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Genetically Modified Crops Free Areas Exemption Order 2010 – Disallowance

Extract from Hansard – Wednesday, 10 March 2010

MS A.S. CARLES (Fremantle) [5.16 pm]: I am going to focus on the trial that took place in 2009, because we have a minister who has lifted the moratorium based on the trials that his department says were a great success, yet the evidence shows that they failed. A 20 per cent failure rate with strict scientific conditions is not a success.

Nearly a year ago the Greens in the other house brought forward a disallowance motion regarding the exemption order that permitted the trials to even take place, because we said then that segregation would be impossible and that contamination was inevitable. Report 8 of the Standing Committee on Environment and Public Affairs published in July 2003 said the same thing, and the report on the trial that eventuated shows that these predictions were actually correct. We say that GM canola cannot be effectively segregated from non-GM canola or other grains, thus removing the option of non-GM canola and injuring the livelihood of non-GM canola growers. The government has made arguments that this is all about choice. It is not about choice; it is actually about removing choice. Our choice at the end of the day is going to be between GM canola and more GM canola.

I will turn to the point about why GM canola cannot be segregated. Canola seeds are light, small and mobile. For those members who have never seen them, think about mustard seeds or hundreds and thousands. They get into crevices of farm machinery. They can escape through tiny holes and cracks. They can be carried on the wind currents. The report of the trial includes lists of lengthy precautions that were taken to try to prevent GM seed from escaping, yet out of the 52 plantings, there were 11 incidents. As I said before, a 20 per cent failure rates cannot be called a success under strict conditions.

I will quickly itemise the incidents that took place. There was one incident of delivering the seed direct to a site rather than to quarantine authorities as required. There were two seed spills. There was one incident of planting too near a non-GM canola crop. There was one incident of wind blowing the seed into the adjacent cereal crop. There was one incident of the wrong amount of seed being sown. The site was abandoned, but some of the seeds germinated on the site in a wheat crop. There was one incident of delay in delivering grain. There was one incident of grain left in the wrong place. There was one incident of wind blowing seed over a fence into the neighbour’s land. There was one incident in which machinery broke down, so a second machine had to be cleaned down as well. There was one incident of grain being delivered without prior notification.

This was the scientific trial upon which the government is basing the lifting of the moratorium. In addition, one site was planted with an extra six hectares of GMC that was permitted by the exemption order that allowed the trial. Under section 7 of the act, it is an offence to breach the conditions of an exemption order—the penalty is $200 000—yet this episode was not even registered as an incident, let alone prosecuted as an offence under the act. That occurred in a trial. God help farmers in the real world who do not have those scientific conditions placed on them and who are working to time and cost pressures!

These incidents prove that the trials cannot demonstrate an ability to segregate GM canola from non-GM canola. Even though everyone was highly motivated and recently trained, segregation was not possible. This is consistent with what has happened elsewhere with GM canola. For example, the previous speaker alluded to answers provided to a question asked this month in the other place by Hon Giz Watson, Greens (WA) member in the upper house, in which the government admitted that spillage does occur from road transportation. The minister’s response reads —

Roadside volunteers of crops following harvest and transportation are a normal occurrence.

GM traces may be found in the pollen in hives which are harvesting from GM canola crops.

GM traces have been found in Canadian mustard. GM canola volunteers are still being found in Tasmania at 12 of the 57 trial sites from the last decade.

Of most concern, was the response to Hon Giz Watson’s question: “Is it possible to completely avoid GM contamination in an environment where GM crops are grown?” The minister answered —

If the agreed protocols for the segregation of GM and non-GM canola are complied with any adventitious presence will be kept below the Australian Grains Industry threshold of 0.9 per cent presence.

The answer is no. The government is conceding that it is not possible to remove this risk. It is now talking about a 0.9 per cent risk. How exactly will the government manage even 0.9 per cent risk and keep farmers to that 0.9 per cent level? It is simply not going to be possible.

In May 2009, an information paper on GM canola published by the Ministerial GMO Industry Reference Group chaired by Hon Kim Chance, then MLC, included a table of estimated average escape rates at each of nine different stages in the GM canola production phase. All estimates show potential for contamination in at least six of the nine stages in a production process. The report then points out that these levels and the risk increases exponentially; that is, in multiples and not by addition. Therefore, every growing season poses an exponential risk if GM escapee plants are not controlled.

The system that the government proposes, when talking about this risk of 0.9 per cent that we are expected to accept now, depends on everyone following correct procedures and doing the right thing at all times. As I said, even with the best of intentions, people are fallible, and it is most likely that mistakes will take place.

I refer to Farmnote 409, which was put out in 2010 by the Department of Agriculture and Food in relation to on-farm segregation of GM and non-GM canola. This is the government making recommendations about how to keep things separate. It lists all sorts of very complicated procedures for how farmers are supposed to maintain and deal with this risk. It is cold comfort for farmers, especially when the department acknowledges at the end of the process that contamination can happen anyway. For example, officials from Western Power or telephone companies can have access to GM growing areas without notification, and they could potentially transfer GMCs.

I will briefly touch on the legal issues, because this will be a minefield if we go ahead. Canadian farmers visited Parliament about 18 months ago and briefed the Greens on their experience. These are farmers who said that initially they were pro-GM and were happy to go along with the Monsanto spin. However, they were doing a tour to warn other countries about what took place and their experience. They said that co-existence was absolutely impossible. They talked about problems with super weeds and increasing costs, and all sorts of litigation that has taken place.

They revealed the ironic situation in which Monsanto can actually sue a non-GM farmer if GM crop ends up in his or her plot; farmers cannot even protect themselves if they want to stay GM free.

There are all sorts of other problems in our legal system. Our growers will have to rely on ordinary common law principles and mechanisms such as nuisance, trespass and negligence to try to make their case, but how realistic will this be for them? There will be all sorts of issues; causation is one of the biggest issues they will face. How can one prove where GM seed has come from? It could have come from a farm 50 kilometres down the road, or it could have come from the next-door neighbour. Causation is going to be hugely problematic. As far as I am aware, there is no enforceable legal duty on a GM-growing farmer to even inform his or her neighbour that he or she will be growing GM crops. Other elements that will be difficult to prove include intention, recklessness and negligence. If a GMgrowing farmer has done all that he or she reasonably could, but the seed was still spread by the wind—as happened twice during the trials—it will be very hard to prove negligence. Why should farmers bear the financial cost of litigation and the extra burden that this is going to create?

There are also social ramifications for rural communities by pitting neighbours against each other in this way. Litigation between neighbours is capable of splitting small rural communities. Community unrest would affect social cohesion and the mental health of farming families in particular. Rural men’s health has recently been the focus of a suicide prevention program run by Suicide Prevention Australia. Additional stresses on rural families should be avoided. Fear of inability to cope with changed circumstances is a recognised major stress factor.

I will conclude with a point about democracy. I am a very new member in this chamber, but I know that the numbers on this GM disallowance motion are very close. I also know that there are members of the government who are not at all happy with the government’s stand on this issue. I urge those members to really think about what they are voting on here and to understand the implications. This is about our food chain and it will have huge implications for the future supply of our food. I urge them to get informed and to listen to the tens of thousands of Western Australians who have bothered to sign petitions, to all the people have written letters to us, and to all the farmers who are so concerned. Let us keep our state GM free.

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