GM Food: The People versus Victoria

GM Food: The People versus Victoria

By: Katherine Wilson
Wednesday 13 June 2007

NewMatilda.com

When Sydney Greenpeace staffers John Hepburn and Louise Sales took the train to Melbourne to meet a small group of campaigners last weekend, things were looking shaky. The group had learned that the Victorian Government intended to overturn bans on genetically manipulated (GM) food crops. By media accounts, it was a done deal.

Gene contamination knows no borders, so other States may have no choice but to follow. As the group — from rural, health and environment sectors — shivered in a room in 60L Green Building, Hepburn plotted a whiteboard map of players on both sides. Things were looking lop-sided.

‘It’s not bad,’ he said.

On the pro-GM side was State Treasurer and Innovations Minister John Brumby, a fierce GM food advocate. Below him was Agriculture Minister Joe Helper, by name and nature. Rubbing shoulders with them were Premier Steve Bracks, CSIRO, the DPI, and most of the media.

A complex of industry lobbyists followed — including the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) — and their PR arms, like the IPA’s Australian Environment Foundation (not to be confused with the citizen-supported Australian Conservation Foundation). Driving these were multinationals Bayer and Monsanto, leading the vastly-funded gene technology industry.

And on it went. A squad of vocal scientists in receipt of GM funds were plotted alongside the panel appointed to review the bans. On the panel: the lovable Sir Gus Nossal, who has spoken cautiously in support of GM food crops, and Merna Curnow, who represents the pro-GM Grains Research Development Corporation. (Not much is known about the third panelist, Christine Forster.)

Finally, there was Australia’s Chief Scientist, the formidable Jim Peacock: friend of John Howard, founder of GM companies, lodger of contentious GM patents, who recently called those opposing GM foods ‘self-serving … unprincipled minorities.’

If the whiteboard’s pro-GM camp reeked of fiscal and political power, the GM-free side had people power. Celebrity chefs Margaret Fulton, Charmaine Solomon, Maggie Beer and Stefano Di Pieri sat alongside nutritionist and biochemist Dr Rosemary Stanton, epidemiologist Dr Judy Carman, medical scientist Professor Stephen Leeder, and erstwhile CSIRO soil scientist Dr Maarten Stapper, who claimed to have been sacked for speaking out about the dangers of GM crops.

Supporting them were health and environment groups and, well, most people. In every poll taken to date, the public is overwhelmingly opposed to GM food. So are an even larger majority of polled farmers, who don’t want GM food crops.

Finally, there were allies like celebrated geneticist Dr David Suzuki, who has said: ‘Any scientist or politician who tells you [GM] foods are safe is either very stupid or lying.’

‘Perhaps we’re being optimistic,’ said Hepburn. ‘But it’s looking good.’

Later, at GM-free restaurant The Curry Pot, Sales said she was feeling confident.

Across town, in the pro-GM camp, things looked just as shaky. The IPA — exposed in The Age as sponsored by Monsanto — had hosted drinks and hors d’œuvres in a warm Parliament room, as part of a forum to promote an end to GM bans. The forum was endorsed by three MPs including Labor’s young Luke Donnellan — which raised eyebrows. The IPA, famous for tobacco-lobbying, Murray-crisis denial and climate change skepticism, ‘was one of Kennett’s key backers, so their involvement with a Labor MP will not have gone unnoticed,’ remarked Labor staffer Chris Anderson.

I RSVPd to attend the IPA forum, but was told it was full. Tammy Lobato, Victorian State Labor MP for Gembrook, who did attend, told me:

It wasn’t well-attended by MPs. The IPA wheeled out the usual GM promises. [The IPA’s] Jennifer Marohasy said the bans were ‘irresponsible’, and were ‘killing’ Victoria’s canola industry. The next day I opened my copy of The Weekly Times to learn that Victoria now has record high yields of canola.

***

Mine isn’t a balanced and disinterested account of this issue. But to the best of my knowledge, it’s a fair and truthful one. As Robert Manne wrote last year in The Monthly, one side has gained ‘an altogether undeserved importance.’ He was speaking about climate change skeptic (carbon lobby) scientists, not pro-GM scientists, but the GM debate is even more distorted.

So much so that the issue is framed not as ‘industry interest versus public interest,’ but as ‘Science versus Luddites.’ How many Australians are aware of the hordes of scientists — geneticists, agronomists, epidemiologists, toxicologists, cancer pathologists, soil biologists — who vehemently warn against GM food? How many are aware that, despite rhetoric of drought-tolerant GM crops flooding our media, no such crop has been commercially developed or even field-trialled? Has any journalist questioned why chemical giants Bayer and Monsanto refuse to produce empirical, peer-reviewed evidence to back utopian claims (greater long-term yields, fewer chemicals, feed the world, tolerate drought, boost the economy, save malnourished children) for patented GM food crops?

Have they questioned the billions of public, private and philanthropist dollars invested in GM duds — CSIRO’s non-browning potato, its weevil-resistant field pea, the Flavr Savr tomato, banned terminator seeds, Golden Rice, and so on?

The two rats pictured are the same age. The smaller one’s mother was fed genetically manipulated food. Image thanks to Dr Irina Ermakova.

After the bans were put in place four years ago, I undertook a content analysis of all newspaper articles about GM in Australia’s canola-growing States as a postgrad research project. I looked at who was quoted, and I followed the money. Without exception, quoted scientists (many claiming ‘scientific consensus’ about GM) had received funds from biotech companies, sponsored think tanks, or GM grant and regulatory bodies. Most who made safety claims had no relevant expertise. Not one of the adverse research results or dissenting scientists — and there are many — was reported.

So when GeneEthics (a network of farmers, scientists, foodies and concerned citizens) failed to get studies showing negative impacts of GM into media reports, its supporters raised enough money to buy a series of advertisements in the Grains Research and Development Council’s magazine, Ground Cover. After publishing one ad, Ground Cover, dependent on big agribusiness dollars, cancelled five subsequent GeneEthics ads. ‘The GRDC is funded by farmers and taxpayers, yet we can’t even buy space in their journal. This was the only way of reaching an audience of 50,000 graingrowers,’ said GeneEthics executive director Bob Phelps. As Jeffrey Smith’s Seeds of Deception documents, this is the norm for scientists worldwide who attempt to publish research showing the negative impacts of GM. The free market of ideas, says Phelps, is free not just to those who can afford it, but to those who agree with it.

***

When West Australian graingrower Julie Newman heard about Victoria’s plans, she prepared for combat. Newman isn’t one of Jim Peacock’s ‘unprincipled… self-interested organic farmers.’ She’s a conventional, broadacre, monocrop farmer with a 10,000 hectare wheat property. She owns one of the largest seed-grading factories in WA, and she heads the national Network of Concerned Farmers. Many public stoushes with figures like Jim Peacock, and threats allegedly made against her family by big agribusiness players famous for their dirty tricks, have made her battle-hardened. She’s not prepared to lose this one.

Still, when Newman heard Victorian Agriculture Minister Joe Helper’s claim that introducing GM will give choice to farmers, she groaned.

‘Farmers don’t have a choice if their crops — or the environment — are contaminated, but we have to suffer the consequences. Agribusiness giants, not farmers, should be liable for economic losses from the introduction of GM. But this has been rejected by GM companies, by our chief scientist, and by our Federal Government. They want to make money out of farmers, but they don’t want to compensate us when it goes wrong.’

Newman says the widely-reported spin of greater yields from GM crops isn’t backed by evidence. In a long-term study of official US Government data, agronomist Dr Charles Benbrook reported: ‘The evidence is now overwhelming and indisputable that average yields of [GM] Roundup-ready varieties are about 4-6 per cent less than conventional varieties.’ Benbrook warned: ‘Australia should avoid the problems and market losses that the US experienced with GM.’

Here, his warnings went largely unreported.

As did reports that the US lost $12 billion when Europe refused its GM corn. A recent report by the Canadian’s National Farmers Union (Canada lost its EU canola market to Australia because of GM) says: ‘While the benefits [of GM] are questionable, risks and costs are real. Consumers are rejecting GM foods. Markets in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere are closing and domestic markets are likewise threatened. This is driving prices down. Closing markets and falling prices threaten to overwhelm any small, short-term economic benefits that GM crops or livestock may offer.’

Armed with even newer information, Newman is heading for Victoria.

Consumer groups, too, are mobilising. Australia refuses to label GM food, or food using GM process, so if the bans are lifted, there’s no choice. It’s easy to figure why. Customer demand forced US Starbucks and Walmart (the US’s biggest retailer) to drop dairy products made from GM growth-hormone treated animals. It forced US Safeway to take GM milk off its shelves.

UK customer demand forced Sainsbury’s to eliminate GM ingredients from its own-brand products, and Marks & Spencer removed them altogether. Even the canteen of Monsanto, the chemical giant at the forefront of pro-GM lobbying, banned GM food ‘in response to concern raised by our customers,’ according to a BBC report.

In Australia, chains like The Pancake Parlour reject imported GM ingredients, as do the kitchens of upmarket restaurants like The Grand Mildura and Café EQ at Melbourne’s Southbank.

‘The vast majority of customers in cafés and food stores that I have spoken to have been very skeptical regarding GM foods,’ says food researcher Sun Hyland. ‘It’s very clear to most people that big GM companies like Monsanto are primarily motivated by profit, not by a desire to make the world a better place.’

Her views are echoed by nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton, who said: ‘Claims that GM foods are essential to feeding the world population are absurd.’ (Claims that GM crops could improve nutrition in third world countries have also been comprehensively discredited.)

Rod Barbey, who runs Bcoz restaurant in Melbourne’s leafy east, is among those gearing up to oppose lifting the ban. ‘Chefs have a responsibility to health, environmental and sustainable practices,’ he says. Recent (non-industry) studies link GM food with serious dangers not just from horizontal gene transfer or antibiotic marker resistance, but from novel, incorrectly-folded proteins resulting from the process of GM.

In an ANU experiment, CSIRO’s GM field peas were found to cause serious adverse effects in animals. In the UK, world-renowned toxicologist Dr Arpad Pusztai fed potatoes to two groups of rats. Those fed GM potatoes had damaged immune systems and organs and were more vulnerable to disease than the control groups. (Pusztai’s study was widely smeared, but has been vindicated by independent scientists.) In a Russian experiment, Dr Irina Ermakova fed soy to two groups of pregnant rats as part of their diet. Pups from the rats fed GM soy died at much higher rates and had stunted growth, when compared to the control group.

Australian epidemiologist Dr Judy Carman says: ‘Many scientifically valid concerns are raised by independent scientists worldwide about the safety of these foods. GM foods were initially approved as safe as a result of a political directive which overrode the warnings of the US Food and Drug Administration’s own experts.’

She says money is rarely directed to sound experimental design. Instead, our health bodies are ‘relying on company data. But even within these experiments, which are limited in their ability to pick up health problems, some adverse effects were found.’ In Australia, GM food has been assessed as safe according to US standards that are ‘full of unsound scientific assumptions, rife with careless science, and arrogantly dismissive of valid concerns,’ according to University of California geneticist, Professor Patrick Brown.

But despite mounting new evidence, and despite scientists worldwide gathering in Brussels next week to argue the scientific case for Europe to ban GM foods, Australian States’ forthcoming GM ban reviews can accept objections on marketing grounds only. Still, if Australia’s shoppers, diners, chefs and overseas markets have any say in the democratic process, marketing grounds alone would see the bans stay in place.

Which is what GM-free campaigners are counting on. They hope citizens Australia-wide will make submissions (letters, documents, studies) to Victoria’s review panel, because if Victoria keeps its bans, other States should follow. A tough battle is ahead. But despite reports of done deals among agribusiness powerbrokers and pollies, the campaigners hope that the customer is always right.

About the author:

Katherine Wilson is an urban farmer and longtime supporter of GeneEthics.

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