Cropwatch update in gardening magazine16 November 2011
Original article supplied to Good Gardening Magazine:
by Jessica Harrison
The debate about the genetic manipulation (GM) of plants has been polarised. The many claims and counter claims about this issue can make it hard to tell the truth from corporate spin. Here is a brief outline of some of the contentious issues.
Genetic manipulation is used to cut and paste sections of DNA (the genetic code of life) from one living organism into another. Traditional breeding always occurs between related organisms but GM uses laboratory techniques to transfer genes between unrelated species, in ways that could never occur naturally. GM has unpredictable results because GM techniques are crude and inexact and the complex interactions between genes are poorly understood. For example, the technicians inserting a foreign gene from a bacterium into a plant cell cannot predict if the introduced gene will join the host plant cell, where it may land on the plant’s DNA, or its effects on the functioning of the plant. For thousands of years people saved and shared the best seeds, animal breeds and microbes (for beer, yoghurt and bread). But now GM technologists add genes to these publicly-owned life forms, claim a patent and monopoly ownership of any GM organism produced.
The Australian Office of Gene Technology Regulator granted unrestricted and unconditional commercial licences for herbicide tolerant GM canola in 2003, but state bans stopped the crop being grown for marketing reasons. The bans were lifted in NSW and Victoria in 2008 and in 2010 the Western Australian Government also allowed GM canola. Bans remain in South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT and we want to protect their non-GM growers who are reaping big benefits.
Some claims by GM companies:
- MYTH: GM crops will help feed the world’s hungry people.
- REALITY: The best conventional seeds out-yield GM varieties. Two recent UN reports conclude that small scale farming systems using ecological practices that work with nature have the best chance of reducing hunger. Since 1996, when GM soy, corn, canola and cotton were first grown, the number of hungry people has exploded to over one billion. Patented GM crops owned by multinational chemical companies, designed for industrial agriculture and maximum profits, further disadvantage the hungry.
- MYTH: Growing GM crops means less use of chemicals and is “environmentally friendly”.
- REALITY: Some GM crops produce their own insect toxins while others can be sprayed more often and at higher doses with weedkiller. Independent data shows GM crops have increased the total volume of weedkillers and pesticides used (REF 1).
- MYTH: GM plants and the foods made from them are safe to eat as GM ingredients were tested and many people have eaten them.
- REALITY: GM companies do their own safety tests to satisfy our weak regulatory requirements. Independent peer-reviewed safety tests and reports on GM health impacts are limited as the GM industry obstructs biosafety experiments and publications (Scientific American, August 2009; Nature Biotechnology October 2009). Yet animal feeding studies show that some varieties of GM ingredients harm animal health and probably ours too.
- MYTH: Drought tolerant, salt tolerant and nitrogen-fixing crops, more nutritious and longer shelf-life foods, etc. are possible using GM techniques.
- REALITY: Despite 30 years of research and $45 billion spent, these traits defy GM techniques. They all rely on the interaction of many genes so cannot be cut and pasted using GM. Only two commercial crop plant traits exist, because they involve single gene changes – “herbicide tolerant” GM plants survive being doused with weedkillers Roundup and Liberty; and, Bt GM plants produce their own insect toxins.
- MYTH: Farmers must have the “choice” to grow GM.
- REALITY: Farmers’ so-called “choice” to grow GM crops takes away everyone else’s choice - to farm and eat GM-free foods, because of inevitable GM contamination.
At what cost to farmers?
Roundup tolerant GM canola was just 8% of the Australian canola crop in 2010 but has already imposed extra costs and risks on all growers. Steve Marsh, a National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA) certified organic grower near Kojonup in WA, lost his certification and premium markets when GM canola blew over 60% of his farm in November, 2010.
Farmer Protection laws would make GM technology owners and their licensees strictly liable for GM contamination. Farmers like Steve Marsh could recover their losses and extra costs automatically when GM contamination occurred, without having to sue under the common law. But our governments refuse to pass such laws. So Steve must take legal action against his neighbour in a ground-breaking case. Lend your support to his tax-free fighting fund here http://www.nasaa-wa.com.au/NASAA_WA/Home.html
Monsanto and Bayer Cropscience’s GM seed are patented. Farmers who buy GM seed become tenant farmers by signing strict user agreements with the companies. They pay more for GM seed, must use higher-cost branded chemicals, and pay end point royalties on their GM crop delivered to the silo. Saving and re-sowing GM seed is prohibited.
A significant premium of up to $50/tonne (REF3) is now paid for non-GM canola and should continue for at least 5 years. GM canola’s market is limited by tough GM restrictions in our European and Asian export markets.
GM farmers are not required to notify their neighbours of GM crop locations, making it difficult for beekeepers who, when selling to honey companies, must certify their hives have not been within five kilometres of GM canola. As wind, water and bees do not respect fence lines, farmers with guaranteed premium markets for their GM-free canola are also at risk of GM contamination. Organic farmers can lose their certification if GM plants enter their land.
At what cost to shoppers?
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has approved every application received for GM foods. But Newspoll found a majority of Australians don't want to eat genetically manipulated foods. Over 90% of Australians also want all GM foods to be labelled but our governments will not comply. Food laws allow most refined GM food ingredients - eg: vegetable oils, starches and sugars - to remain unlabelled. Labels mislead because GM ingredients are commonly in processed foods but are unlabelled as such - Australian GM canola oil and cotton products, and imported soy and corn ingredients.
Vote with your wallet to support GM-free. All fresh fruit and vegetables are GM-free. So are all certified organic foods and those labelled GM-free. Also check the Truefood Guide for companies and brands committed to GM-free ingredients: www.truefood.org.au/truefoodguide/.
Why I Care
I grew up on a small island in Moreton Bay, near Brisbane, running barefoot with my sister, making cubbies, swimming, eating fruit from abandoned orchards and vegetables grown by my artist mother. My schoolwork arrived by post and took little time from my day. We had no electricity so we learned self-reliance early. Growing my first broad-bean crop as a teenager, I learnt to enjoy gardening and appreciate the wonders of nature. I remain passionate about social justice and preventing the plunder of our fragile planet by multinational corporations. This motivates me to take action.
While living in the UK from 2000-2003 I joined the dynamic GM-free movement. It grew until the supermarkets competed with each other to rid their shelves of GM products. Farmers and gardeners also succeeded in preventing “trial” GM crops from being grown throughout the country. Back in Australia, I joined GM Cropwatch.
Why GM Cropwatch – a practical approach
GM Cropwatch works with farmers and rural communities to monitor and map GM crops, and to combat the spread of GM canola by monitoring, testing and decontaminating roadsides and farms for GM canola weeds. GM Cropwatch is needed because our governments opened the gates to GM contamination without providing protection for farmers and the environment, and shirk their responsibilities.
I work with farmers who oppose GM and are concerned about its spread. Long hours on country roads checking for GM canola plants are well worth it when GM weeds are identified and permanently removed. Low-cost test kits imported from the USA allow a suspect weed to be verified as GM or GM-free in five minutes.
GM canola was first grown in Victoria in 2008. Following a tip, I watched with a sinking heart as pink and grey galahs feasted on a GM canola crop lying in a paddock. I found wind gusts had lifted sections of the dried canola crop over the fence and 74 metres along the road. (PHOTO 1) Authorities would not act so I worked with local farmers to clean up the GM plants, preventing regrowth. (PHOTO 2) Monsanto said government and industry had anticipated canola movement and that wind-blown GM canola was not contamination (REF5). Local farmers continue to check the area for re-growth.
In 2009, a farmer in southern NSW found 19 of the 20 plants she tested along the highway were GM. (REF6) GM Cropwatch volunteers helped remove the infestation. The GM plants were safely bagged and delivered back to Monsanto’s office in Melbourne where the company locked its doors.
GM canola spread is preventable. We must get active to keep the choice to farm and eat GM-free a viable option in our country. GM Cropwatch volunteers will be active again this spring, checking canola plants near GM silos and known sites of previous GM contamination. Join us!
Mapping GM growers and GM-free businesses
Gene Ethics, working for a GM-free future since 1988, hosts Cropwatch’s interactive online maps that document the names and locations of GM growers and GM receival silos. GM-free farms, businesses, councils, retailers and seed suppliers are also listed. These enterprises are using certification, quality assurance and audits to try to exclude all GM products. Join the register at http://www.geneethics.org/maps.
The Gene Ethics network is a citizens public interest advocacy group.
Contact GM Cropwatch: email@example.com
Other GM-free campaign groups:
Mothers Are Demystifying GE www.madge.org.au
Greenpeace Australia Pacific - True Food Guides and action http://www.truefood.org.au/