Move to introduce herbicide-tolerant plants


A closed meeting of government officials and invitees will shortly make policy decisions to introduce herbicide-tolerant crops, pastures and trees into Australia. Critics and the public are excluded.

The decision will follow a March 15-16 "scientific" workshop organised by the Bureau of Resource Sciences in Canberra.

Scientists have genetically engineered bacterial genes into many crops so that forests and fields can be drenched with non-selective herbicides, killing weeds without destroying useful plants.

Australian Gen-Ethics Network coordinator Bob Phelps says, "The proposal to bring herbicide-tolerant crops into Australian farms and cities is unsustainable, unsafe and unacceptable. More poisoning, food contamination, pollution and herbicide-tolerant superweeds will result. It should be overwhelmingly rejected by the community and policy-makers.

"The genetic engineering, industry constantly promises us chemical free, sustainable agriculture. Instead, their first main commercial product is herbicide-tolerant plants to entrench and increase the use of dangerous chemicals."

Present herbicide use must be limited and selective to avoid accidental damage to crops. Chemical residues left in soils from spraying in previous years can also kill crops, imposing further restrictions.

"Agrochemical and seed companies want to remove these constraints on spraying just to sell more herbicides", Phelps said.

"Chemical use has already created many herbicide-tolerant weeds, and cocktails of plant killer are now used to suppress them. Herbicide-tolerant crops would simply encourage more troublesome, persistent weeds through over-spraying and gene leakage."

Australian experimental field trials of herbicide-tolerant plants to date include cotton, roses, lupins and subterranean clover. Herbicide tolerance laboratory research is confidential, despite being publicly funded, and a request by the Gen-Ethics Network for a list of research projects has been rejected.

However, the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry has published papers on its engineered cotton and tobacco, which is able to tolerate up to eight times the recommended dose of 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange.

"We call on all governments to stop funding herbicide tolerance research, to prohibit herbicide tolerant crops, pastures and trees, and to begin the phase-out of chemical herbicides. There are alternatives", Phelps said.

"A national weed management policy based on non-chemical systems is a top priority. Government money should go into sustainable, integrated, farm management systems, to nurture irreplaceable soil and water resources. This is essential if a human population, even as large as the present one, is to continue inhabiting Australia. Farming must reduce chemical inputs and become sustainable, because it sustains us."

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