I’M OFTEN asked why I don’t take a strong position on the GM debate – its either the best thing since sliced bread, or a disaster similar to asbestos waiting to happen – right?
Unfortunately, in real life things are a little more complex than that.
The latest furore surrounding a study finding rats fed GM corn developed serious liver and kidney issues is merely another in an ongoing propaganda war that needs to be reined in by an independent umpire.
Both proponents and opponents of GM are so entangled in the bitter war of words that its nigh on impossible to get any objective comment on the issue, with arguments having their pros and cons.
To the crux of the matter – do I think GM food crops should be allowed? The short answer is yes, but that does not mean a free-for-all of commercialisation of GM food crops.
The opponents of GM will point to a range of studies pointing to potential health damage done by consumption of GM foods as evidence my opinion is irresponsible.
My reasoning, however, is simple. GM foods have been available in America for 20-odd years, and if they were as dangerous as has been made out, wouldn’t people be dropping dead everywhere by now?
Is there a risk the negative impacts on health will take time to assert themselves? Of course there is, but as a keen student of the world grain supply and demand charts, I just can’t see another means of feeding the world’s ever-expanding population. I’d rather get ill in 40 years than starve today – and we are running into the thin end of the wedge in terms of the productivity gains from conventional breeding.
There’s a risk and reward scenario here, and I don’t think we can stop the use of GM on the off chance the sky will fall in, after most scientific studies indicate the food is safe to eat.
That’s a judgment call and I’m happy to acknowledge others will disagree. To this end, at an Australian level, so long as the labeling laws are strong enough, they will have the choice not to eat GM. This needs to mean an end to the various unmarked GM products that sneak into the food supply chain through various loopholes, which will not please all biotech businesses, but there needs to be choice.
Equally, it may mean non-GM consumers pay a higher price for some foods, but if they have the unwavering opinion it is unsafe it will surely be a price they are prepared to pay.
Given current consumers trends, there will be some who are happy to do this, and others that may profess doubts about GM yet aren’t prepared to spend an extra $2 not to eat it.
Why will non-GM food be at a premium? The idea behind GM crops, indeed all new varieties is that they produce more for less, meaning it can be done cheaper. If it can’t, then this whole debate will be meaningless as no growers will use the technology.
A big question that needs to be ironed out is that of who conducts the tests on whether the food is safe – the current system provides satisfaction to no-one.
For mine, the anti-GM lobby missed a trick in having Giles-Eric Seralini, a long-term opponent of GM, as the face of the campaign into the safety concerns surrounding GM corn, however, they do make some good points in terms of long-term and independent testing.
The current system in Australia, where the onus on doing the testing lies with the company attempting to commercialise a variety, is ridiculous, a poacher cum gamekeeper situation if ever there was one.
Surely there needs to be funding to have the likes of Food Safety Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) do the tests themselves.
I’d argue this would be preferable to the biotech companies themselves, even though it may take longer and be more expensive, as then the testing lies with an independent regulator and no-one could argue the toss, claiming that the data is compromised, which is currently a tactic applied with gay abandon by both sides of the debate.
Further multi-generational studies are also a good idea – stewardship should not stop the moment commercial varieties hit the paddock.
All this will cost more money, which may have some biotechs squealing, but I think it’s a small price to pay to developing an industry where it is possible for Australian consumers to find some reliable data and make their own decisions regarding safety rather than the current chasm where you are either for or against GM and never the twain shall meet.