GMOs and Gene Technology in AustraliaAustralians given the European perspectiveBiotechnology policies of farm groupsCoexistence trials updateMore bans likely on GM crops

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By Paula Fitzgerald, Agrifood Awareness Australia Limited*

The status of genetically modified (GM) foods and crops in the European Union was recently clarified for interested Australian stakeholders during a visit by Dr Andrew Tommey, Principal Administrator, European Commission, Directorate-General Environment.

Dr Tommey’s visit was supported by the Graingrowers Association and co-hosted by Agrifood Awareness Australia Limited. Unlike Australia, which has had GM regulations and GM food labelling since 2001, the European Union has only recently agreed on such laws.

According to Dr Tommey, the current situation in Europe is that 20,000 hectares of GM crops are commercially grown each year in the form of insect-resistant maize in Spain, and bulk commodity imports of GM soybean products occur. Soybean is particularly important to Europe as it is used as a key feed source for livestock.

A de facto moratorium has been in place on approvals of GM feed and food crops since 1998, and because of this, there has been a decline in research and experimental releases. Today, continued resistance from some of the European Union’s 15 Member States remains.

Numerous food scares have occurred in Europe, including BSE (Mad Cow disease) and foot and mouth disease, and although unrelated to gene technology, these events have resulted in low confidence in regulatory authorities according to Dr Tommey.

As a result, the progress of GM foods and crops through the regulatory system has slowed, with more stringent and transparent legislation developed to address management of potential risks and concerns.

New legislation, the most stringent in the world, has now been agreed upon by the European Union in relation to GM food and feed regulation and the labelling and traceability of GM foods and feed through the supply chain. This legislation comes into force on 18 April, and 22 applications have already been submitted under the new laws.

The applications relate to maize, canola, fodder beet, sugar beet, rice and cotton varieties. The proposed use of the GM crops ranges between import and processing, feed use and cultivation.

The most advanced of the applications relates to the import and use of insect-resistant corn developed by Monsanto for feed and industrial processing. The GM corn has already been found by the European Food Safety Authority to be as safe as conventional corn. Recently, the GM corn failed to gain the majority required for approval during a vote by Member States, so the application now proceeds to the Council of Ministers for consideration. If a decision is not made within three months, the European Commission will make the final decision.

Under the legislation in force from 18 April, post-market requirements in place for GM foods and crops will include:

Member States will impose their own systems for coexistence and liability. This was decided based on the vast climatic and agronomic differences between the States.

According to Dr Tommey, the way forward in relation to GM foods and crops in the EU is not simply about granting approvals on further GM products, but rests on market and public acceptance, which will include addressing:

For more information about the situation in Europe, see: food/biotechnology/gmfood index_en.htm

Some farm group policies from around the country were featured in the last two editions of Ground Cover – more are outlined below.

AgForce has formed and endorsed policy on biotechnology. It supports:

The AgForce grains section also encourages further education and balance in the information provided to the general public regarding the use of gene technology, so that informed decisions and choices can be made.

In Australia, the commercial production of GM canola remains uncertain. Despite approval by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, the commercial cultivation of the GM canola varieties is currently prohibited in all canola-growing states by state governments.

The Australian Oilseeds Federation, Bayer CropScience and Monsanto Australia have submitted an application to the NSW Agriculture Minister to undertake coexistence trials in the state during 2004.

Exemptions for such trials of GM food crops may be granted by the Minister despite the three-year moratorium in place. It is expected that a decision will be made by the Minister by the end of April.

South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) look likely to join Tasmania, New South Wales and Western Australia by imposing legislated moratoriums on the commercial production of GM food crops. Victoria has imposed a 12-month voluntary prohibition on growing commercial GM crops.

South Australia’s Genetically Modified Crops Management Bill 2004 was tabled in February 2004, and two bills will be tabled in the ACT in the coming months.

One of these bills has been developed by the Government which proposes a moratorium not unlike that in neighbouring NSW, the Gene Technology (GM Crop Moratorium) Bill 2004.

Another bill has been put forward by a Greens member, The GMO (Environment Protection) Bill, which in its initial form is pursuing a total ban on commercial releases of GM crops as well as prohibiting field trials of experimental GM crops.

It is estimated that bioscience research and development and commercial activity contribute $100 million to the ACT economy, and these bills have the potential to severely impact this area of research.

* Agrifood Awareness Australia Limited is an industry initiative established to increase public awareness of, and encourage informed debate about, gene technology. The organisation is supported by three peak bodies, including the GRDC.