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Australia GE Debate Coming to a Head

Australian Magazine
September 28, 2002
SEEDS OF REVOLUTION
BY: VICTORIA LAURIE


It's crunch time for genetically modified food in Australia. After years of
trials, the first GM seed for a commercial crop could be planted in months.
While supporters say it's just another farming tool, others warn of a
creeping invasion.

On a cold, blustery night in June, the farmers of Western Australia's
wheatbelt town of York crowded into their majestic town hall as an elderly
North American farmer stood up to address the 300-strong crowd: "Ladies and
gentlemen, I have not come here to tell you what to do, but to tell you what
happened to us."

Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser had come to talk about canola, the tiny
black oilseed that he had grown on the plains of Saskatchewan for nearly 50
years. Canada produces 41 per cent - and Australia 13 per cent - of the
world's trade in canola, whose oil-bearing seed is turned into a popular,
low-cholesterol margarine and an edible oil on supermarket shelves. But
Canada's crop now largely consists of a genetically modified (GM) variety of
canola that appeared in the mid-1990s. It was this mutant GM crop that
Schmeiser said he had come halfway around the world to warn Australian
farmers about.

His visit was well-timed. In the week he arrived, agrochemical giant
Monsanto filed an application with the Office of the Gene Technology
Regulator in Canberra to grow Australia's first commercial GM food crop. And
that crop is genetically modified canola. It is a landmark step that could
see Australia moving on from five years of dabbling with trial plots of GM
food crops. As early as next February, Monsanto and another applicant,
Aventis, could get the nod from the Gene Technology Regulator and farmers
could start putting crops in the ground weeks later.

Other GM food crops would follow, such as barley, wheat and lupins, which
are already being trialled in Australia. But canola has become the threshold
crop, symbolising Australia's move from being a largely GM-free continent to
a grower and exporter of genetically modified food. So what, according to
the Canadian farmer, is wrong with that?

A former mayor, Schmeiser, 71, looks like nobody's radical. He has spent a
lifetime growing canola and saving the seeds for next year's crop, a seed so
fine it runs in rivulets through the fingers. Canola
is also an open-pollinating crop with the potential to spread its genes
around in pollen, in far greater amounts than wheat or barley. And that,
according to Schmeiser, was where his problems began when GM canola came on
the market.

Monsanto had patented a gene which, when taken from soil bacteria and
inserted into the plant, rendered it resistant to the widely used Monsanto
herbicide, Roundup. The result is "Roundup Ready" canola, a genetically
modified plant that can be sprayed with weedkiller. The weeds in the field
die, while the crop thrives.

The planting of transgenic crops has multiplied 30-fold in only five years;
14 countries are involved, but the US accounts for 68 per cent of the area
planted last year. Monsanto is the owner of 90 per cent of the world's GM
crops, from canola and cotton to soybean and corn. The company obliges
contracted farmers to exclusively buy its two products, seed and herbicide,
and pay a "technology fee" for the use of its patented gene. In return,
Monsanto promises farmers a twofold benefit: higher crop yields and less
herbicide use.

But Schmeiser's story, which he repeated in dozens of country pubs and rural
halls across Australia, had no such happy outcome. He said he had never
purchased Monsanto's Roundup Ready canola, yet its genetically modified
pollen and seeds had found their way into his conventional crop.

He claimed they had been carried to his farm by wind or bees, grain trucks
or seed spillage on roads. But in the end it didn't matter how they arrived,
for when a neighbour tipped off Monsanto that Schmeiser might be harvesting
and resowing - even unwittingly - seed that contained "their" patented gene,
Monsanto took him to court.

In 2000, Schmeiser was hit with $US150,000 in fines and forfeiture of the
profit from his harvest. The judge found him guilty of planting a crop with
modified seed he "knew or ought to have known" belonged, under plant
patenting laws, to someone else.

Standing next to Schmeiser on
the podium was Tom Wiley, a soybean grower from North Dakota who "was
sitting on my truck one day when a call came from my broker to say my crop
had come up 1.5 per cent positive for GM". His neighbours, not Wiley, had
planted GM soybean. But his crop had been contaminated and was rejected by
overseas buyers.

Pure canola and soybean seed was now hard to find in the US and Canada, the
men told their audiences. And both countries were now excluded from the
European Union, which has virtually closed the door on imported GM product.
"It's time for farmers everywhere to stand up for their rights because they
are being threatened with the arrival of GM crops," said Schmeiser.
The declaration by Australian government and agricultural bodies of their
intention to operate a "coexistence" policy - keeping GM and non-GM produce
strictly separate - was a futile gesture, the Canadian warned. "Consider
three things: there is no such thing as containment, there is no such thing
as coexistence, and you'll lose your markets."

From the sidelines, dissenters began posing questions. Wasn't it true that
Canada had simply diverted its burgeoning GM canola harvest to non-GM
countries such as Mexico and China? And did consumers really care if they
ate food with one added gene, when no-one has yet proved it harmful?
"Ninety per cent of Canadians have said they would not knowingly choose GM
foods," said Schmeiser. "It's the consumer who will eventually stop this."
The speaking tour had been titled "Seeds of Doubt". At meeting's end, the
audience had split into those who doubted the wisdom of GM crops and those
who doubted Schmeiser.

Gill Rosier is a teacher from a farming family who drives her van around
central Victorian country towns, spreading the message about the need for a
"GM-free Bendigo" campaign. When we meet, she is driving to a farmers'
meeting in the tiny town of Bealiba, a short drive west of Bendigo.
Many farmers in her audience do not share Rosier's blanket rejection of
engineered food. They point out that imported foods clearly labelled "GM" -
including canola products - already
sit on our supermarket shelves. They accept plant manipulation as a way to
improve crops - most canola grown in Australia has been conventionally bred
for herbicide resistance.

Some people argue that Australia has already crossed the GM threshold with
cotton, a non-food plant. One third of the nation's cotton crop growing
today is genetically modified to resist pests.

But Rosier and her audiences still find much in common when the conversation
turns to patented food crops such as GM canola. "It introduces a
'victim-pays' principle and that's not fair," says Rosier, who helped
organise the Victorian leg of Schmeiser's tour. "Farmers really took home
the message that the company's patent rights overtook the farmers' rights,
and that's something they don't want to happen."

Later, in the pub, over a beer, farmers David Heather and Steve English
wonder how GM canola pollen and seed can possibly be stopped from travelling
on the wind, or accidentally by truck. "Have you seen a Mallee windstorm
that carries a paddock of topsoil across the landscape?" asks Heather. "We
use contractors to cart our canola and I've watched it running out the back
of trucks like water," adds English. "It's the tiniest seed."

English grows conventional canola, and was alarmed when he discovered secret
GM trials by Aventis had been held in his area. "But even with trials going
on, Australia still has non-GM status in the eyes of European importers. And
that's what I want to protect." English worries that he could have
commercial crops of GM canola growing up to his fence line within a year.
"And no-one will have asked me."

Such Schmeiser-inspired panic has no basis in science, according to Rick
Roush, associate professor of the Cooperative Research Centre for Australian
Weed Management in Adelaide. "Much of the debate is dominated by fear of the
technology, fear of the food product, or fear of the multinationals."
Just as the Seeds of Doubt tour was crisscrossing Australia, a major study
by Roush, CRC colleagues and team leader Mary Reiger was published in the
American journal Science. The team had studied canola pollen drift on 63
trial fields across southern Australia and found that unwanted gene transfer
occurred in such minute quantities, at 0.07 per cent, that they believed
non-GM crops were "not in any danger".

But Schmeiser got more newspaper headlines; in frustration, Roush issued a
news release saying their findings "cast serious doubt" on the Canadian
farmer's claims that hundreds of hectares had been contaminated. Earlier
this month, Schmeiser lost his appeal against Monsanto. But Brad Sherman,
director of the Australian Centre for Intellectual Property in Agriculture,
says a potential problem remains. "A patent over modified seeds means people
can infringe through no fault of their own, and be sued. And the threat of
being sued might place pressure on people to sign up with biotech
companies."

Bendigo councillors recently wrote to Monsanto and Aventis to request that
no GM trials or cropping take place
in their region. "Basically, they ignored us," says the city's CEO, Andrew
Paul.

The Victorian and NSW governments have rejected the option, available under
the Gene Technology Act, to create GM-free zones inside the state. The
Greater City of Bendigo has a $500 million agricultural output that relies,
says Paul, on a "clean, green" image. He argues it's a view shared by
agri-food businesses springing up around Bendigo, such as taco and corn chip
producer Rositas.

"Australia has the chance to enhance its reputation as a clean, green
nation," says Rositas' managing director, Peter McAllister. "One premature
decision could ruin it forever." He says he's "no greenie", but he fears the
loss of overseas markets "if GM gets into my supply chain".

Whether Australia will in fact lose out is uncertain, says Max Foster, who
has researched the market implications of growing transgenic crops for the
Australian Bureau of Agricultural Research. A GM-free Australia has "a
definite advantage over Canada in getting canola into the EU market". But
other countries readily accept GM crops; even Japan, which bans certain GM
foods, imports both kinds of canola.

Foster says that higher-yielding GM crops "seem to offer agronomic benefits"
to Australian farmers, who do not currently get a premium price for their
conventional canola. But that could change; if global consumer resistance to
transgenic food were to rise, Australia's GM-free crops might suddenly
become more valuable. "To me, we're better off if we can preserve both
markets." The catch? That it will cost dearly to run both GM and non-GM
handling systems from farm to silo, says Foster, and that may cancel out
GM's financial gains.

Next morning, over a hearty breakfast at the Donald Hotel, 150km west of
Bendigo, Bob Phelps is lined up in a debate against David Monroe. Phelps is
director of the GeneEthics Network, a Melbourne-based lobby group that
opposes genetic engineering; Monroe is a Monsanto salesman.

This farming audience seems inclined towards Monroe's view that GM canola is
simply "another farming tool". Some nod in agreement when Monroe says the
fuss about GM crops reminds him of the mistrust and disbelief in the 1980s
when Monsanto first introduced Roundup as a "revolutionary new" broad
spectrum herbicide. The decision to go with GM canola, or not, "is a matter
of farmers' choice", Monroe says, echoing the official view of the National
Farmers' Federation. For Monsanto's part, "we need to get it on farmer-sized
paddocks to continue the research".

As Phelps speaks, one of the canola growers in the audience becomes visibly
agitated by what he calls Phelps's "hidden agenda". "I'd classify him as a
Trojan Horse standing at the gates of agriculture, painted up as rational
and reasonable," says Gerald Feeny. "Phelps's real agenda is to ban all
herbicide-tolerant plants," he says, "even all herbicides."

The GM debate, Feeny adds, "is a conflict between urban perceptions of
agriculture compared to what it really is. When city people drive past
wheat, barley or canola fields, they should know that the technology behind
that crop is as sophisticated as the computer on their desk." Farmers and
consumers should place their faith in the regulatory systems and research
being undertaken to make GM and non-GM cropping work, he says.
But federal opposition spokesman on agriculture, Kerry O'Brien, says time is
running out for those agencies and that research, since the Gene Technology
Regulator has only 170 working days from the lodging of an application to
make a decision. "Will the decision be made on Monsanto before it's known
if, and how, the segregation of crops and seed can be achieved?" O'Brien
asks.

The spectre of Percy Schmeiser lingers over the breakfast meeting at Donald..
With the insurance industry already ruling out any form of indemnity, could
a farmer seriously risk being sued by neighbours for contaminating crops,
or by Monsanto for unsuspecting use of its gene?
Monroe has no immediate answers for his audience: "The lawyers will have to
work out what's right and what's wrong."

Later, Monsanto's spokesman Brian Arnst tells The Weekend Australian
Magazine that unlicensed farmers who knowingly use their GM patented seed
could be sued. "But it's only an issue for us if they are using the seed
year after year, and knowingly applying the technology," Arnst says.
As for farmers who suffer accidental contamination, Monsanto will "not come
after" them. "Our understanding of the potential for contamination is that
it is very low. It would be a very unusual event."

Arnst says Monsanto will cooperate with any conditions placed on the
introduction of commercial GM crops. As for the Gene Technology Regulator's
approval, "We're confident we'll get clearance to go ahead."
As the breakfast dishes are cleared away, one of the farmers stands up
to thank the gene ethicist and the Monsanto salesman for their opposing
views on GM canola. "Thanks gentlemen, we'll take it away as food for
thought. The message is we [had] better get it right before it goes out."


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