Australian Senate: disallow unregulated genetic modification technology
What's the Problem?
We must act now to protect our food and environment from risks posed by unregulated genetically modified organisms. The Government just before the last elections amended its regulations on Gene Technology to allow the unregulated release of GMOs into our food chain and environment, and they will become law unless the Senate disallows them. The vote on disallowance is scheduled for 13 November 2019.
The biotech industry claims that gene editing using techniques like CRISPR and TALENS is simple and safe: it alters genomes at precise sites and without inserting foreign DNA.
The US FDA has recently found this claim to be false.
US FDA researchers in July this year analysed the whole genomes of two calves which had been gene edited to remove their horns. The FDA researchers did not find precision. Each of the calves possessed two antibiotic resistance genes, along with other segments of superfluous bacterial DNA. Gene-edited cattle do contain DNA unnatural to cattle, despite claims to the contrary. After this report Brazil ended a breeding program begun with other animals from the same biotech company.
The FDA wants to regulate the GM industry. The FDA’s finding are a powerful vindication of the EU’s approach, whose top court has ruled that new GM editing techniques pose similar risks to older GM methods and must be assessed for safety in the same way. Reviews commissioned by the Austrian and Norwegian Governments agree.
Key agricultural export markets such as Europe and China have no tolerance for GM products that they have not approved.
Please contact your elected representatives to demand that all GMOs continue to be regulated and assessed for safety before any release into the environment and our food supply.
The button below takes you to the Friends of the Earth website where you can fill out a pro forma letter to go to your Senators. It might be a good idea to simplify the prepared text and copy in the references to the recent FDA study.
Gene editing is not as precise and safe as claimed. In a very recent paper published in July 2019, the US FDA has found unexpected antibiotic resistance genes in ‘gene-edited’ cattle. “The Carlson claim, along with other assertions of precision, have comprised the major ingredient of a larger global argument, led by the biotech sector, in favour of light (or no) oversight of animals and plants produced through gene-editing. … FDA’s demonstration that gene-editing techniques can, unbeknownst to the developer, introduce foreign DNA is likely to be seen as a significant blow to the no-regulation argument. It is also a powerful vindication of the EU approach, which is to regulate gene-edited organisms as GMOs.” (Also see this.)
Another recent finding: “[F]oreign DNA from surprising sources can routinely find its way into the genome of edited animals. This genetic material is not DNA that was put there on purpose, but rather, is a contaminant of standard editing procedures.”
Apply the Precautionary Principle — first, do no harm —, which underlies all responsible science and should be paramount in deciding whether or not to cease regulating any aspects of the GM industry. This principle goes all the way back to Hippocrates. Hallmarks of good science are time and patience.
Pointless Market Destruction. A 2019 study shows that Australia has 51% of the world’s certified organic agriculture hectares (181 countries reporting). Since 2000, global organics has grown at 12% p.a., year on year, while Australian organics has grown at 16% pa. This growth in Australia has ramped up to 22% for the past five years: that’s a doubling every 3 years and 2 months! What other industry sector has done so well? Further, this has been achieved without government or institutional support.
It absolutely beggars belief that the federal government is willing to destroy this thriving, lucrative and important agricultural sector. It betrays the very farmers whom they allegedly support and champion.
Of our agricultural land, 8.8% is certified organic, so there is still plenty of room for growth. Organic agriculture produces premium products that attract a price premium in the market, both at home or abroad. Who would eat food contaminated with the now-proven cancer-causing glyphosate if they had an informed choice?
Deregulation would make it almost impossible for organic and conventional GMO-free farmers to exclude GMOs from their output. Key export markets, including the EU and China, regard the new genetic engineering techniques as GM to be regulated and have zero tolerance for the presence of unapproved GMOs in their imports. It will be extremely difficult to sell into these markets if the Australian government deregulates these techniques, since there will be no requirement to ensure traceability. The record shows that when unapproved GMOs have been released, Europe and China have simply closed their borders to imports, costing farmers billions in lost income.
Exaggerated claims. GM techniques are not necessary to feed the world. The world already produces enough food to feed the projected peak population of ten billion by 2050. Further, with good management practices organic agriculture is quite capable of matching conventional yields. The problems are maldistribution and poverty, not availability. In 2010 the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food released a report advocating for structural reforms and a shift to agroecology.
Why the public resistance? “It is worth studying and pondering upon why the public seems not to be convinced by the opinion of most scientists that GMOs are safe and beneficial. It is also worth listening to the concerns with an open mind, finding the core of the problem, pinpointing all the biases, and acting accordingly. And, as most of the research funds come directly or indirectly from the public, we should respect the public opinion and adjust our research accordingly.” [Source]
Potential lawsuits. Monsanto has been successfully sued in California for cancer caused by Roundup. Many more lawsuits are in train. How do we know that unregulated GM of our food animals and plants may not end similarly — and who knows what kind of damage may have become evident by then? The Court of Justice of the European Union has ruled (Case C-528/16) that organisms obtained by directed mutagenesis techniques are considered in all aspects to be GM organisms and subject to EU rules.
FAO summaries of arguments for and against GMOs:
GMOs promote corporate ownership and control of the food system. This may be the real purpose. Monsanto insists that their GM crops are indistinguishable from non-GM. If so, why do they need a patent? And why do we need their seeds? There are, or should be, plenty of sources of supply of GM and non-GM seeds of the same plant varieties. Or are there? According to the FAO, “Indian farmers increasingly find themselves in a vicious cycle of debt, because of the high production costs, high interest rates for credit, the volatile market prices of crops, the rising costs of fossil fuel based inputs, and private seeds.”
Labelling. We have a right to know what we eat, don’t we? In 2012 a California ballot measure, Proposition 37, was rejected. The statute would have required labelling of GM food and would have disallowed labelling GM food as “natural.” Donations to each side were $9 million in support, $46 million in opposition. The main opponents included Monsanto, Dupont, Pepsi, Kraft, BASF, Bayer, Syngenta and Coca-Cola. (Wikipedia) Why should Californians need to spend $9 million to know what’s in their food, and why did the food industry spend $46 million to fight a food labelling law?
Harm to farming community. The large corporations promoting GM will seek to control “their” GM cultivars and any others they come in contact with. Monsanto already attempts this by the aggressive use of patent law, and yet as noted above the FAO has identified “privatized seeds” among other factors as making small-scale farming in India an unviable vocation.
GM fails. ”Golden rice” has had a gene producing the precursor to Vitamin A inserted into it. The project is a failure, farmers have not taken it up. Problems intrinsic to GMO breeding have prevented its commercialisation. Introduced DNA disrupts native gene sequences and the new functions can cause an unpredictable disruption of a normal metabolism. [Source] Some of these problems may have been solved, but why is the public expected to eat foods like this while industry tinkers?
GM works at the wrong level. As a technique it concentrates on the molecular level and ignores environmental and farm management principles and practices. [Source]
Government misled. To reach its decision the Office of Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) relied on out-dated advice from scientists with serious conflicts of interest. The European Union’s top court has ruled that the new GM techniques pose similar risks to older GM methods and must be assessed for safety in the same way. Separate reviews done by the Austrian and Norwegian Governments agree.
GM is a new biotechnology. It not at all related to the older, proven and above all slowly implemented techniques of grafting, selective breeding and cross-pollination. These techniques underlie much of modern agriculture and horticulture. Ancient varieties of apples, carrots and tulips bear little resemblance to today’s cultivars. Slow, patient breeding over centuries has improved the flavour, appearance and in some cases the nutritional content of these plants. GM is not natural. GM processes and outcomes are not the same as natural processes. Yes, mutations do occur in the wild but the scale is different. A whole field of crops does not exhibit a mutation all at once.
Cellular error-checking. Cell biology incorporates error-checking processes to ensure the DNA is copied correctly. How do we know that genetic modification won’t interfere with the error-checking processes, leading to potentially harmful mutations?
Elimination of harmful mutations. How efficiently, how quickly, does natural selection weed out harmful mutations? Do we have any longitudinal studies investigating this?
Collateral damage. Do genetically modified organisms show pathologies in areas and functions unrelated to the purpose of the modification? Might, for example, antibiotic resistance be decreased — or, worse, increased?
Reproductive success. As the genome — human and other organisms — accumulates damaging mutations, the less likely it is that the individual will be able to contribute progeny to the next generation. One implication is a level of sterility in both humans, animals and plants. What research has been done into this?
Unintended consequences. Genes are complex and may provide a number of functions. Changes could have unintended consequences apart from the intended change that was programmed in. What was only a few years ago thought of as “junk DNA” has turned out to have important functions.