01.09.2007

Gearing Up for GM

Gearing Up for GM

A debate that's crucial on manylevels is just starting to heat up in Australia, saysMargaret Evans

Youthought the GM debate had gone quiet in Australia? Thinkagain. Have you noticed those news stories scatteredhere and there in the media recently preparing us forthe advent of GM crops in Australia? The suggestionthat "independent panels" will be reviewingthe existing moratoriums in place on the commercialplantings of GM crops? I've read recently that Victoriais expecting a report by its independent panel in Februarynext year, that NSW is anticipating its panel will reportin time for the expiry of its own moratorium in Marchand that Western Australia is now being pressured tofast track its own review so it doesn't slow down the"progress" in this contentious area. Currently,but for how much longer, Queensland is the only Stateto have gone down that bumpy GM road.

And while the ground is being prepared, across ournation, for "genetically modified" (somehowthe term "genetically engineered" seems tospeak more truly of the artificiality of this process)food crops, we also see even our consumer organisationscasting doubts on anything organic or natural. In itsJuly issue, Choice magazine, the mouthpiece of the AustralianConsumers Association, warns us that we're being overchargedbecause there's no evidence that organic food is nutritionallybetter. We're also advised to look for "certified"organic foods if we want the best value for our money.

Of course that's good advice - any moderately savvyconsumer of anything wants to know they're getting whatthey pay for and surely no commodity is more importantthan the food we put in our mouths. But we're entitledto ask what is Choice seriously suggesting here - thatwe keep on buying conventionally farmed fruit, vegetables,eggs and meat with all the compromised integrity involvedin those processes until such time as organic producerscan come up with some cast iron approval process? Thevery fact that whole supermarket aisles are now devotedto organic products (following the long establishedlead of wholefood and health stores in this country)shows that consumers are starting to make that choicefor themselves. And perhaps the realisation is beginningto dawn that certified organic food is worth that littlebit extra we may have to pay - in terms of health andenvironmental benefits.

At least the concern on our behalf has spurred Australia'sorganic growers into action on the political front whereI strongly suspect they'd rather not be wasting theirpassion and energy. The Biological Farmers of Australia,representing Australian certified organic growers, hashit the nail on the head in its response in August:"The call comes at a time when research into holisticfarming systems, biological and organic farming systems,and related "public benefit" production systemsremains relatively neglected in comparison to huge investmentsinto patentable research such as GMOs, new chemicalsand similar products which is driving the culture ofmodern Australian institutions including the CSIRO,DPIs etc."

"Incredibly complex research" into the nutritionalvalue of organic versus conventionally produced foods,the group suggests, masks other important issues atplay. "With such an approach, we risk overlookingthe obvious benefits when no synthetic pesticides areused, when the focus in farming is on soil nutritionand balance and when other arguably less tangible butvery real outcomes such as animal welfare issues arefront and centre of organic production requirements."The statement from the Biological Farmers of Australiacontinues: "This leadership shown by the organicsector should be affirmed and supported - which it isby consumers who recognise that there is more to foodthan simply its nutritional status."

They say that adversity brings out the underlyingstrength - maybe this is that watershed time for organicfarming in Australia. In the absence of any tangiblesupport at a bureaucratic or big business level, onceagain we rely on the informed and determined individual.And, I've been immensely impressed and heartened thismonth in reading the impassioned words of American author,poet and backyard gardener supreme, Barbara Kingsolverin her latest book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:Our Year of Seasonal Eating".

Just in case that GM pause in Australia has lulledus into a state of complacency -- let's face it, itgoes with the sunshine and barbies -- Kingsolver andher husband, environmental studies lecturer Steven Hopp,add a dollop of harsh reality to that deceptively enticingGM corn cob. The message that emerges from this bookis that we must actively seize control of the food thatwe put into our mouths - and those of our families andtheir children in the future. If we don't act to preservea diversity of food sources - Kingsolver uses the term"heritage" species with its implicit suggestionthat such foods are already on the way out and many,many species of plants and animals have, in fact, alreadydisappeared from our planet -- the future is one ofculinary and nutritional impoverishment, both in choiceand quality.

Kingsolver, author of the acclaimed novel "ThePoisonwood Bible" among others, is one of thoseimpressive people who, when she sees a problem, doesn'tjust bemoan the situation. She does something aboutit - in this case, with her family's equally passionatesupport - up and leaving their home in Tucson, Arizonato relocate to a small acreage in the southern Appalachianson the other side of a big continent. While they'd beenmulling the decision for some time, drawn by a senseof community and "coming home", the spur wasTucson's third consecutive year of drought. The realitysuddenly hit home that while this rapidly growing cityin the desert could provide all their material comforts,food - and water - was another matter. It's soberingto read that virtually all of Tucson's food is truckedin from "somewhere far away" and that "everyounce of the city's drinking, washing and goldfish-bowl-fillingwater is pumped from a nonrevewable source - a fossilaquifer that is dropping so fast, sometimes the groundcrumbles." The parallels with our own parched continentof vast distances and year-round water restrictionsare hard to ignore.

Kingsolver's love of the land and impressive abilityto nurture all living things - animal, vegetable andhuman, too (her family and friends eat fabulously wellas we can judge from her daughter's recipes that illustrateeach chapter) - is both poetic and inspiring. Duringtheir year on their Virginia farm, they live out theirdream of reducing their ecological footprint as muchas possible by growing their own food and eating onlylocal produce. What's equally important, I think, isthat Kingsolver is no hayseed. She is a serious authorand sought-after speaker who maintains a disciplinedwriting schedule even while coping with the demandsof growing crops, pulling weeds, preserving fruits andvegetables, inventing original ways of cooking the mountainsof tomatoes and squash that sprout from their fertilesoils, "harvesting" their own animals andeven nursemaiding turkeys into breeding successfully,a feat in itself as "turkey mating has gone theway of rubberised foundation garments and the drive-inmovie."

The passion is infectious in this book, and the family'sexample of their year of seasonal eating has somethingfor us all, even those of us still wedded to our citylives. But along with the inspiring personal example,there is a serious undertone, one that echoes the cautionaryadvice of that other thought-provoking book, Jane Goodall's"Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating".The GM spectre looms large in both, along with the pervasivesense that in many parts of the world, the US, Europe,Canada, even parts of Asia and Africa, it's a juggernautcrushing all in its path. Even without GM, the lossof diversity and crop species across the world is staggering,and largely unremarked.

When you read some of the examples, that language doesn'tseem remotely extreme. Here are just a handful to startyou thinking:

Ten years ago, Indian farmers grew many speciesof oil crops such as sesame and linseed. In 1998,all the small mills that processed these crops wereordered to close and, coincidentally, a ban was liftedon imported soy oil. Millions of farmers lost theirlivelihoods and GM soy found a huge new market.Thanks to the loss of heirloom species and theirreplacement with hybrids, US consumers have lost 99per cent of the vegetable varieties available to thema century ago.In 2005, 167 million acres worldwide were plantedwith GM crops, mainly corn, cotton, soybeans and canola.The US is the world's top producer of GM foods: 81per cent of its soy, 40 per cent of its corn, 73 percent of its canola and 73 per cent of its cotton isGM.Indian crop ecologist Vandana Shiva tells us thathumans have eaten 80,000 plant species over our history.Now, 75 per cent of all human food comes from justeight species and that's rapidly narrowing down toGM corn, soy and canola.The ultimate genetic modification, the "terminator"gene, prevents a crop producing any viable seed. Thefarmer has no choice but to rebuy all his seed thefollowing season. Six companies - Monsanto, Syngenta,DuPont, Mitsui, Aventis and Dow - now control 98 percent of the world's seed sales.One of the most common GM crops in the US is "Btcorn". This is corn that has been altered tomake its own bacterial toxin (Bacillus thuringiensis)that is present in every cell and kills any insectthat eats it.Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser spent six yearsand $400,000 to fight a claim bought against him byMonsanto of patent infringement when they found someof their GM canola seed in crops growing along a roadsideditch on his farm. Schmeiser's defence was that hehad never bought Monsanto's seeds, and the contaminationhad been caused by pollen drift. Schmeiser lost hisbattle and Monsanto's patent claim was upheld. However,as the farmer didn't profit from his "infringement",the Canadian Supreme Court ruled he did not have topay Monsanto any compensation.

The list goes on, but it's timely to take a pausehere and realise that this is the case that has rousedgreat concern both within Canada and many other countriesincluding Australia. The issue of unavoidable contaminationby patented seeds lies at the heart of Australian farmers'completely justified concerns about going that GM route.And being GM-free rather than being yet another economythat's been swallowed up by the juggernaut of agribusinessis, increasingly, being seen as a major market advantage.At least by some. So as those newspaper headlines andTV bites gain increasing stridency in the next few months,spare a thought for Percy Schmeiser, Indian oil cropfarmers, subsistence farmers all over the world whohave to buy their patented seed all over again everyyear, the beetle that dares to munch on a Bt corn cob- and think how lucky we are!

Recommended reading:
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal eatingby Barbara Kingsolver, Faber&Faber, RRP $29.95
Harvest for Hope by Jane Goodall, Warner Books

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