GM's lambs are inviting slaughter

By Graeme O'Neill
Wednesday, 11 June, 2003


Graeme O'Neill discovers that the biotech community needs a whole new strategy to win points on GM crops

What if there was a war, and only one side turned up? The opponents of genetically modified crops have won the first major battle over genetically modified crops, and many in Australia's biotechnology research sector fear for the future.

Like the hero of Gulliver's Travels, who awoke to find himself trussed with hundreds of tiny, gossamer ropes, Australia's agbiotech research sector has awoken from years of slumber to find itself hog-tied by a few skilful and dedicated activists opposed to genetically modified (GM) crops and foods.

As the anti-GM movement rejoices at achieving an effective Australia-wide lockout of herbicide-tolerant GM canola varieties, the dismay, anger, frustration and resignation in the research community is palpable.

Fingers are being pointed at the nation's agbiotech research flagship, CSIRO, and Australia's major universities, for their passivity in the face of a virulent campaign of disinformation that has consumers and farmers spooked, and has eroded community confidence in the competence and independence of scientists working on agbiotech research.

CSIRO has Australia's largest research program on GM crops, pastures and trees, yet it has been a non-combatant in the GM canola debate. The organisation is not involved in canola research, and reportedly opted to keep a low profile.

Yet a recent opinion poll found that 90 per cent of Australians trust the national research agency - by a large margin, it continues to be the nation's most trusted institution. Many believe CSIRO should have leveraged that respect to confront and refute anti-GM activists' claims that GM crops pose unacceptable risks to human health and the environment.

Using the same wolf-pack strategy that anti-GM groups have used in the US and Britain, of cutting timid corporations from the herd and harrying them into compliance with their demands, activists in Australia have picked off the states one by one, to achieve an Australia-wide lockout of GM canola.

By the end of this year, legislated three to five-year moratoriums will prevent farmers in NSW, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania from growing highly productive new herbicide-tolerant canola varieties. Similar varieties have ushered in an agricultural revolution in Canada -- they are more profitable to grow, reduce fossil-fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions, and have seen a mass-movement towards low-till farming, which prevents erosion and promotes soil fertility.

Nor has the Canadian industry experienced any marketing difficulties -- only the European Union, a net canola exporter in most years, excludes Canadian canola.

Of the five canola-growing states, Victoria alone opted for a temporary, voluntary moratorium lasting only 12 months, although the Bracks government reportedly extracted the voluntary pause from agbiotech giants Monsanto and Bayer CropScience without an anaesthetic. Dr Tony Coulepis, executive director of industry organisation AusBiotech, believes it would be catastrophic for the biotech industry if Victoria extends its moratorium next year.

"If that happens, then Victoria should immediately revise its business plan to become one of the top five biotechnology communities in the world by 2010," Coulepis says. "If they shut down GM agriculture, it's going to be very tough for them to meet that objective before 2015, at least.

"The three big multinationals based in Victoria -- Monsanto, Bayer and Aventis -- would have no reason to stay. The international investment community, which sees agbiotech as one of Victoria's strengths, will stop investing, and then all the smaller agbiotech companies will find it tough to get research grants, and remain viable -- some are already thinking seriously of going elsewhere.

"This is no longer just an agbiotech issue. It involves the whole biotechnology industry, and the whole community. There's a perception that because the majority of voices in the sector are silent, politicians are hearing only the anti-GM lobbyists, who are on their doorstep every day. If they think they'll lose votes on GM agriculture, they're not going to back it.

"I'd be dumbfounded if Victoria locked us out for another three years - they must realise the effect it would have on the state's economic development."

But Coulepis says the Bracks government has quietly let it be known that it opted for the temporary pause to give the biotech industry 12 months to "make a noise".

"So now is the time to rally the entire biotechnology community," Coulepis says. "I'm getting calls from outside the agbiotech sector saying it's time for us to stand up to the anti-GM groups. You can't fight them with science, or logic, because they're fanatical -- we must have a multi-point strategy.

"We need to educate younger Australians, while they're still open-minded. We need a program for kids at high schools, on the benefits of biotech, and we need to be more active lobbying politicians."

Coulepis says the moratoriums on GM canola are contradictory. "We have a scenario where we have GM cotton growing in NSW and other states, and that will continue because farmers would be outraged if they were deprived of its benefits. "Governments claim GM cotton can be grown because it isn't a food crop. But that's not true -- we get edible oil and other by-products like cattle feed from GM cotton."

Economic self-interest has also supervened in Australia's 'cleanest and greenest' state, Tasmania, where the government will exempt high-alkaloid GM poppies for the state's lucrative morphine industry from its broad ban on GM crops.

Coulepis says that if Australia signs a free-trade agreement with the US, the states will come under strong pressure to drop their moratoriums, "I'd like to see how it unfolds when real money talks," he said. "If countries are not letting GM products in, the US will stop trading with them in other areas. I think politicians will then change their tune very quickly."

CSIRO's biotechnology strategy coordinator, Dr Mikael Hirsch, shares these concerns. He says senior scientists at CSIRO Plant Industry, like chief Dr Jim Peacock and deputy Dr TJ Higgins, have "done their bit" to defend agricultural gene technology, but there has been too much misinformation about GM canola, and he admits CSIRO may not taken a strong enough line on the issue.

"Australia has world-class leadership in gene technology, strong record on innovation in agriculture, and leading-edge scientists in this area. There are much more beneficial applications from gene technology in the research pipeline that could be of significant benefit to all of society than just canola," Hirsch says.

"But GM canola is probably the test-bed for public acceptability. If GM canola fails, what about the GM crops to follow? At the end of the day, if we lose our market edge and downstream opportunities because we can't get our technology into the field and accepted in society, the next wave of biotechnology could be at risk, regardless of its benefits."

Hirsch says CSIRO has invested significantly into this area of taxpayers' valuable money because it believes there are significant advantages in the long run. CSIRO is also looking independently at environmental risk of GMOs, but so far no new issues have arisen. Other GM applications in agricultural biotechnology involve livestock, trees and control of pests.

"Ultimately this research needs to come out of the laboratories and be used by farmers. A moratorium will not help -- instead, it sends alarming signals back into the research sector.

"The [Office of the Gene Technology Regulator] has already said there are no significant safety risks involved with the GM canola now coming through, and the states have only marketing reasons to hang their hats on -- and even that one could backfire " Hirsch says. "It's the farmers who are going to be the meat in the sandwich, the ones who are going to be deprived of choices despite the benefits. Markets can change quickly, also positively for GMs, but it seems Australia is unlikely to even get to try.

"But more importantly, what signals are these moratoriums sending to those that invest in this technology? And to those who wants to pursue a career in research? Is the future of agriculture and agricultural research now dependent on ideology and not good science? If it's so hard to get GM adopted by society, what about the next breathtaking innovation somewhere else? Is there a lesson about perceptions that we have missed?"

Hirsch concedes that perhaps the research and agricultural communities need to do more and be more proactive in the debate.

Paula Fitzgerald, formerly of CSIRO and now executive director of the industry's Canberra-based pro-agbiotech lobby group, Agrifood Awareness, says researchers in Australia's universities have been "non-existent" in the GM crops debate.

The Australian Capital Territory is a case in point, she says: "The ACT Legislative Assembly's health committee puts forward a recommendation that the ACT become a GM-free zone.

"We have the CSIRO, the Australian National University, Canberra University, and a number of industry R&D corporations based in Canberra, all with interests in GM agriculture, and not a single scientist speaks out.

"CSIRO has at least set up a web site to deal with the issue, and although CSIRO communication efforts have dwindled almost to nothing in the past two years, they've at least tried. The universities have done nothing."

Fitzgerald says she had recently discussed the GM crops issue with Dr Mike Jones, director of Western Australia's new state agricultural biotechnology centre in Perth.

"I said to him, 'You have 20 leading agbiotech centres based in the precinct, yet the state is about to pass a bill that will make it GM-free -- what role are you taking in talking to the state government?'

"He agreed scientists should be doing more." Fitzgerald says many Australian media had been unduly influenced by anti-GM activists, as exemplified by a recent program on SBS TV which described clandestine links between scientists and big agbiotech companies.

"It was a very short-sighted program," said Fitzgerald. "I thought it was appalling that a scientist like Chris Preston, who has done some of the world's best research in this area, was taken to task for failing to write on a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal that Bayer and Monsanto had provided some funding for the study into GM canola pollen dispersal."

(Dr Mary Rieger, of the CRC for Weed Management, published a study in Science last year showing that, even when herbicide-tolerant conventional canola is grown with only a 5m separation from conventional canola, pollen transfer occurs at virtually undetectable levels.)

Fitzgerald says the SBS program ignored the fact that companies need to go through a process of getting independent verification to receive approval from the regulator -- they are not permitted to do the research in-house, which would inevitably draw criticism from the anti-GM movement.

Like Hirsch, Fitzgerald laments the recent loss of the agbiotech research community's most proactive defender, Dr Rick Roush, who in March resigned as director of the Weeds CRC, to return to the US.

"Rick came into the debate willing to tackle the anti-GM movement's ridiculous claims head-on, as well as the hot issues," she says.

"But these wouldn't be hot issues if the organisations doing the research maintained more constant communication -- they wouldn't even be on the agenda.

Don't blame the scientists: Roush

Before accepting an appointment at University of California, Davis, former Weeds CRC director Dr Rick Roush became the nemesis of the Australian anti-GM movement, demanding that it substantiate its claims of health and environment hazards, and reveal its funding sources. Roush says he was dismayed that both NSW and Victoria chose to go with moratoriums on GM canola, but he says it is unfair to blame scientists for the agbiotech industry's plight.

"It takes a great deal of time to keep up on all these things," he says. "There is pressure on scientists in the universities and CSIRO to get grants, while they are trying to teach, and to maintain their focus on their research obligations, while they are trying to raise their level of external funding.

"It comes down to the fact that the scientists who would be most trusted by the community to comment on the GM issue, because they have no links to the industry, are working 50 to 60 hours a week.

"They can be excused for just rolling their eyes in the face of these absurd claims, and thinking that it's just requires too much effort to refute these absurd claims.

"It takes particular skills to address the media -- scientists ask, 'What's in it for me? I'll only end up looking like a fool'."

Using the media

Roush says Bob Phelps, executive director of the Australian GeneEthics Network, and Australia's most prominent anti-GM campaigner for nearly two decades, understands how difficult it is for scientists to refute the constant stream of anti-GM propaganda.

"He uses it very effectively -- he's always questioning people's integrity, by implying they are funded by the industry," he said.

In contrast, Roush says Phelps simply ignores similar questions about his science, funding sources and conflicts of interest. "He plays on the fact that the public and politicians don't understand the technology."

Roush says some media coverage of the GM issue has been incompetent, or biased. "I have to say, honestly, that when Schmeiser came to town, I had the distinct feeling that sections of the media, including the ABC, didn't dig out the facts on him.

(Last year Greenpeace Australia-Pacific and GeneEthics sponsored a speaking tour of rural Australia by Canadian canola farmer and anti-GM campaigner Percy Schmeiser, who was convicted by a Canadian court of illegally growing Monsanto's propriety Roundup-Ready canola on his farm. Schmeiser initially claimed the GM canola on his property had been caused by seed contamination or pollen drift.)

"There was an item on the [ABC TV] 7.30 Report in which a reporter basically took the line that Schmeiser was the victim, and the company was at fault," Roush says. "The media have been caught up in the urban myths about GM agriculture, and hasn't taken the time to check whether they're really true.

"It's an increasingly lamentable feature of journalism generally -- journalists are too busy, and work to such tight deadlines, that they don't have time to be sufficiently investigative.

"The media tend to report stories in a sensational way, and a sort of herd mentality prevails. Yet one would have thought one of the key roles of a journalist was to protect the community from tripe and drivel.

"We have to turn this issue around. Next, the anti-GM activists are going to have a go at biological control. If we don't stand together and root out slopping reporting, and sloppy science, they'll pick us off individually."

Range of voices

Roush's long-time colleague-in-arms, University of Melbourne microbiologist Dr David Tribe, has been one of the few university researchers who has spoken out against the anti-GM movement, through newspaper articles and talkback radio.

Yet Tribe says he was actually advised by industry organisation AusBiotech not to take such an aggressive line.

"I personally think Rick's approach was the best," says Tribe. "He said we need a range of voices, from scientists who are not too fussed about keeping the debate polite.

"I was astounded when AusBiotech's media advisers suggested that perhaps I have been too outrageous."

AusBiotech executive director Dr Tony Coulepis confirms that Tribe was asked to tone down his critiques, but says it was because "our people keep getting beaten up by the anti-GM movement, and we don't have the resources or the money to fight the campaign.

"If someone speaks out, a dozen 'anti' voices will be out the next day, and throwing rocks over your fence."

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