress provisions in order to hold companies trading GMOs accountable for damages. And yet, even though Australia has now embraced GM crops, its delegates still remain outside this important process.

A regime to protect the environment and people from damages caused by GMOs is needed to ensure that victims can get compensation for damage, or to prevent or repair environmental damage. The “polluter-pays” and “precautionary principles” should be implemented to provide assurance for countries when considering the import and use of biotechnology. There are already situations where this liability should have been applied internationally.

For example in Mexico, maize (corn), is a staple crop and has significant traditional, cultural, symbolic and spiritual value in Mexico. Most importantly it is a centre of origin for maize. GM maize is not approved for cultivation in Mexico but it is approved as an import for animal feed and processing from the United States. However, between 2003 and 2007 significant GM contamination of maize crops was found in many states in Mexico. This contamination is likely to be persistent and is in essence a contamination of the genetic reserves of maize in a centre of origin for this staple crop.

In 1995 herbicide tolerant GM canola was introduced into commercial agriculture in Canada. Within three years, three weeds were found to be resistant to the same herbicide due to out-crossing or gene stacking within these weeds. Today the extent of contamination of Canadian canola with GM canola is so high that over 90 per cent of certified non-GM canola contains unintended transgenes from GM canola. Contamination is so wide spread that organic canola farming cannot continue in Canada, as no assurance can be given that organic canola will be GM free.


Farmers stand to lose the most through loss of international markets and GM-free certification. They are also most vulnerable to the damage caused by GMOs which could escape, contaminate fields and the environment and act unpredictably.

If Australia wants to ride with the biotechnology cowboys, there must be recognition of the threats posed to farmers, individuals and the environment, and responsibility taken for harmful impacts of rogue genetic organisms.

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About the Author

Duncan Currie is an international lawyer who specialises in biosafety law.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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