The Taboo Food- Genetically Modified Anything

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					   The Taboo Food—
Genetically Modified Anything
                                               JENNIFER MAROHASY


           N HIS address to the          troubled by facts, because they have      ventional canola varieties. Over the

     I     Commonwealth Club in
           San Francisco last year,
           Michael Crichton (no-
                                         nothing to do with facts’.
                                             While Greenpeace and Margaret
                                         Fulton advocate that Australian con-
                                                                                   next few months, the Victorian and
                                                                                   NSW Governments must decide if
                                                                                   they will let the newly approved (by
table American writer and author of      sumers reject GM food, and most           the Federal Government) GM
Jurassic Park) suggested that Envi-      Australian State Governments have         canola varieties be planted in farm-
ronmentalism is a new religion and       introduced moratoriums to prevent         scale trials.
largely a ‘remapping of traditional      the planting of GM food crops,1 glo-          Recognizing the importance of
Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths’.      bally the area planted to GM crops        these decisions and, in particular, to
Crichton described organic food as       is increasing. In 2003, 67.7 million      ‘prevent the genetic contamination
Environmentalism’s ‘communion’,          hectares were planted to GM, repre-       of Australia’, Greenpeace sponsored
‘that pesticide-free wafer that the      senting an increase of 15 per cent on     a lecture tour by the former UK En-
right people with the right beliefs,     2002. In 2002, GM planting ac-            vironment Minister, Michael
imbibe’.                                 counted for 20 per cent of the total      Meacher, to Australia from 8 to 12
    Organic food might also be seen      world area planted to the four main       February.
as equivalent to the Jewish kosher       GM crops—soybeans, maize, cotton              We are at a crossroads in Austra-
and Moslem halal—that is, food pre-      and canola. Over the last few years,      lia. We can go the way of countries
pared according to a correct tradi-      uptake of the technology has been         such as Canada, the US and Argen-
tion. And while Jews and Moslems         rapid in North and South America,         tina and accept GM food crops. Al-
have their taboo food in pork, for En-   but anti-GM campaigning has               ternatively, we can accept the
vironmentalists the taboo food is        slowed or blocked plantings in Eu-        Greenpeace way and, like Europe, es-
anything genetically modified (GM).      rope, most of Africa and parts of         sentially reject the use of the tech-
    In Sydney, in September last year,   Asia.                                     nology for food production. The
the big names of the Australian food         While I respect Margaret Fulton’s     implications are significant for the
scene attended the launch of Green-      desire not to eat GM food—as I re-        environment and particularly for the
peace’s True Food Guide, where           spect the rights of my Moslem friends     long-term international competi-
Margaret Fulton declared that she        not to eat pork—the anti-GM cam-          tiveness of Australian agriculture.
hoped to keep Australia free from        paigners do not appear to accept my           No new GM foods have been ap-
GM food and thus our food, ‘safe to      right to choose GM.                       proved in the EU since 1997. Theo-
eat for my children, grandchildren           I might choose to eat GM because      retically, GM foods in the EU are
and great grandchildren’.                I can see real environmental benefits     labelled as such, however ‘food pro-
    Dr Jim Peacock, President of the     from the technology—particularly in       duced using GM organisms but not
Australian Academy of Science, has       terms of reduced insecticide and her-     containing GM material’ and ‘food
repeatedly made the point that, ‘Al-     bicide use. For example, growing ge-      from animals fed GM animal feeds’
though I can’t give you an absolute      netically modified Bt cotton—that         are exempt from being labelled GM.
guarantee that there will never be       has in-built resistance to cotton’s ma-   Europe imports approximately 6 mil-
any damage to anybody, I can say         jor pest Helicoverpa—has resulted in      lion tonnes of soybean from the US
that these foods are as safe as any      an average 56 per cent reduction in       each year, of which approximately 80
other food on the market … In six        pesticide use since the GM variety        per cent is GM. This GM product is
years (since the introduction of GM      was first planted in Australia in 1996.   crushed, and the soybean oil that is
food), with billions of meals having         The Australian Federal Govern-        chemically identical to non-GM
been eaten, there’s not a single case    ment recently approved the plant-         product is sold as vegetable oil for hu-
of trouble’. But as Crichton explains,   ing of GM canola on the basis that        man consumption, while the remain-
‘One of the defining features of reli-   it is no more harmful to human            ing soybean-meal is typically fed to
gion is that your beliefs are not        health or the environment than con-       animals in feedlots.


                                                                                                       REV I EW
16                                                                                                           MARCH 2004
    A Bayer CropScience application      canola provided superior weed con-        study ever undertaken into GM
to grow the same GM canola in Eu-        trol. GM canola was rejected because      canola’ which showed ‘commercial
rope that was recently approved by       ‘loss of biodiversity’ means fewer        planting of GM would have impacts
the Australian Federal Government        weeds. Clearly GM is in a no-win          on biodiversity that could not be
has been pending in Brussels since       situation in Europe.                      controlled’. Greenpeace was correct
1996—the same year GM canola was             European agriculture is heavily       to imply that the scientific method
first grown commercially in Canada.      subsidized and is increasingly as         supported its position. Indeed, the
On 2 February this year, the Belgium     much about the provision of ‘envi-        UK farm trials were scientific in that
government, on behalf of the Euro-       ronmental services’ as it is about food   they tested the null hypothesis that
pean Union (EU), rejected the ap-        production.                               the GM canola cultivation system is
plication.                                   If our State Governments reject       equivalent to the conventional cul-
    Interestingly, however, the Euro-    GM canola, we will be denying Aus-        tivation system. The results showed
peans have approved the importation      tralian canola growers the produc-        that the GM cultivation system gave
of GM canola seed for consumption;       tion efficiencies our cotton growers      significantly better weed control—
that is, they will eat GM, but not       enjoy in new GM varieties and we          in other words, the cultivation sys-
grow GM. Furthermore, the docu-          will be putting them at a competi-        tems are not equivalent. However,
mentation supporting the European                                                  to use this information to then de-
decision to reject GM canola indi-                                                 termine that GM canola is ‘harmful
cated that the herbicide currently          GM canola was                          to the environment’ is nonsense and
used to control weeds in conven-                                                   ignores the environmental advan-
tional canola in Australia will be                                                 tages of improved weed control—in
phased out in Europe by April 2005        rejected in Europe                       particular, through reducing the area
because of environmental concerns.                                                 of cultivation needed to produce the
    It was reported in the Australian     for the very reason                      same quantity of food. If we are to
media that GM canola was rejected                                                  eat, we need to cultivate—but let us
by the Europeans because its plant-           it had been                          do it as efficiently as possible. Thanks
ing will result in ‘greater environ-                                               to modern high-yielding agriculture,
mental harm’ and is ‘more damaging        developed—better                         we now have full bellies and leisure
to wildlife’ than conventionally-                                                  time and can admire nature from a
grown varieties. I read the final re-        weed control                          distance.
port and found that the issue was ‘a                                                   Untangling science from envi-
loss of biodiversity’ as demonstrated                                              ronmental fundamentalism is not
in farm-scale evaluation trials in the   tive disadvantage relative to, for ex-    going to be easy. But, to press Mar-
UK. The reduced biodiversity was         ample, Canadian canola growers. A         garet Fulton’s appeal made at the
directly attributable to ‘better weed    University of Melbourne study sug-        launch of Greenpeace’s True Food
control’. In fact, there was a ‘3-fold   gested that GM canola is worth $135       Guide in Sydney, we owe it to our
lower weed biomass and a 5-fold          million per year to Australian farm-      children and grandchildren to do just
lower (weed) seed rain’ compared         ers. The study identified the adop-       that. Indeed, to quote Crichton, ‘If
with conventionally managed              tion of GM canola as giving farmers       we allow science to become politi-
canola. GM canola was being re-          additional options for controlling        cized, then we are lost. We will en-
jected for the very reason it had been   problem weeds and earlier sowing.         ter the Internet version of the dark
developed—better weed control.               A key message in Crichton’s           ages, an era of shifting fears and wild
    The history of crop cultivation in   speech is that we need to ‘abandon        prejudices.’
Europe dates back 2,000 years. Many      the religion of environmentalism,
crop weeds are now considered na-        and return to the science of environ-     NOTE
tive and valued by conservationists      mentalism’. A critical issue largely      1 Cotton is exempt from the morato-
as habitat for insects that are fodder   overlooked by Crichton, however, is         rium on the grounds that cotton is
for farmland birds. The same weeds       the extent to which the religion of         not a food plant because it is grown
are a production cost.                   environmentalism uses the author-           primarily for fibre. However, approxi-
    If the UK trials had shown the       ity that science can give to an idea        mately 1 million tonnes of vegetable
GM canola system did not give im-        to justify and legitimize belief.           oil is produce from crushed cotton
proved weed control, then no doubt           The day after the Europeans re-         seed in Australia each year.
the technology would have been re-       jected Bayer’s application to plant
                                                                                     Dr Jennifer Marohasy is the Director of the IPA’s
jected on the basis that it failed in    GM canola, Greenpeace accused                                          Environmental Unit.
its key objective. But the trials        Australia’s GM regulator of ignoring
showed that cultivation of GM            the ‘only comprehensive ecological                                                  I P A



REV I EW
MARCH 2004                                                                                                                         17

				
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