Coinciding with Jeffrey Smith’s Australian tour to promote Genetic Roulette: the documented health risks of genetically engineered foods, yesterday Victorian Premier John Brumby bowed to pressure from big agribusiness and announced, without consulting caucus, that Victoria would overturn bans on GM food crops.

Gene contamination knows no borders, and New South Wales has also lifted its bans, to the rancour of other states.

But, even facing the threat of revolt among up to 40 of his own MPs, Brumby refused to release Victorian Chief Scientist Sir Gustav Nossal’s review of the impact of lifting the ban before his announcement. Sir Gustav was appointed to lend scientific credibility to a review whose terms of reference were strictly and solely economic: not scientific. As the review itself states: “It is not the purpose of this panel to judge… health and environment assessments.”

Overturning the bans was widely regarded as a done deal at least a year ago, prompting an un-named MP to tell The Age Brumby was “treating caucus like idiots”.

So why was Brumby secretive? Perhaps he feared market revolt. Last Tuesday, Coles government relations advisor Chris Mara told a Parliamentary forum that “Coles listens to our customers and over 90% do not want GM ingredients in their food.” Goodman Fielder, Australia’s largest food company, also backs the bans. Tatiara Meats, Australia’s largest lamb exporter, and 250 other food companies also want the bans kept.

Why? Because the public does. In polls taken by AC Nielsen, Roy Morgan, Millward Brown, The Age, and Swinburne University and Choice magazine, a whopping majority of Australians (between 70 and 90 per cent) don’t want GM foods. In this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald poll, 84 per cent of respondents don’t want it.

Despite agribusiness bodies giving the nod to GM food crops, 80% of farmers surveyed in a 2002 poll taken by the SA Farmers Federation supported a ban. In an August 2003 Biotechnology Australia poll 74% of farmers surveyed were not considering using GM crops. A Biotechnology Australia 2006 study found that “The Australian public see great risks from GM foods and crops and concerns are continuing to rise.” This followed an ABC report that there was “no market” for GM canola in Australia.

As big UK, Japanese and US chains remove GM food from their shelves, the EU is discussing the withdrawal of five GM crops. “Consumers are rejecting GM foods. Markets in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere are closing and domestic markets are likewise threatened. This is driving prices down,” Canada’s National Farmers Union reported.

This also comes at a time when scientists and farmers internationally are warning about the economic and health perils of GM food, some of which is unwittingly eaten because of inadequate labelling laws. Whether or not Brumby believes these warnings is irrelevant. He has forgotten that in a democracy and a marketplace, the customer is always right.

Thomas Hunter writes:

Genetically modified foods at a glance

  • According to the Human Genome Project:
    • In 2006 a total of 252 million acres of transgenic crops were planted in 22 countries by 10.3 million farmers.
    • In 2006, countries that grew 97% of the global transgenic crops were the United States (53%), Argentina (17%), Brazil (11%), Canada (6%), India (4%), China (3%), Paraguay (2%) and South Africa (1%).

  • Globally, the most commonly produced GM crops include: soya, wheat, corn (maize), oilseed rape (canola), cotton, sugar beet, walnuts, potatoes, peanuts, squashes, tomatoes, tobacco, peas, sweet peppers, lettuce and onions.
  • According to the Centre for Food Safety: “Currently, up to 45 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered as is 85 percent of soybeans. It has been estimated that 70-75 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves–from soda to soup, crackers to condiments–contain genetically engineered ingredients.”
  • Prior to the decision by the Brumby Government to allow genetically modified canola to be farmed in Victoria, cotton oil was the only crop that had approval to be grown in Australia. All other GM crops were imported.
  • Have you eaten GM food? “Yes,” says Food Standards Australia New Zealand. “Some of the packaged foods in supermarkets contain GM ingredients derived from approved GM commodity crops of cotton, corn, canola, soybean, sugar beet and potato. They appear as ingredients in many foods.”
  • According to New Scientist, “[Other genetically modified foods produced around the globe] include: quick-to-mature GM salmon, endowed with an early growth spurt, GM cows that produce casein-enriched milk ideal for cheese making, pigs bearing spinach genes that produce lower-fat bacon, goats engineered to churn out spider silk in their milk and mice that produce healthy fish oils.”

Peter Fray

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