BY DANIEL JARDINE & ALEX BAINBRIDGE
"Australians and New Zealanders rarely have any valid basis for questioning the safety of foods on the supermarket shelves for human consumption", Senator Grant Tambling claimed when he launched the Australia-New Zealand Food Authority's (ANZFA) latest brochure on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), GM foods and the consumer.
In a separate report, released on June 19, the House of Representatives Committee on Primary Industries and Regional Services recommended that genetically modified crops be allowed to be released in Australia, albeit under tougher regulations.
State health ministers have also accepted the introduction of GMOs. However, they have approved a system of comprehensive labelling of all foods, rejecting a labelling exemption pushed by PM John Howard for foods which are less than 1% genetically modified.
Yet opponents of genetic engineering of food say that major questions about the new technology remain unanswered.
Independent MP for Calare, Peter Andren, the only member of the parliamentary committee to oppose its recommendations, issued his own report calling for a five-year moratorium on the development of GMOs in Australia to enable independent research to be carried out on its impacts.
Andren argued that the committee's terms of reference implied that GMOs would be introduced, thereby limiting the committee's scope and possible conclusions. The possibility of keeping Australia GM-free were never considered, he said. He also argued that the only beneficiaries so far of the release of GMOs have been the multinational food companies operating in Australia.
The Tasmanian Labor state government has also criticised the decision, environment minister David Llewellyn threatening to exercise "state rights" to ban GMOs. On June 21, Howard issued a "warning" to Tasmania not to "go it alone".
Environment department bureaucrats told anti-GM public meetings on June 20 and 21 that the state government could draft legislation which would ban GM crop trials and not breach World Trade Organisation regulations, but is yet to make a decision.
Scientific evidence from other countries shows that even limited release of GM crops in Australia could have major implications. Tests performed in May by scientists at the University of Jena in Germany have confirmed that genetic modifications can jump species and reports from Canada indicate that cross-contamination between GM and non-GM crops occurs very easily.
Scientific evidence supporting the GM industry's assertions is much harder to come by. ANZFA's brochure, for instance, despite its title, admits that it "does not cover the environmental or ethical issues related to GM foods".
Opponents of GMOs release in Australia also fear that, as in Europe, food companies' experiments on GMOs may already have led to contamination of other crops. It has been revealed, for example, that canola genetically modified to be resistant to herbicide was dumped in an open landfill in Mount Gambier, South Australia, in contravention of federal regulations, by the food giant Aventis.