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Genetically Modified Crops

Genetically Modified Crops

Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.
Briefing Paper No. 19/2003 by Stewart Smith
Biotechnology is a broad term that covers the practical use of biological systems to produce goods and services. Advances in biotechnology have provided ways of introducing very precise changes to genetic material that allow, for the first time, the transfer of properties of a single gene from one organism to another. These techniques, often referred to as gene technology, involve the modification of organisms by the direct incorporation or deletion of one or more genes to introduce or alter a specific characteristic. Organisms created using gene technology techniques are commonly referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

This paper focusses on genetically modified crops (GM crops), and in particular the marketing of these crops. GM crops have been available since 1995, and the adoption of these has been most dramatic in north and south America. With the commencement of commercial plantings in the mid-1990s, the global area under GM cultivation has grown to 58.7 million hectares by 2002 (pages 1 – 4).

Of the four major GM crops (soybeans, cotton, canola and corn), Australia is a major grower of cotton and canola. To date, only five licences for the commercial release of GM plants have been granted in Australia. These are for two varieties of cotton, two varieties of carnations, and in July 2003, one variety of canola. In 2001, 33 percent of Australia’s cotton crop was GM – the maximum amount permitted by regulations.

Some arguments for and against the introduction of GM crops are canvassed (pages 4 – 7), as is the regulatory environment for GMOs in Australia (pages 7 – 10). GM food in Australia must be labelled as genetically modified where novel DNA and/or novel protein is present in the final food. Up to one percent of GM material may be allowed in the final food before it has to be labelled as GM modified (pages 10 – 11).

There are several international agreements and barriers affecting the trade of GM foods, and these are discussed on pages 11 to 14. There are no distinct international standards for GMOs, countries are assessing their risks on an individual basis and applying a variety of measures. Rules that require labelling of GM products are being put in place in an increasing number of countries. Most of the important grain importing markets now have mandatory labelling regimes including China, the European Union, Japan and the Republic of Korea. However, the nature of these labelling regimes differs significantly between countries (pages 14 to 21).

An analysis of whether GM food crops should be commercially grown produces a complex matrix of parameters that need to be assessed. The assessment of environmental and public safety issues is conducted by the Office of Gene Technology Regulator, which means that once approved for release, the uptake of the GM technology is a commercial decision. The commercial analysis of such a decision is also fraught with difficulty.

The Primary Industries Ministerial Council determined on 7 May 2002 that risks to agricultural production and trade due to the production of GM foods should be self-regulated by industry supplemented by government monitoring. The industry response is one of promoting co-existence, and the Gene Technology Grains Committee is developing guidelines to assist industry to implement a policy of co-existence of GM, conventional and organic crops. To achieve co-existence, identity preservation and segregation of crops is required, and this is expected to increase production costs by around ten percent. There is considerable concern in the agricultural community about the effectiveness of proposed identity preservation measures and their cost impact (pages 25-30).

Two case studies are presented – canola and wheat. GM canola was approved for commercial release in Australia on 25 July 2003. Some Canadian studies have shown that GM canola crops were obtaining a ten percent yield above that of conventional canola. However, other studies have proved less positive. Modelling by ABARE suggests that wide scale adoption of GM canola may not be justified if consumer acceptance problems require identity preservation requirements – although this conclusion is sensitive to the assumptions used (pages 30 – 33).

GM wheat is the next major issue for the world grain trade, with Monsanto in the United States possibly up to one year away from bringing GM wheat on to the North American market. Many of Australia’s wheat customers have stated they will not accept GM wheat.

NSW, along with Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria, has prohibited the commercial release of GM canola. The legislative and regulatory regimes for these jurisdictions are discussed (pages 34 – 38). The views of non-government organizations are canvassed, with the major farming peak bodies broadly supporting the introduction of GM technology, whilst conservation groups and some farming organizations oppose it (pages 38 – 40).