Genetically Modified Ethics

Genetic Engineering in our foods is on its way, likeit or not, says the Commonwealth. Under new Federalprovisions, Western Australia wouldn't be able to optout of new Genetic Engineering (GE) agriculture on eitherenvironmental or health grounds, but it can seek exemptionas Tasmania has done on 'marketing' grounds. The questionwe all need to consider is whether clean and green iscompatible with gene. Adrian Glamorgan talks to EmmaBelfield, a farmer's daughter, and now GE-Free Alliancespokesperson who is asking why we are talking aboutGE foods and other modified organisms at all. When weknow so little about what we're doing, is it ethicalto play with DNA in this way?

Emma Belfield is a young Western Australian activistwho has unusual qualifications for getting involvedin the genetic engineering debate. Emma grew up on afamily farm near Armidale, in New South Wales, and oneday will inherit with her sisters more than 2,400 hectaresof prime sheep and cattle property. "The average ageof farmers in Australia today is 58-59, exactly my parents'age," she says. "In the next 10 years there's goingto be a huge shift in agricultural practices, so I startedto look into what I could expect.'"

As Emma studied recent developments in farming sheliked less and less what she saw, particularly the imminentimpact of genetically engineered (GE) crops on the wayfood is grown, processed and packaged.

She sees pervasive changes ahead to the way food willbe produced. "Genetic engineering will impact on farms,the environment and social justice. There'll be corporatisationof food from seed to shop. You will have to sign contractssaying you will only use that company's herbicides,despite promises that GM crops will use less chemicals."

The world of GE is complex, technical and fast moving.Genetic engineering splices gene material within andacross species like stacking and pulling apart Lego-bricks.

Last month, an Australian company was said to be tryingto patent the genes of Tongans. A couple of years ago,an American company tried similar patenting of certaingenes of Papua New Guineans. The applications are manifold.Already there are fish genes in US tomatoes helpingto slow down ripening; the Chinese have inserted hamstergenes into tobacco; and if your soy flour ingredientisn't marked on the packet 'GM-free' there's a strongchance it's been genetically modified and sourced fromoverseas.

"Farmers are the most sceptical and informed groupof any I've spoken to," says Emma.

She grew so convinced of the dangers of genetic engineeringto farming as much as to consumers that she played aninstrumental role in establishing the 'GE-Free Alliance'in July 2000 in Western Australia. One of her firstactions was to ring the Mayor of Fremantle, Peter Tagliaferri,and ask him to consider making the Council GE-free.As it turned out, she had a willing ally in the mayorwho had direct primary producer experience. In fact,he recalls having been approached by a GE company todo a genetically modified canola trial. He says: "Idrew the line on our farming property. We wouldn't allowa trial. The wholesaling company promised high yields,that it was resistant to this, resistant to that, thatmy neighbour's going to do it, and so on. But I saidI just wasn't interested.

"When you've been involved in as many aspects of thefood industry as I have, you get a taste for what isin food."

So Emma found the mayor onside, an important startingpoint given the size of Fremantle's commitment to varioussocial groups with 400 meals a day for seniors, childrenand the mentally ill. " Peter saw it as a national issue,as well as an immediate local one. He really graspsthat we don't have the expertise or authority to getinto genetic engineering yet."

In December 2000, the local authority voted to goGE-free in its food services, requiring suppliers tosign contracts that they would use not use any geneticallymodified organisms or GE foods.

On Australia Day the council showed the measure ofher local standing by awarding her the city's YoungCitizen of the Year award.

First Fremantle, next the world. According to recentadvice from the Environmental Defender's Office to theAustralian Conservation Foundation, councils may beable to enforce a ban on GE food in a variety of ways:banning any agricultural use of GMOs or the sale offood containing GMOs by new shops, as well as requiringall council food services to be GE-free.

Emma's chief ethical objections to GMOs don't centreso much around any natural/unnatural debate - shakygrounds, she believes - but around ethical issues ofsocial justice between richer and poorer nations, afaithfulness to future generations, and a concern forour capacity to keep control of the process.

In the hungrier parts of the world, mainly in theSouthern Hemisphere, multi-national companies like Monsantoand Aventis promise bumper harvests, without the needfor ploughs or weeding - despite some ungrateful farmersin India threatening to turn GE crops to ash, and angrycomplaints from Mexican farmers appalled that renegadeGM corn seed is causing entire native corn varietiesto disappear. African opponents argue GE-seed will beself-terminating, and local farming knowledge will becomeirrelevant. But the companies argue they will be feedingthe Third World.

"People in the South are insulted companies are usingtheir hunger and poverty to promote a product," saysEmma. If the harvest begins, as Monsanto promises, sheexpects the trend already happening in hungry nationsto continue - where cheap food will be exported forrich folks' tables.

"Today Brazil has a fifth of its population hungry,but it is already a principal food exporter," she pointsout. Issues of local knowledge and distribution areas important as yield, and these justice issues areconveniently overlooked as companies promote themselvesas new entrepreneurs of aid and development.

Despite such criticisms, Monsanto announced in February2002 that increased regulatory approvals, renewals andbigger acreage of GE products demonstrated widespreadpublic acceptance of biotechnology. Pre-commercial fieldtrials are taking place in 25 countries including Australia.Now Western Australians have to decide what kind ofGE regime they want with the possibility of some 'GE-freezones.'

So far no one has worked out how to stop the spreadof patented, genetically engineered pollen blowing inthe wind, or how to keep silos of uncontaminated grainseparate from the new revolution in food. But if theydo, you can expect to pay for it. Monsanto successfullysued a third generation Canadian farmer for breach ofits seed patent and royalties when cross-pollinationoccurred between its GM seed and the farmer's naturalvariety next door.

One by one Emma ticks off more arguments. New labellingmeasures are grossly inadequate, not allowing consumersproper choice; and misleading, allowing companies todisguise their involvement in GE agriculture. (Manyingredients that start out as genetically modified aresubsequently processed to remove the GM materials, butstill rely on GE production.) Virus particles used inGE crops may recombine with unrelated viruses and workthrough the environment, creating unintended consequences.

Besides her attention to detail, Emma Belfield iskeen to keep sight of the debate's larger context. Theethical foundation for a GM-free approach is, as withecologically sustainable development, the 'precautionaryprinciple'.

"The fundamental thing is to question whether humanjudgement has superseded evolution. There are limitsin the ecological systems and GE starts to pull theselimits apart, in order to reinforce certain privateand economic values. Do agribusiness staff know what'sgood and viable? These decisions will have to standforever. There is a question of equity for future generations."

Not wishing to demonise any particular group, shebelieves that "good people are making bad decisions".

At least in Western Australia, there is time to makea change. We are currently in the middle of a publicconsultation to help the State Government decide howmuch WA works within or opts out of Commonwealth legislationgoverning genetic engineering. And as it turns out,our current Minister for Agriculture has been a farmer,too. But whatever his utterances before taking office,it seems the tight regulatory framework provided bythe Federal Government and strong multinational pressurewill make the prospects of GE-free status for the wholeState difficult, to say the least.

Welcome to the world of genetically modified organisms.As you glide down the air conditioned supermarket aisles,you might sense the titanic struggle for your heartand mind. On the one side are the companies who wantto produce genetically modified food, who make glossypromises for harvests, chemical-free food, and profitsfor shareholders. On the other side are a growing numberof farmers, consumers, environmentalists and ethicistswho are asking uncomfortable questions.

Perhaps as you check out, the story of Adam and Evetasting of the fruit may come to mind - in its organic,and GE-free state. They lost paradise but found knowledgeof good and evil. Now we have a second chance to changecreation. Emma Belfield, farmer's daughter and GE-Freecampaigner, would want us to think very clearly beforewe take a second bite. The fruit before us may be unlikeanything we've ever tasted before.