Hard to Swallow

Essential we make conscious food choices as GM wheat making inroads in Australia
Australia is on track to become the first country in the world to sell GM bread. But, asks Rosamund Burton, is that really a distinction we should be prepared to accept?

In July 2011 a small group of Greenpeace activists scaled a fence with whipper snippers to destroy a crop of genetically modified wheat at a CSIRO farm in Canberra. Intrigued to find out about why Greenpeace had taken this extreme action, I spoke to then Greenpeace Food Campaigner, Laura Kelly.

She is quick to tell me that Greenpeace is not anti biotechnology, and in fact has been supportive of applications such as smart breeding and marker assisted selection. Both these technologies can be used to confer particular attributes to a plant, such as drought resistance or the ability to grow in soil with a high saline content.

The concern with genetic modification (GM), she explains, "is the method of genetic insertion". It's called particle bombardment, and uses a gene gun, which transfers a gene from one organism to another using bacteria.

"It is this method of transferring it which can create the risk of genetic instability and can destroy the plant's normal genetic pathway," she explains.

As someone who aspires to buying organic food, but often doesn't due to budget constraints, I have always been opposed to GM foods, because I believe GM is an irreversible shift away from the natural plant and the possible effects of interfering with nature in this way are unknown. However, it wasn't until I started to look into what is happening in both Australia and the rest of the world with regard to GM, that I started to realise just how far from natural so much of our food is.

The reason for Greenpeace's action in Canberra was to raise public awareness that, according to the CSIRO, GM bread will be on our shop shelves as soon as 2015. The GM wheat crop, which the activists destroyed, was one of the first experimental outdoor GM wheat crops in Australia, and trials were due to begin on human consumption of the engineered wheat. Australia is likely to be the first country in the world to sell GM bread. GM wheat was rejected by the Canadian government in 2004. Two years later, in 2006, the multinational GM companies started to look at Australia as a possible testing ground for growing their varieties.

So the group from Greenpeace went into the field to remove the GM wheat experiment. Greenpeace's two main concerns about the wheat experimentation in Australia are contamination and health. There have been many cases in North America and closer to home where a GM crop has contaminated a non GM one. In December 2010, Steve Marsh, an organic farmer in Kojonup WA, found GM canola seed from a neighbouring farm had blown in and contaminated over 70% of his property. As a result, his organic certification was suspended and his livelihood suddenly in jeopardy.

Australia's wheat industry is worth $4.7 billion a year and we export to Japan and the EU, both of which do not want GM wheat.

"The chance that our regular wheat supply could be contaminated by GM was high and there's a high economic threat which underlies that as well because there is rejection of GM in a number of markets," Laura Kelly explains.

Greenpeace's second concern is health. Laura Kelly tells me that independent science has raised significant health concerns regarding GM food. As wheat is such a significant part of the average Australian's diet, she sees the introduction of GM wheat in two years' time as a very serious issue.

Since 1988, Bob Phelps has headed up an organisation called GeneEthics, and has worked tirelessly to make Australians aware of what is happening in regard to GM food in this country. In 1988, he travelled to Monsanto's world headquarters at both the company's invitation and expense. Monsanto is one of the leading producers of GM seed in the world. He heard what Monsanto has to say, "and I came away unconvinced by their arguments," he tells me, "and also convinced that this industry was not in the interests of the public, human health, or the environment."

He believed, then and now, that the company's agenda was to own and control the world's food supply. Today, as well as being the biggest producer of GM seed in the world, Monsanto also has the largest share of the conventional seed industry. It owns in excess of 25% of the globe's commercial seed supply. Fifty per cent of the world's seed supply is in the hands of about half a dozen companies, with Bayer and BASF significant other players after Monsanto. Monsanto also recently acquired a 19.9% stake in the corporatised WA public plant breeder, Intergrain.

Australian cotton is now over 90% GM and Australian cotton seed oil is sold in bulk for fast food frying. If you've eaten fish and chips or fried chicken nuggets recently your meal could well have been fried in GM cottonseed oil. The other GM crop grown in Australia is canola. Yet most canola oil consumers would be totally unaware they are using a GM product because, due to the current Australian labelling laws, vegetable oils, along with starches and sugars, are exempt from having to be labelled as GM.

Andrew Broad is a grain grower on a 2,000 hectare farm in Central Victoria and also President of the Victorian Farmers Federation. He produces canola and wheat and has grown Roundup Ready Canola, a GM crop. He became interested in the whole GM issue, and in 2006 was awarded a Nuffield Farming scholarship to look into the issue of biotechnology. He travelled to Canada and talked to farmers there about their experiences growing GM crops. He has also been to Europe, Africa, Brazil and the Asian Pacific, not only speaking to farmers, but also consumers, people in the trade and at various levels of government.

He discusses his experience of growing the Roundup Ready GM canola, saying that the yield was probably better than a standard canola crop. He also made savings because of the reduced quantity of chemicals required for the GM crop. Four different types of chemical are used on a standard canola crop, whereas the GM crop only uses one, Roundup.

From what he's seen on his travels, he believes biotechnology is likely to move more into the area of genome mapping. One of the concerns of Greenpeace about GM is the trans genes technology, which the organisation believes can cause genetic instability of the plant. With genome mapping, says Broad, scientists are looking at why a plant dies when it doesn't rain and how it can be made more drought-tolerant. He has also seen genome mapping work which makes a crop more phosphorus-efficient.

"Phosphorus is a mineral which, if we took it out of the farming systems, I think you'd see all our grain yields across Australia halved. Phosphate rock is a finite resource. We are probably about 50 years from not having enough of it in the world. So if we can produce plants with the same yield but using half the phosphorus, that'll make that finite resource last longer.'

I ask Broad whether he is concerned about large multinational companies, such as Monsanto, monopolising the seed business.

"Monsanto spends the same amount of money on research and development in three weeks as the Australian Grain Industry spends on research and development in 12 months. So if we're going to get any productive gains out of agriculture we're going to have to have private investors in it."

One of Bob Phelps' concerns is the increase in patents and plant breeder's rights on seeds. Two or so years ago, the US Government initiated an investigation into anticompetitive practices by biotech companies after claims by farmers that they were no longer able to get access to traditional varieties of seed. Since humans first became agriculturalists rather than hunter gatherers, the best seed has been saved and developed to improve the crops. But now, he says, large corporations are taking what has been developed in the public domain for thousands of years, and brought it, through intellectual property ownership, patents and plant breeder's rights, under private control. Under the Breeder's Rights Act introduced in 1987, a farmer is not allowed to propagate or resell seed that is protected.

Andrew Broad admits that all the varieties of crops he grows on his farm have an end point royalty. "If I grow a tonne of wheat I pay one dollar back to the breeder. I can grow varieties which don't have an end royalty, but they simply don't yield."

Ultimately, the future of our food and the farming methods used to produce it, lie in the hands of the consumers.

"The community is asking of the farming sector greater and greater production at cheaper and cheaper prices," says Broad. A generation ago, his 2,000 hectare farm was made up of five family farms. Small family farms, which were owned by people who wanted to look after the environment and leave the land in a better state for the next generation, are being squeezed out of existence, he explains, either becoming far larger family farms, or owned by corporations.

He believes the vast majority of consumers are only buying on price and are not prepared to pay one cent more for something that has been produced with better environmental concerns and wage concerns.

"Look at the supermarket price war. Why does the Australian consumer have some God-given right to have cheap food? They have a God-given right to have healthy, wholesome food at a price that they can afford to feed their family, but they can't have it every way."

How we spend our food dollars sends a message to the food supply about what we want, Bob Phelps emphasises. He stresses buying organic when possible.

"Organic food costs a bit more, but is produced more thoughtfully and its whole raison d'etre is to protect the health of people and the environment."

Every time we go shopping for food we make a choice and it's vitally important that we make choices that support not only our own health and wellbeing, but also our land and environment. In the UK and Europe generally, GM foods are not seen on supermarket shelves because of consumer rejection. If we don't want GM bread on our shelves in three years' time, we need write to our politicians and tell them.

For the last seven years, Greenpeace has produced the True Food Guide which lists products known to be GM free, and those which could contain GM. They have also started producing the True Food Guide for Kids (www.truefood.org.au). By reading food labels, we can make a conscious effort to avoid GM foods, such as soy and corn, which are already on the market in Australia.