Thursday, June 23, 2011

Roll-out of Genetically Modified crops quietly continues

On June 21 - ten days before it expired - the Gene Technology (GM Crop Moratorium) Act 2003 was extended by NSW Parliament until 1 July 2021, meaning that any GM crops grown in NSW would continue to require governmental approval.

This does not prevent approved GM harvests or crop trials, however, and commercial crops and trials are indeed under way, in NSW and elsewhere.

In late May, news surfaced that Australia's first trials of GM wheat and barley had quietly begun on the Namoi river near Narrabri in northern NSW. Similar trials are underway in the ACT and WA.

Apart from the information that the trials will
"assess the impact of the technology on yield and nitrogen uptake", the precise details of what genetic modifications have been made to the twenty-seven different strains being trailed remain restricted as the crops are "patented technologies".

According to the May 28 Sydney Morning Herald, "The CSIRO, which is running the three-year experiment, said the various gene combinations in the trial were subject to commercial-in-confidence agreements to protect the interests of various government research agencies and a US company, Arcadia Biosciences."

Organic farmers and environmental groups - including Greenpeace - have been critical of the trial, saying who say there is no known way to stop the altered crops from escaping and contaminating natural strains used in commercial cultivation. They have also demanded laboratory tests on the safety for consumption of resulting wheat before any trial commences.

The CSIRO disputes the risks, however. "They will be separated from other crops by 200 metres, and wheat pollen travels about one metre, so it is highly unlike any will be found beyond that,'' Matthew Morell, a researcher with the CSIRO's Future Food division, told the

The contamination of traditional or organic foods by genetically modified crops continues to be a very real danger, however.

While the 200 metre exclusion zone might prevent escape by natural causes, Greenpeace pointed out that human error also needs to be taken into account. In 2009, seeds from a modified canola crop spilled from trucks driving down roads near an experimental farm in southern NSW, sprouted, and spread rapidly in the wild.

As the Office of the National Gene Technology concluded in 2003 that the two approved strains of GM canola were "as safe as conventional canola" for human health and the safety of the environment, there are no longer any transport restrictions on the GM seeds.

The first GM canola crops were sown in NSW around March 2008, and by 2010 there were about 24,000 hectares planted with GM canola (amounting to about 7.6 per cent of the total canola harvest), and on June 24, ABC Rural News reported that the area of GM canola in NSW would increase by 20 percent this year, with an extra 6,000 hectares to be sown.

GM cotton is also currently under widespread commercial cultivation across NSW and elsewhere.

The impact of commercial GM crops is being felt in Western Australia too. On June 23, a petition carrying 5,000 signatures was tabled in the West Australian parliament, calling for an inquiry into the state government's 2010 lifting of a moratorium on GM canola.

Late last year, Kojonup organic wheat farmer Stephen Marsh announced he intended to pursue legal action after his property and crops were contaminated by Monsanto Round-Up Ready Canola that had escaped from a neighbouring farm.

While the contamination involved unrelated species, Marsh lost his organic certification, and he will miss out on the premium price that organic wheat attracts for several years until the canola seeds become unviable and he can regain accreditation.

The WA government, and GM-giant Monsanto, effectively sided with the neighbouring farm. Rather than review the guidelines for GM crops, WA agriculture minister Terry Redman actually called for the guidelines for organic certification - which currently has a zero-tolerance stance towards GM - to be loosened.

Apart from contamination, a number of other problems that have been identified with GM crops.

These include possible links with an increased likelihood of allergies, the risk of GM plants and animals escaping into the wild and becoming noxious weeds and pests, and gene-transfer between GM and non-GM species (including so-called "horizontal gene transfer" between unrelated species).

Recent studies also show that toxins used in GM crops have been found in human blood, and Monsanto's supposedly "safe" GM corn (approved for consumption in the US, EU and several other countries) has been linked to organ failure in rats, mostly in the liver and kidneys.

GM crops - or perhaps the heavy-duty pesticides they are engineered to survive - have also just been identified as the likely cause of a dangerous new plant disease.

While the US study is incomplete, the pathogen has been linked with recent widespread crop failures and miscarriages in livestock, with research showing that animals fed on GM corn or soybeans may suffer serious health problems due to the pathogen.

Despite all these very real concerns over GM safety and the impacts of contamination, the federal Minister for Agriculture, Joe Ludwig, has declared that bread from GM wheat will be on our tables by 2015.

Greenpeace spokesperson Laura Kelly said that the Australian government's decision to go ahead with GM wheat field trials "amounts to a covert decision taken on behalf of Australia's wheat farmers, consumers and export markets that Australian wheat will be GM."

If you don't want GM bread and pasta, if you don't want our farmers to have to fight to prevent contamination of their wheat crop from Monsanto's patented GMOs, tell our Agriculture Minister that you don't want to eat GM bread and will hold his government responsible for any contamination from the GM wheat trials he has approved. Click here to email the Minister, or call his office on (02) 6277 7520.

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