New Caledonia, a French-administered archipelago in the south-west Pacific, passed a law on February 13 banning the importation of genetically modified seeds for cereals and fruits.
Vegetables, however, are exempt from the law. A proposal for mandatory labelling of GMO products is still to be approved by the Congress.
Frederic Guerin and Claire Chauvet of Stop GMO Pacific, based in New Caledonia's capital, Noumea, were happy their campaign had made big gains. But they told Green Left Weekly they remain concerned that there is little information, and even less regulation, of GMOs in the rest of the Pacific.
They were in Australia on the invitation of GM Free Australia Alliance. Their aim is to investigate, raise awareness of and stop GMOs across the Pacific. To this end they have also visited the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, Wallis and Futuna Islands.
They told GLW that of Pacific nations, only Tonga and Niue regulate GMOs. Fiji bans only GM papaya.
As the US is the biggest producer of commercial GMOs, it is no surprise to find Hawai'i produces more than 5000 varieties of GM crops.
Besides Hawai'i, there is little known production of GMOs in the Pacific. In Guam, another US territory, GM corn is grown. In PNG and the Solomon Islands, the production of GM Tilapia, a freshwater fish, has been halted.
The big problem for the Pacific is the importation of GMO seeds and food. The Pacific states import much of their food. In New Caledonia, Chauvet said, 75% of food is imported.
The danger for local populations is that GMO products are not labelled — and the imports are coming from countries on the Pacific rim that are big producers of GMOs.
Australia is a big source of imports for Pacific nations. Canola is the biggest commercial GM crop in Australia, but only 5% of all canola produced is GM. A bigger worry is that 95% of Australian cotton is GM. Cottonseed oil is used in many processed foods.
But even that is likely to pale in comparison with the dawn of GM wheat. Wheat is the staple food for almost half the world's population and is Australia’s biggest agricultural product, worth about $7.5 billion in 2011-12.
Even GMO giant the US is wary of allowing GM wheat to be produced. The US Department of Agriculture says: “US food processors are wary of consumer reaction to products containing GM wheat, so no GM wheat is commercially grown in the United States.”
But in Australia, GM wheat trials are going ahead, run by CSIRO, the University of Adelaide and the Victorian Department of Primary Industries. In 2010, agribusiness giant Monsanto bought 19.9% of the Western Australian public grains research body, InterGrain. InterGrain produces 40% to 50% of the wheat varieties sown in Australia.
GM wheat could be commercialised by next year, making Australia the first country in the world to do so.
A report released last year by the GM Free Australia Alliance, No appetite for Australian GM wheat, said if the wheat industry switches to GM, it will lose much of its market.
“Twenty-five major food companies, including Barilla, Bakers Delight, Coles, Sanitarium, and General Mills, state that they are not interested in buying GM wheat, or have a policy excluding all GM ingredients,” it said.
It is not surprising these food companies are wary of GMOs. Farmers themselves are worried about GMO contamination of their crops.
In Kojonup, south of Perth, organic canola farmer Steve Marsh found his crop contaminated by his neighbour's GM canola. Marsh lost his organic certification and took his neighbour to court seeking compensation. This is a landmark case and could determine the future of GM in Australia.
The resistance of pests to chemicals is another worry. Chauvet told Radio Australia: “A lot of insects resist now to GMO crops. There is a very big problem in the USA now. Some GMOs are produced to resist a herbicide called Roundup. Year after year when the farmers use these seeds, the weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup.”
The public is worried about the health risks of GMOs. Unfortunately, people may not know the full effects of GMOs until they have been consuming them for several decades.
A 2012 paper, “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified corn” published in Food and Chemical Toxicology, showed rats exposed to GMOs developed kidney and liver disease, mammary tumours and died prematurely.
Australians have potentially been eating GM corn since 2002, when it was approved by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). When used in food, it is not labelled.
Food processors are objecting to GMO expansion but multinational agribusiness and chemicals corporations such as Monsanto and Bayer are seeking to profit from GMOs.
GM Free Australia Alliance coordinator Jessica Harrison told Radio Australia: “GM companies have a big interest in selling seed and what they rely on is an uninformed public ...
“There has been a strong push by the big food companies that have put millions of dollars in to stop that labelling and that just shows the anti-democratic nature of these big companies.”
Besides their vast wealth, these corporations also rely on the “moral” propaganda about being able to feed the world's hungry with the vast amounts of cheap food that GMO promises.
But Harrison told Radio Australia: “GM has been commonly available for around 15 years and it hasn't really markedly reduced the amount of hunger that there is in the world, as we know.
“Economic instability and economic disparity are the things which cause hunger. Its not the lack of a patented crop which is owned by a multinational company.”
Guerin told GLW: “Why is there famine? Because modern agriculture destroyed traditional knowledge.
“Maybe half the Pacific population are traditional farmers. They have nothing to sell but they just produce for themselves. It’s very good, traditional agriculture, but companies cannot make money with traditional agriculture.”
[Visit Stop GMO Pacific for more information on the regional campaign against the GMO threat.]