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Australasian Biotechnology (backfiles)
AusBiotech
ISSN: 1036-7128
Vol. 9, Num. 1, 1999
Consensus Conference on Gene Technology in the Food Chain

Australasian Biotechnology,
Volume 9 Number 1, March/April 1999, pp. 21-33

Consensus Conference on Gene Technology in the Food Chain

ABA Media Release - 17 March 1999

Biotechnology - the Public's Need to Know

Code Number:AU99002

The Lay Panel of the recent First Australian Consensus Conference on Gene Technology in the Food Chain highlighted the need to promote greater public awareness about gene technology and its use in a range of products and services.

Dr Anne Campbell, President of the Australian Biotechnology Association (ABA), applauds this recommendation.

"People who are better informed about gene technology and the risks and benefits associated with its applications will be better able to decide for themselves whether they will buy and use food and medicines made by it - and also whether they will feel comfortable with the use of the technology in agriculture for growing crops, in cleaning up the environment, in reducing the numbers of feral animals as well as to produce safer medicines", Dr Campbell said.

"The questions raised by the Lay Panel of 14 Australians will be a useful guide for those helping to provide more information to assist the public to make informed decisions" Dr Campbell said.

The Lay Panel urged that information needs to be accessible at many levels and in different forms and that there must be the opportunity for wider public discussion, debate and input into decision-making bodies.

"The Lay Panel saw the Consensus Conference as the start of the consultation process" Dr Campbell said.

"The ABA hopes to play an active role in future debates and to help the public understand the potential of the technology and its many uses. As part of this, the ABA is hosting a seminar in Canberra on 25 March to discuss the Consensus Conference as a model for public consultation" Dr Campbell noted.

The ABA has already produced a series of leaflets that are targetted to the wider public. They explain simply what biotechnology is and some of its applications. They are available on the ABA Web Site too.

The ABA was established in 1985, when the potential for the application of the technology was starting to be realized. It is a national body of over 400 individuals from research, legal, regulatory and company backgrounds; there are also about 40 corporate company members. The ABA is dedicated to the development and prosperity of Australia through the safe use of biotechnology as well as better communication between all sectors of biotechnology. A particular objective is to contribute to improving the understanding of all Australians about biotechnology.

ABA Report on Consensus Conference

by Lyndal Thorburn and Anne Campbell

Australia's first consensus conference in gene technology in the food chain was held in Canberra in March 1999. This conference was sponsored by the Australian Museum and was intended to bring together consumers, "a citizens' panel" selected from around Australia, and experts in biotechnology.

The Australian conference follows similar gatherings in Canada, the UK and New Zealand in the past five years. The Canadian Citizens' Conference was also held in March 1999. The Canadian conference made 17 recommendations designed to ensure that gene technology was a beneficial technology for all society, was safe and could be made to respect the individuality of humans.

The UK national consensus conference on plant biotechnology, held in 1994, found that plant biotechnology has a role in providing quality food and non-food products from sustainable sources. The UK panel also stressed the need for adequate labelling and the need for a regulatory system that was fair to primary producers, developers and end users. It identified that plant biotechnology had potential benefits and risks for the environment and that the patenting framework needed to be amended. The report also recommended that developing countries should be able to maximise benefits and minimise risks from plant biotechnology.

Another plant biotechnology consensus conference in 1996 in New Zealand also recognised that gene technology was a valuable and non-intrusive research tool. The citizen panel there, however, felt that there needed to be more public awareness of the technology and its effects and that Maori beliefs and values needed to be considered within the context of the treaty of Waitangi. This conference also focussed on the regulatory system, noting voluntary codes and legislation needed to be developed to provide appropriate safeguards. Finally the meeting found that plant biotechnology would be no more damaging to plant biodiversity than are conventially bred plants.

Australia's consensus conference took over 12 months to plan. The Steering Committee advertised in the general press for volunteers for the citizens' panel. Then followed an exhausting process of interview, leading to the selection of 14 people across a range of ages and varied backgrounds. In early March 1999, the citizen panel spent two weekends being briefed by an expert panel, drawn from a list prepared by the conference's steering committee which contained representatives from universities, industry associations and government agencies.

The culmination of this process was the three day public conference from 10-12 March. On the first day the experts answered written questions prepared over the preceding weeks, and then responded to questions from the citizen panel. On the second day, the observers were also permitted to ask questions of the experts. At the end of Day 2, the citizens' panel prepared a report which was tabled on the 3rd day - Friday 12 March - and was presented to the President of the Senate.

The Australian citizen panel's report covered 10 areas. The most important of these was regulation of gene technology in the food chain, where they recommended the formation of a new statutory with responsibility for genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) with well balanced representations and whose outcomes and deliberations were public. The second issue was consultation, where the panel asked that the government establish a mechanism similar to the consensus conference model to bring together industry, consumer groups, critics, other experts and Australian citizen people to ensure that dialogue between all of these groups would lead to better government decisions.

The third issue was science and risk. In this, the citizens' panel noted that the general community did not understand the benefits and risks of introduction of GMOs into the food chain. They recommended that no new commercial releases or unlabelled importation of GMO foods be allowed in Australia until a Gene Technology Office was established and that Australia had a clear position on the biosafety protocol. They also requested that the importation of GMO foods should only be allowed when full identification was provided to the end consumer by comprehensive labelling.

The fourth issue was environmental and health where the citizens' panel was interested in the fundamental issues that affect the environment in relation to the release of GMOs. The group recommended that environment and health departments should be integrally involved in developing strategies to prevent and prepare for any possible health or environmental problems that may occur through release of GMOs and that a specific adverse reactions register should be established to ensure that any possible health links be closely monitored.

The fifth issue was an examination of alternatives to gene technologies. The panel recommended that there be an independent assessment of the viability and impacts of choosing non-GMO options and that the impacts on industry, local producers and Australia's international trade be assessed. They recommended that information gained from this assessment should be communicated widely to the public.

The next major discussion was on ethics and morality where the panel was concerned about the ethical issues involved in altering the fundamental building blocks of life through gene technologies. These issues had been canvassed broadly during the conference itself and the panel was clearly concerned about the prospect of patenting of life forms and creation of transgenic organisms. They believed that ethical considerations must assume a prominent role in decision making about gene technology and recommended that an ethicist be involved in the formulation of major decisions on GMO policy.

Another major issue during the conference was the role of multinational corporations and in this area the panel was concerned about the involvement of these corporations in determining Australia's policies on release of GMOs. The panel recommended that the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission investigate and prevent multinational monopolies in the food industry and that protocols be established to ensure that public input into research proposals and funding ensures that broad public as well as commercial interests are served. In this context it should be noted that the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Primary Industries and Regional Services has recently released terms of reference into an inquiry into primary producers' access to gene technology. Submissions for this inquiry are due on 12 June and the ABA is preparing a submission for this purpose.

The eighth area of interest was international conventions. The panel did not believe that Australia should pursue a solely economic agenda in negotiations on the biosafety protocol and recommended that we should support a regulated trade approach in relation to GMOs. Australia should also initiate and support international treaties that protect those vulnerable from exploitation by bio-prospecting companies.

The ninth area was public awareness, where the panel was interested in when and how information on GMOs should be made available to the public. They recommended the establishment of better processes to allow public access to information through the Gene Technology Information Office, through government sponsored advertising campaigns, through toll free phone lines and a web site for consumer information, through public notices on GM issues, through information fact sheets and through focussed education programs.

The final and tenth issue was about labelling and choice. The citizens' panel recommended that all genetically modified food should be labelled to allow free and informed consumer choice. It did not accept the argument that substantial equivalents to unmodified foods should be able to justify that labelling is not necessary. The panel also agreed that this was a difficult issue and suggested that more discussion was needed before specific labelling regulations were decided.

The ABA, although not a formal sponsor of the consensus conference, supports the process of discussion and debate and issued a press release welcoming the public report. We decided to extend the discussion further by running a Canberra Region seminar on 26 March to evaluate the ability of consensus conferences to deal with difficult issues and bring different groups together.

Three speakers addressed the ABA seminar. Dr T. J. Higgins, of the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry, had been one of the scientists briefing the citizen panel prior to the formal conference. Another speaker, Mr Claude Gauchat, was a member of the steering committee and is Executive Director of Avcare Ltd - the national association for crop production and animal health. This is an industry association representing manufacturers of chemicals. The final speaker was Ms Rhian Williams who was a member of the citizen panel and works as a conflict mediator in Canberra.

The three speakers gave very different views of the conference process. Dr Higgins found that although the citizen panel was interested in the technical aspects of gene technology, it was more interested in its impacts. The citizen panel's concerns centred on ethics, the ability of individuals to participate in decision making process, and the influence of international treaties and trade obligations on Australia's ability to deal with the impact of gene technology in the way that it might desire. Overall the panel was well informed, but its information came mainly from the media and tended towards the frightening rather than the informative. He recommended R&D institutions and industry associations needed to improve communication with the media, which is the primary mechanism through which the citizen person finds out about biotechnology.

Claude Gauchat spoke from the perspective of Avcare as well as the steering committee. The steering committee was very pleased with the process for the selection of the panel, but it became clear that government representatives should also have been selected in the expert panel as regulatory issues were raised and could not be addressed.

Mr Gauchat also recommended that future steering committees should establish a clear definition of the process of panel selection and a clear code of behaviour for speakers on the expert panel. This would help speakers answer the citizen panel's questions accurately. Finally, he believed that the conference needs to be run over a longer time period and it was unrealistic to expect a citizen panel to write their report overnight. Some representatives of the citizen panel had only one or two hours sleep on the second night of the conference.

The last speaker, Rhian Williams, reviewed her experiences applying and then being selected for the citizen panel. One of her main concerns was that despite the use of the term `consensus' the process of question and answer was adversarial in nature, but without the ability to `cross examine' or correct misinformation. Such a safeguard is built into the court system and should be beneficial here too. She also called for further flexibility in future conferences so that if issues arose unexpectedly then expert speakers could be called in to answer questions on these areas.

Ms William's presentation also focussed on the citizen panel's perception of its role. At the start of the conference, the citizen panel saw themselves as consumers, and therefore focussed on the labelling of genetically modified products. As the discussions progressed they began to realise there were other issues which they could influence beyond the labelling issue. As a result, the final report ranged across a variety of areas including the regulatory framework, Australia's international framework etc

For those readers who wish to obtain a copy of the Consensus Conference Report, please contact Ms Dana Jones 02 9320 6000 at the Australian Museum Sydney.

Questions at the Consensus Conference

(Reproduced from material prepared prior to the Conference by the organisers)

Gene Technology in the Food Chain

What is meant by `gene technology'?

The terms gene technology, genetic engineering, genetic modification all mean the same thing. They refer to one type of modern biotechnology.

This is a range of techniques used by scientists in an attempt to control or modify genes, or most significantly, move them between species (this is referred to as recombinant DNA technology).

Genes from a plant can be placed into an animal, or can be moved from an animal to a plant, or from micro-organisms (like bacteria or viruses) into plants or animals, or vice versa. When this happens, the new organism created may be called transgenic, or described as a genetically modified organism (GMO).

Genes are found in almost every cell of all living things, and carry the information needed to create the proteins - the doing molecules - which perform highly specific tasks in the body (as enzymes, antibodies or hormones).

So usually, gene technology involves the manipulation of the cell's capacity to produce proteins: to make new proteins or perform new functions.

The aim of gene technologists is to introduce, enhance or delete particular characteristics of a living thing, depending on whether they are considered desirable or undesirable.

Gene technology in the food chain

Gene technology in the food chain encompasses the whole process of food production, from the fields of the farmer and the food their animals eat, through food manufacturing, processing and distribution through to the consumer. Some of the major categories of this application include:

  • Insect resistant plants
  • Virus resistant plants
  • Herbicide tolerant (or resistant) plants
  • Plants genetically modified for other purposes eg for delayed ripening, longer shelf-lif, or to tolerate frost
  • Transgenic animals _ for leaner meat, enhanced growth rates, or production of enhanced milk
  • Micro-organisms used in food processing _ such as bacteria in yoghurt

The potential uses of gene technology in the food chain are many. A number of foods from genetically modified sources have already been permitted onto the market, and the number can be expected to increase significantly in the next few years.

In Australia today, bread and cheese may be made using genetically modified enzymes; and a range of processed food products containing soy may be made from imported genetically modified soybeans. Food additives such as flavouring agents and sweeteners have also been genetically modified.

The only transgenic crop currently grown here is cotton. Its cottonseed oil is used in fish and chip shops and in some processed food products such as margarine and mayonnaise.

Issues and Arguments

  • Is gene technology an efficient extension of breeding, hybridisation and selection of plants, animals and micro-organisms which have been undertaken for centuries? Or does the fact that it can be applied across species mean it is radically new and different?
  • Does it require special regulation, risk assessment and consumer information provisions? Or, can we work within existing frameworks?
  • How much risk ) and of what type and to whom) is acceptable in the development of this technology to secure the benefits claimed?
  • Are gene technology's projected increases in yield important in the context of a growing population, or are there better ways to address world hunger?
  • Can genetic modification of food products enhance their nutritional value, or will it have the opposite effect?

Ethics

  • Who should and does benefit from gene technology?
  • What does the way we choose to use gene technology say about our relationship with nature?
  • Is using gene technology `playing God'?
  • Is its potential greater for good or ill?
  • Is it possible to reduce ethical and risk concerns, and still keep the claimed benefits?

Benefits versus Risks

  • What is the balance of risks and benefits?
  • According to whom?
  • Risks and benefits to which parties?
  • How do we assess risks which extend beyond scientific issues?
  • How good is our knowledge?

Sustainability

  • What are the implications for the environment when gene technology is used?
  • What part can gene technology play in environmental remediation?

Regulation

  • What responsibilities rightly belong to government?
  • What should be left up to industry?
  • What sorts of agencies are most appropriate for regulation of gene technology?
  • How should national governments handle possible cases of conflict between international trade obligations and domestic demands?

Consumer Rights

  • Should consumers be asked what innovation they want or whether they need this technology?
  • Are there benefits for the consumer in the products already available?
  • Why can't genetically modified crops be kept separate from conventional ones?
  • Should manufacturers, processors, and retailers offer products they guarantee are free of genetic modifications so the consumer can make his/her own choice?
  • If they are required to do so, who should bear the costs of this?
  • How important is labelling of genetically modified foods?
  • If labelling of all genetically modified foods is required, will it become meaningless?
  • What about other types of information?

PRESS CLIPPINGS FROM THE CONSENSUS CONFERENCE

CSIRO Welcomes Gene Conference Outcome

March 12, 1999 - CSIRO

The first Australian Consensus Conference on Gene Technology in the Food Chain has produced a report that is sensible, well-considered and valuable for Australian science, the chief executive of CSIRO, Dr Malcolm McIntosh said today.

The Consensus Conference's main recommendation is the creation of an independent statutory authority, a Gene Technology Office, to oversee the introduction of gene-modified products into the food chain and environment.

This GTO would be primarily responsible for issues such as human health and ethics, and environmental risk assessment. It would encompass views from consumers, industry, government and science.

The conference endorsed the labelling of all gene modified foods so that consumers would have free choice, and called for enhanced public information provided by government so the public understands more about what it is choosing.

"We welcome these findings because, in certain respects, they echo the sort of things we have been saying within CSIRO for some years," Dr McIntosh says.

"Gene technology is vital to Australia's future, our environment and our competitive position in the world, but it needs the certainty of effective regulatory arrangements and public confidence in its safety and effectiveness. This report endorses that view."

CSIRO is committed to playing a valuable, careful and ethical role in gene technology, and using it to help provide a clean, safe food supply, novel materials and products and a sustainable environment, he says.

"As the national science agency, we felt it was important for CSIRO to consult and listen carefully to what a group of well-briefed but typical Australian citizens has to say on this issue.

"CSIRO will be treating their opinions and conclusions with respect and seriousness. I expect they will be most useful in helping us to shape our national research strategy and capture the benefits of this technology for Australia."

Dr McIntosh says CSIRO was one of the early supporters of the Consensus Conference concept because it recognises that major scientific advances present the community with momentous changes, and new concerns as well as fresh opportunities.

"We acknowledge and respect public interest and concern on issues such as gene technology. We are committed to consulting with the community and industry and listening to their points of view, as well as helping to inform them better about our scientific advances and science issues.

"CSIRO presently complies with all guidelines laid down by Government for the conduct of gene technology. However we recognise this is an area undergoing rapid change and development - and we will certainly comply with all new laws, regulations and codes as they are determined by Australian governments in future."

Dr McIntosh says that, based on an initial appraisal of the Consensus Conference process, it has proved impressive in coming to grips with an extraordinarily complex issue and reaching a conclusion that achieved a fair balance between the various points of view.

"We definitely feel it was a valuable and informative process, for CSIRO as well as for the community, and we commend the fourteen members of the citizen panel and the Australian Museum for their efforts," he said.

Aust Gene Food Conference Says More Information Needed

March 12, 1999 AAP - Stephen Spencer

In related wire coverage, the food industry was cited as welcoming the findings of the consensus conference which it said gave the green light for the sale here of genetically modified foods.

The consensus conference, which brought together 14 lay people who questioned experts of genetically modified foods and others with an interest in the topic, recommended in a report released today comprehensive labelling of genetically modified food and a halt to the import and development of such food until a new regulatory regime was established.

Australian Democrats Deputy Leader Natasha Stott Despoja was cited as hailing the report because of its call for comprehensive labelling to allow consumers to decide whether or not they bought such foods, adding, "A labelling scheme at every step of the process, so that you know how that particular food has been altered or modified. So that consumers have the right to make an informed choice about the products they are not only buying but they are actually eating and consuming."

Australian Food and Grocery Council scientific and technical director Dr Geoffrey Annison was quoted as saying, "The report they produced recognised that gene technology is potentially a very useful technology and the benefits of it should be taken forward. It's the green light to a cautious and deliberate approach to the technology with appropriate and open regulation."

National Farmers' Federation Vice President Brendan Stewart was cited as expressing concern about the labelling of genetically modified products, saying it could "create immense confusion. Labelling the end product, because of its production process, would not be meaningful, where the product is substantially equivalent."

Freak Food Should be Banned

Mar. 13 1999 Australian News Network - Simon Benson

A report, the result of Australia's first consensus conference and presented to the Senate Friday, was cited as concluding that genetically-engineered foods should be banned from sale in Australia until proper safety requirements are in place, and that potential hazards of genetically modified products remain "largely unknown in the long term.

... A precautionary approach to this and all new technology issues will ensure the public interest rather than commercial interests determine our future course. An issue as important as altering the genes of our food supply should not be left in the hands of a few."

The report follows the approval last month of two products, a cottonseed and soybean - both genetically modified to resist insects and pesticides - by the Australia and New Zealand Food Authority.

Food Panel Wants New Label System

March 13, 1999 Canberra Times - Mark Ludlow

Australia's regulatory and advisory bodies on genetically modified foods were not serving community interests, according to a report issued yesterday at Australia's first Consensus Conference, held in Canberra this week.

The lay panel discussing gene technology in the food chain comprised a cross-section of people from across Australia.

It called for an all-encompassing labelling system for genetically modified organisms, and rejected the use of the term "substantial equivalence", which were similar but not the same as natural foods, in relation to labelling of genetically modified foods.

In December last year, Australian and New Zealand health ministers decided that genetically engineered foods that were nutritionally identical to their conventional counterparts must be labelled as genetically modified.

The food industry criticised the move, questioning the enforceability of the decision and its impact on the biotechnology industry.

The lay panel, which heard evidence from industry and scientific experts, also recommended:

The formation of a new statutory authority with responsibility for genetically modified organisms to establish strict codes of practice. The authority's outcomes and deliberations would be made public.

Companies wanting to commercially issue genetically engineered products should pay a "substantial" licence fee to government to support insurance against risk and to fund the new statutory authority.

The establishment of a body comprising industry, consumer groups, critics, experts and lay people to assist government decisions on genetically modified foods.

No new commercial releases or unlabelled importation of genetically modified foods to be allowed in Australia until all aspects of safety and labelling had been addressed.

The panel said this should not affect current usage of genetically modified organisms crop cultivation in Australia or any existing use of these modified products. It also called for greater community consultation about issues relating to the production and labelling of genetically modified foods. The panel, which suggested precautionary approach to the new gene technology in its report to the Federal Government, said compulsory labelling of all genetically modified foods would allow free and informed consumer choice.

Genes Blue

13 March, 1999 - Sydney Morning Herald

A "citizen's jury" has been considering its verdict on genetically modified food. Deborah Smith reports.

On one side of the house sat the people. On the other, across the long wooden table that many a prime minister has thumped, sat the experts. And an eclectic bunch they both were.The 14 people selected to sit on the "citizens' jury" for Australia's first consensus conference, which concluded yesterday, ranged in age from a 19-year-old Bathurst student, Alison McMurtrie, to a 57-year-old Queensland stockbroker, Frank Byrne. A mother of three, Lise Vasiliou, is of Norwegian extraction, Rhian Williams is a "10-pound tourist from Wales", and Allyson Croydon, a dental technician from the Northern Territory, is Aboriginal.

Panellists variously identified themselves as vegetarian, Christian, a Girl Guide leader and an Army Reserve recruiting officer. But Vasiliou's revelation that she had recently "taken up a bit of fortune-telling" was perhaps most appropriate. For the issue the lay panel discussed over three days - the risks and benefits of genetically modified (GM) food - is rich in uncertainties, particularly the long-term impact of the technology on health and the environment. Michael Field, a West Australian business consultant, might also have found use for his unusual skill. He describes himself as a master practitioner of neuro linguistic programming, a technique that focuses in part on the mannerisms of successful communicators.

And there was certainly a lot of interesting body language on the experts' side of the table at Old Parliament House for him to observe, as these expert "witnesses" tried to persuade the lay "jury" of their point of view in the two days of presentations and cross-examination.A condition of consensus conferencing - a process pioneered in Europe as a way for the public to influence policy on contentious scientific issues - is for the lay panel to be exposed to as wide a range of opinions as possible.

But it is probably not stipulated that those with the most diametrically opposing views be seated close together, as happened in Canberra. On one red leather bench sat Associate Professor Peter Wills, a physicist from the University of Auckland, who believes there should be a royal commission into genetic engineering, so potentially destructive to ecological systems and human society is it. Squashed beside him was Dr Jim Peacock, the director of the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry. This leading scientist fervently believes GM foods will provide greater safety, by reducing the pesticides and other contaminants in our food. GM foods will he cheaper and more nutritious, says Peacock, who has faith in Australia's current regulatory system for assessing the safety of GM products, by looking at each organism or food individually.

Next bench along sat an even odder odd couple. Dr Bill Blowes represented Monsanto, the agricultural giant that leads the world in developing GM crops, including the herbicide-resistant soybeans that are potentially present, yet so far unlabelled, in 60 per cent of processed foods on Australian supermarket shelves.

Next to him sat his company's most outspoken critic, the conservation lobbyist Bob Phelps, the director of the Gene-Ethic Network. Phelps told the panel there should be a five-year moratorium on the release of GM organisms into the Australian environment. That would give the Government time to establish its proposed Gene Technology Office to oversee regulation of the technology. Also, he said, international standards on labelling of GM foods and biosafety protocols governing their trade and transport should be finalised by then.

Consumer and industry representatives were seated side by side on the next bench. Mara Bun, of the Australian Consumers' Association, lambasted Australia's regulatory system for assessing GM organisms and GM foods as "woefully inadequate". She said the Australia New Zealand Food Authority had conflicting roles. It was supposed to protect people's health by assessing the safety of genetically modified products, yet it was also charged with facilitating export markets for the food industry. Bun argued strongly that all GM foods should be labelled. Her benchmate proved to be one of the most strident speakers of the conference.

Gene technology was the key to future food production, with as great as - or greater - revolutionary impact as the computer age, said Dr Geoffrey Annison, the scientific director of the Australian Food and Grocery Council. Annison expressed regret that health ministers had decided in December that all GM foods should be labelled, even those judged by scientific standards to be "substantially equivalent" to conventionally produced foods in chemical composition, nutritional value and taste. Labelling such equivalent foods implies a difference where none exists, he said. It would be unenforceable without sophisticated, time-consuming, costly testing.

It was during question time that the strengths of this conferencing approach were displayed. The surprisingly articulate members of the lay panel cut to the core issues that bothered them as ordinary citizens, and labelling was a big one.

"People lose faith in a company if they can't get information," Vasiliou told Annison. "I simply want choice," said Denise Dolan, a Sydney medical secretary. Ian Lee, who has a carpet- cleaning business in northern NSW, had difficulty coming to terms with the phrase "substantially equivalent". "Surely any genetic modification is a substantial difference?" he said.

Field suggested GM-free foods could be guaranteed by careful selection of ingredients during manufacture. Rod Poulton, of Melbourne, who makes handcrafted bush furniture, was more blunt: `I don't see what is so damned hard. It's either there, or it's not.' Rhian Williams, from Canberra, said "substantial equivalence" of a food was defined only in scientific terms, and ignored ethical concerns about the method of production, and the impact of gene technology on the agricultural economy. `For people there are other important factors to consider', she told the experts.

The writing was on the wall, although the lay panel went on to deliberate right through the night until 6.30 am yesterday, in order to produce its consensus report. It had clearly not been convinced by the enthusiasts for the technology. Only 200 people around Australia responded to the' original newspaper advertisement calling for volunteers for a "national science research project which will affect us all". The final 14 were selected by an independent marketing company to reflect a wide range of views on GM foods.

Nevertheless, the Australian' ` panellists' report is far more wary of the technology than that of the Canadians, who held their first consensus conference on the same topic last weekend. The difference could be a greater faith in the established regulatory system in Canada, aided by widespread government dissemination of information about biotechnology.

Although the Australian lay panel picked the experts they wanted to hear from, as is protocol, the voice of the regulatory agencies was one missing component at this first conference. But the people certainly had their say.

Label Gene Food, Says Jury

Saturday, March 13, 1999 - Sydney Morning Herald Deborah Smith

After deliberating through the night until dawn, a citizen's jury at Australia's inaugural consensus conference brought down a unanimous report yesterday recommending that all genetically modified (GM) foods be labelled.

The 14-member lay panel also called, in effect, for a short moratorium on any new commercial releases of GM foods in Australia, or the importation of unlabelled ones, until a better regulatory system was in place. It criticised the present regulatory bodies, including the Australia and New Zealand Food Authority which assesses the safety of new GM foods, for not serving community interests. It said: "The decision-making process is currently inaccessible and open to bias."

It recommended a new statutory authority be established to oversee the introduction of gene technology, and that its deliberations be public. 'The speed at which GM organisms have been developed and introduced by multinational companies and the scientific community has left many people completely unaware of and uninvolved in the process,' the panel said.

The conference, convened by the Australian Museum, is a method used increasingly overseas for citizens to influence government policy on contentious technologies.

After cross-examining 13 expert witnesses, the lay jury concluded that the possible benefits of gene technology in the food chain ranged from longer shelf life for produce to reducing world hunger. `But the potential hazards are largely unknown in the long term,' it said. It rejected as too narrow the scientific definition of a GM food as substantially equivalent to conventional foods if it was indistinguishable in chemical composition, flavour and other physical properties.

`Comprehensive labelling is the only way to ensure that health, religious, moral and ethical food choices are placed solely in the hands of each individual consumer,' the jury said.

In December, health ministers voted six to four in favour of labelling genetically engineered foods, but there is pressure from ANZFA for some refined GM foods, such as vegetable oils, to be exempt from labelling.

The Government, which has said it will establish a gene technology office, is considering the best way to regulate gene technology. The panel recommended that to ensure the highest standards of public health, regulation of GM issues should not be moved to the agriculture portfolio.

A spokesman for the Australian Conservation Foundation, Mr Bob Phelps, director of the Gene-Ethic Network, said the lay panel had done a fabulous job. "It was democracy in action," he said.

The executive director of Australian Food and Grocery Council, Mr Mitchell Hooke, said the report highlighted the Government's failure to inform consumers about the uses and benefits of gene technology and the regulatory regime governing its safe commercialisation. "Whilst the Government dithers, scope for misinformation is rife," he said. Mr Hooke said any labelling of GM foods had to be done in a meaningful, practical and, if required by law, enforceable way.

Cautious Approach Needed on Genetic Food

13 March, 1999 The Age - Letters to the Editor

Re the article: "World Needs Genetic Food: McNamara" (The Age, 11/3). Is Victoria's Agricultural Minister, Mr Pat McNamara, high on new science hype? For the experts who are deeply involved in genetic engineering, it is their life and livelihood and it may be easy for Mr McNamara to be swept along with their enthusiasm. Genetic experts, however, may not be risk experts. Transgenic modification of organisms produces risks, which need to be looked at long and hard.

The "legacy risk": genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been documented as being capable of breeding with wild plants, releasing mutations into the world and so sending disastrous ripples of havoc through the environment.

French and English trials in 1997 indicated the potential for GMOs to escape. In these trials, a spontaneous herbicide-resistant weed developed and a crop engineered to resist pests damaged beneficial insects. The reality is that, once released, these mutant byproducts could be free to breed in perpetuum. This makes a mockery of any provision for emergency eradication, as mentioned as a factor for consideration before approval is given for the release of a live GMO (Regulation of Genetic Engineering, Australian Biotechnology Association Ltd 1996).

The GMO products risk; GMOs contemplated for use in food have a potential for unknown adverse health effects by virtue of their unique and unknown nature. Any potential adverse health effects will be followed by a subsequent plethora of litigation in years to come, not to mention hardship to individuals.

I would urge Mr McNamara to consider a cautious approach. He should reject the advances of GMO proponents and ban live, genetically modified crops in Australia and insist on clear labelling of all GMO products from overseas. If Mr McNamara really wants to feed the world, I suggest he supports Australians in looking after both our farmers and the environment, so that we may grow the best GMO-free crops in the world.Roy Roberts, Kialla West

Campaigners Decontaminate GE Crop in New Zealand as UK Activists Prepare to put Genetic Engineering on Trial

Mar. 12/99 - Genetic Engineering Network

The Genetic Engineering Network has today received news that a group calling themselves Wild Greens has uprooted a field trial of GE potatoes in Canterbury, New Zealand. The trial was part of a 10-year experimental programme to assess the safety of GE potatoes for commercial use and was destroyed during the night of Wednesday 10th March. The decontamination has set the programme back by at least 12 months. The potatoes concerned were genetically engineered to contain the genes of the African clawed toad, designed to give resistance to soft rot bacteria.

The Wild Greens fear the development of antibiotic resistance in animals and humans, if such crops are commercialised. Engineering animal genes in to a vegetable also raises fundamental ethical questions. The Wild Greens belong to the radical youth wing of the New Zealand Green Party. Co-leader of the Greens Jeanette Fitzsimons commented that whilst she could understand the sense of frustration that the group to break the law she could not condone such action.

Meanwhile in the UK preparations are under way to put Genetic Engineering on trial. Two court cases involving activists who have decontaminated test sites will be heard. Two people are charged with conspiracy to commit criminal damage for pulling up GE herbicide resistant maize at Hood Barton Farm, near Totnes, Devon on 3rd August 1998. The GE test site was adjacent to the organic farm owned by Guy Watson. The defendants will argue that their action was justified to prevent damage to Guy Watson s farm. The case starts in Plymouth Crown Court, Devon on March 29th. A large demonstration of support is expected on this day. The trial is expected to last for weeks.

In the 2nd Case 5 defendants from Genetix Snowball and their press office face Monsanto in the Civil Courts. Monsanto are seeking injunctions against the group and its members, to prevent further damage to their test sites. This case follows the uprooting of herbicide resistant oilseed rape at Model Farm, Watlington, Oxford on 4th July 1998. This case will be heard on 19th-20th April in London and again their will be demonstrations of support.

Open actions against Genetic test sites in the UK will take place on 17th April 1999 at a number of locations. These will be form part of the Global Days of Action against Genetic Engineering which have been called between 15th-30th April 1999.

European Debate over Food Genetic Engineering

March 10, 1999 - CBC Radio Ottawa

John Lacharity (CBO): There's a serious debate about genetic engineering and modified foods in Canada. But in Europe, there's a full-blown row. So far, it's embroiled everyone from Prime Ministers, top scientists, and environmentalists. One scientist in particular has suggested that genetically-modified potatoes may not be as innocuous as their manufacturers claim. Joe Cummins is a professor emeritus of plant science at the University of Western Ontario. On Commentary this morning, he says there's definitely cause for concern.

Joe Cummins (U. of Western Ontario): Genetic engineering was invented in the early 1970s but its development was delayed because of safety concerns. During the early 1990s, genetically-modified crops were prepared and field tested prior to their release for marketing. The genes used to modify crops are patented and most patents are held by a few large chemical companies or the United States Department of Agriculture.

Currently, foods containing genetically engineered canola oil, soy, corn products, or potatoes are part of most diets in North America whether we like that or not. Based on a principle called substantial equivalents, genetically-engineered foods have not had long-term testing prior to commercial development. And crops are not labelled in the marketplace.

Substantial equivalents is the belief that genetically-engineered crops are equivalent to crops that have not been genetically manipulated. Even though this concept has been widely criticised, substantial equivalents is accepted by the United States and Canadian governments and it's promoted by advocates in the United Nations.

Recent findings from a Scottish laboratory have shaken confidence in genetically-engineered foods in Britain and the European Union generally. Essentially, a study by Dr. Arpad Pusztai showed rats fed genetically-modified potatoes have weakened immune systems. Dr. Pusztai told television viewers he wouldn't eat modified food and that it was very, very unfair to use consumers as involuntary guinea pigs. Two days after this broadcast, he was summarily suspended and forced to retire from the institute where he worked. His former employers could produce a report critical of his work. I am one of twenty-two international scientists who have conducted a peer review of Dr. Pusztai's work and we upheld his conclusions.

He has bravely and honestly put forward his evidence that genetically-engineered potatoes are not substantially equivalent to unmodified potatoes and appear to endanger the health of those who eat them. These findings have caused uproar in Europe. Here in Canada and the United States, the safety of genetically-engineered foods should be reviewed and modified food should be clearly labelled in the market place.

Copyright 1999 Australian Biotechnology Association Ltd.

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