Greens' GM policy conundrum

16 Jan, 2016 01:00 AM

NOBODY can better explain how the Australian Greens can potentially escape the undeniable political and policy conundrum they face over genetically modified crops than Mark Lynas.

Mr Lynas marked a significant shift in the global debate on plant biotechnology in early 2013 when the UK-based environmental activist announced he’d completely changed his views.

“I am also sorry I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid-1990s and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment,” he told the Oxford Farming Conference in an unprecedented public mea-cupla that effectively ended his scientific duplicity.

For the uninitiated, the theory of Mr Lynas 101 goes something like this:

‘If you continually scare consumers by spreading misinformation about cropping biotechnology but try and claim the high moral ground on climate change or environmental issues by using evidence provided by the same scientific agencies that declare GM crops safe to human health and the environment, it’s impossible to maintain public or professional credibility’.

This week, Mr Lynas spoke at the American Farm Bureau Federation Annual Convention in Florida to further explain why he suddenly shifted camps and now supports the science of GM crops.

“As a scientist, you must have data to back up what you’re saying,” he told the conference.

“And I realized I wasn’t holding myself to the same scientific standards on GMOs as I applied to my research on climate change.

“You can’t pick and choose where you use science to back up your argument:

“You have to be consistent.”

Mr Lynas told the conference he now worked with Cornell University to help develop GM crops to boost the cause of farmers in developing countries and grow better crops without pesticides.

Meanwhile last week back in Australia, Greens leader Richard Di Natale ignited an ideological war inside his party after his personal views on GM crops were published in Fairfax Agricultural Media.

The one-time doctor said he had no personal philosophical objection to the science underpinning genetic modification because he’d seen it used in medicine to achieve human health benefits.

“I think if the evidence demonstrates better environmental outcomes, it’s hard to argue with it,” he said.

“I don’t have a blanket objection to GMs but also I’m not saying - and would never say - we should press ahead with all GMO applications because I think that’s really dangerous.”

Senator Di Natale stated he was also concerned about; GM food labelling; intellectual property ownership and corporate control of GM seeds; farmers having a choice; and the development of GMs that incentivises increased on-farm chemical use.

However, the leader’s personal views on GM science - which he’d also previously revealed at the Australian Farm Institute’s conference in early November 2015 - forced the Greens to issue a clarifying statement saying their GM policy hadn’t changed.

They stated the party’s National conference – which was held prior to the interview - had reaffirmed the precautionary principle on that policy.

“GMOs have not been proven safe to human health,” the updated Greens’ policy says.

“The Australian Greens want A moratorium on the release of GMOs into the environment until there is an adequate scientific understanding of their long-term impact on the environment, human and animal health.

“This includes the removal as far as possible of all GMOs from the Australian environment and food supply while the moratorium is in place.”

This week, the Green’s response to President Obama’s final State of the Union address illustrated the ongoing contradiction between their unyielding love of climate change science and blatant disregard for that same science, on plant biotechnology.

Posting on Facebook, Queensland Greens Senator and deputy-leader Larissa Waters highlighted a segment of President Obama’s speech where he stated, ‘If anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You’ll be pretty lonely’.

In making her point clear, Senator Waters then said, “At home, the climate dinosaurs in the Liberal government might not be lonely in their anti-science party but they sure are in the community”.

But unlike Senator Waters, the Green’s leader picked up on another element of President’s speech which had a more acute message to inform this ongoing debate over policy consistency and the science of gene technology.

Mr Obama said 60 years ago when the Russians beat the US into space, “we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there”.

“We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget,” he said.

“We built a space program almost overnight and 12 years later we were walking on the moon.”

Alas, it seems the Greens would prefer to keep Australian farmers grounded in yesterday’s agricultural practices while denying them access to modern plant breeding technologies that most credible scientists agree will help them tackle climate variability and improve sustainability.

The Greens’ leader may have made strong public statements indicating he supports a science and evidence-based approach to GM crops given his medical background.

But whether his party now follows that lead and, therefore, remains trustworthy in backing climate change science into the more mainstream vote-catching political future they seek - remains to be seen.

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


16/01/2016 7:12:03 AM

Journalists such as Colin Bettles seem determined to create a black/white division where one does not exist. Rather, what the Greens have shown is a continuum. Anthropogenic climate change, say the Greens, the scientists, the Academies, and President Obama, is virtually certain. The benefits or threats of GM food are much less certain. Both these views can be derived from evidence-based science, and both these views imply continued research as a matter of urgency. (As a consumer, and not a Green, I demand honest food labelling at the very least.)
John Niven
16/01/2016 7:19:12 AM

One size doesn't fit all. William Farrer genetically modified wheat to resist rust. Some methods may be questionable or even wrong. It is not science that is the problem it is the political interference to manipulate wealth.
18/01/2016 7:32:43 AM

John, Farrer did not produce GM wheat - just improved strains through selective breeding, not introduced genes from elsewhere. And it's not (direct) political interference. Politicians have created the environment in which corporate behaviour is unregulated, so that consumer-capitalism can flourish. The remarkable science of today's big biotech corporations is motivated by profit, rather than the quest for knowledge or the betterment of the human community. It's not illegal - but is it good? So I want the option of informed choice, non-commercial information and honest labelling.
Fran Murrell
18/01/2016 8:39:49 AM

Mark Lynas is not a scientist and did not start the anti-GM movement in the UK. With such poor research it's not surprising the rest of the article is similarly wrong. GM plants are designed to either create a toxin to kill insects or be sprayed with weedkiller. Unsurprisingly superpests and superweeds unable to be killed have developed in response. Great for the GM companies that sell the pesticides as well as the GM seed, not so good for the rest of us, including farmers. All science shows we need agroecology to feed us in a changing climate. It uses knowledge and not patents and poisons.
21/01/2016 6:29:36 AM

Recently a study in "Molecular nutrition and food research" showed that bingeing on processed foods on weekends increased weight gain and changed insulin regulation as opposed to a healthy diet. The link bw processed foods and changed gut biota is becomingly increasingly apparent. Given the large amount of GMO and Glyphosate treated crops in these foods, perhaps it is time to look further than company provided safety assurances. It doesn't matter if its the greens or any other party, the system of safety regulation has failed us and its time for people to demand more.
merri bee
23/01/2016 6:41:48 PM

Agree with all the above comments, even the main point of John who confused selective breeding which is a natural and safe means of improving crops used by humanity for millenia, with genetic engineering. Dont worry John, the GM companies have paid scientists to deliberately confuse this issue, saying "GM is as old as the hills".
Bob Phelps
23/01/2016 10:29:23 PM

Greens GM-free policies were reconfirmed in November with Di Natale as leader. GM is a generic technology with various uses so different criteria can be applied to its processes and products - level of containment or release of living GMOs, the expertise required for their safe use, and the rigour of regulatory oversight for different uses. For instance, it is consistent to accept and promote the clear benefits of nuclear medicine while also rejecting nuclear weapons & power reactors. Nuclear and genetic pollution may both be forever. Let's develop agro-ecological systems instead.
Amorelle Dempster
24/01/2016 7:19:20 PM

It's a sad world when the profit motives of the few multinationals using GMO's patent the food we eat. They are stripping farmers and consumers of their rights. They pay scant attention to the havoc their greed creates to the social fabric, the health of people and the livelihoods of small scale farmers and traditional owners. It's so wrong!


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