The debate over genetically modified (GM) food has flared up again recently, after Greenpeace destroyed an experimental CSIRO wheat crop in Canberra on July 14.
The Australian Federal Police is now investigating Greenpeace over the incident, which CSIRO scientists claim has set their research back by up to a year.
Greenpeace argued the crop posed a threat to the environment and human health. Plans are underway for human trials of the GM wheat before tests are conducted on animals.
Greenpeace also accused the CSIRO of a conflict of interest for its closeness to several biotech companies, including agribusiness giant Monsanto, NuFarm (the exclusive Australian distributor for Monsanto), and Arcadia Biosciences (a US company with close ties to Monsanto).
It also criticised Australia’s weak regulation of GM crops.
The CSIRO rejected the claim that the wheat posed a threat, arguing that the modified wheat contained no genes from other organisms, and was designed to improve the crop’s nutritional value.
GM crops have become the source of increasing contention recently, in Australia and overseas.
Last year, Western Australian grain and meat farmer Steve Marsh had his organic certification revoked after “Monsanto Round-Up Ready” GM canola from a neighbouring farm spread into 70% of his farm.
Rather than supporting Marsh, the state government argued instead that organics standards be loosened to allow for GM contamination.
On July 27, Marsh told The Australian he had retained lawyers, and intended to begin legal action against his neighbour shortly, despite the conflict it might cause in the local community.
“The last thing that I want to do is to do this to a neighbour that I grew up with and went to school with … but this is a real serious problem we’ve got,” he said.
This is not the first time GM crops have escaped into the Australian environment. In 2009, GM canola seeds spilled from trucks near an experimental farm in southern NSW and spread rapidly in the wild.
An Office of the Gene Technology Regulator decision in 2003 that GM canola was “as safe as conventional canola” means that there are no transport restrictions on the GM seeds.
Geoffrey Carracher, from the Network of Concerned Farmers, has similar concerns about GM wheat.
He told the Truefood Network on July 22: “As a farmer, I am concerned about the long history of contamination by GM crops in Australia. I don’t want to see my crops contaminated by GM wheat, as so many farmers are experiencing right now with GM canola.”
Among other dangers linked with GM crops is horizontal gene transfer — when genes from one species “jump” to other species. Another problem is the high levels of weedkillers such as RoundUp that are used on the crops, which have been linked to health problems — including birth defects — in humans and livestock.
Recent evidence also indicates heavy chemical use has led to the appearance of new “superweeds” and a new highly resistant plant disease.
GM food has never officially been found “safe” to consume, and is coming under stricter regulation internationally.
All of the world’s other large wheat exporters — Canada, the United States, the European Union (EU) and Russia — have rejected GM wheat as unsafe and refuse to allow its cultivation.
GM seeds are banned in many parts of the EU, and in late July, the Hungarian government destroyed more than 400 hectares of GM corn that had slipped through its ban.
Despite this, Australia appears to be heading in the opposite direction, a fact that could have serious implications for the wheat industry if key export destinations or markets decide to restrict or avoid GM products.
The President of the Canadian Farmers’ Union warned in 2004: “People do not want GM in their daily bread and those countries that grow it will find markets closed or discounted because of GM wheat.”
The only GM crops now grown in Australia are cotton and canola, but both are under widespread cultivation in several states. Australian non-GM canola sells for about $50 more than the GM variety.
There is another, more sinister aspect to the GM industry, which is dominated by corporate biotechnology giants such as Monsanto.
The intellectual property rights attached to GM crops pose a threat to farmers’ livelihoods and to countries’ food security, as the right to use GM “products” such as seed can be restricted to those who have bought a licence.
To ensure profits are maximised, biotech companies have modified many GM crops to produce sterile seeds — so-called terminator seeds. This prevents farmers from storing a part of their harvest for re-planting, instead forcing them to buy more GM seeds at market price.
Growing food shortages have induced a number of African countries — most recently Kenya — to allow the importation of GM grains, despite local outcry.
Proponents of GM crops point to such cases as evidence of the need for GM to feed the planet’s growing population. This argument ignores the fact sufficient food can be grown by conventional, and more sustainable, methods.
The World Health Organisation says up to one-third of the world’s food — especially grain crops — is spoiled by poor storage.
Farmers around the word are beginning to campaign against GM crops and the companies that produce them. On June 23, a petition carrying 5000 signatures was tabled in the Western Australian parliament, calling for an inquiry into the 2010 lifting of a moratorium on GM canola.
In the US, more than 270,000 organic farmers have filed a pre-emptive lawsuit against Monsanto for the inevitable harm that GM contamination will cause their livelihood.