Ground Cover West : Ground Cover 047 November-December 2003 - West
THE GENE SCENE 29 NOVEMBER 2003 GMOs AND GENE TECHNOLOGY IN AUSTRALIA By PAULA FITZGERALD, Agrifood Awareness Australia Limited No special case on liability - for now There is considerable discussion taking place around the world on the issue of GM crops and liability. Some believe that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) pose no unique risks and that existing agricultural liability rules should apply, while others argue that agricultural biotechnology is fundamentally different from other forms of breeding, and therefore special liability regimes are required. The Australian Government has chosen not to implement a special liability regime for GMOs, believing that recourse can be sought through common law and existing statute. This is the same approach adopted in most countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada and the USA. New Zealand has taken a similar position in the past, although is currently considering legal reform in this area. Under Australian law, the Gene Technology Regulator may require the licence holder (product developer) to be insured against any damage or injury that may be caused to human health or the environment before a licence can be granted. Different approaches Different countries have implemented different gene technology regulatory frameworks, with Australia's gene technology legislation considered to be one of the most stringent worldwide. While Australia, like many countries, is not considering specific legislation for liability and GMOs, it is interesting to note the examples of Austria and Germany as they appear to be the only major countries to have addressed liability issues relating to GMOs through specific legislation. Under Austrian law, in the event of an accident involving GMOs, the releasing company will be liable for any harm to health, property or the environment, and must return the property to its original state. Companies must also obtain enough liability insurance to cover themselves. German law imposes liability for injury to property or human health "caused by characteristics of an organism created in a biotechnological process". German regulations place liability at the manager level, which is likely to expose farmers (as installation managers) to liability. German law also makes liability insurance mandatory for GM operators. Why not implement new liability laws? There are a number of reasons why many countries have chosen not to implement particular legal liability regimes or mandatory insurance for agricultural biotechnology: The existing legal regime may be considered sufficient in scope and flexibility to adequately address liability issues associated with agricultural biotechnology; A special regime that imposes strict liability for any and all damage caused by GMOs may be a disincentive to scientific inquiry and to impose extra, unnecessary costs upon a beneficial, emerging technology; Similarly, imposing mandatory insurance may stifle innovation should such insurance be unobtainable. This is a brief summary of information in a newly launched report, 'GMOs and Liability Issues', by the Federal Government's Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. For more information: www.affa.gov.au/agbiotech 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. Farmer responses to GM crops In August 2003, Biotechnology Australia released a nationwide study of 500 crop growers' attitudes to GM crops. According to Biotechnology Australia, the survey indicated that "while cautious, farmers had not dismissed GM crops". Key findings of the survey were: 49 percent of farmers were opposed to GM crops; 74 percent of farmers surveyed were not considering using GM crops at this stage. However, if the perceived problems of the new varieties were resolved, 57 percent of growers would consider planting them; The main reasons farmers gave for opposing GM crops were that the performance was not proven (39 percent); market access limitations (18 percent); and potential for pollen flow between GM and conventional crops (10 percent); About 60 percent of respondents believed GM crops were likely to deliver benefits such as reduced use of chemicals (63 percent), increased effectiveness of weed and insect control (60 percent) and increased yields (64 percent); 62 percent of farmers supported field trials of GM crops. For more information: www.biotechnology.gov.au Grains Council of Australia (GCA) NSW Farmers' Association (NSWFA) Victorian Farmers' Federation (VFF) The GCA states that with appropriate procedures and standards in place prior to the commercial release of any GM crops, the crops have the potential to deliver benefits for farmers. The GCA believes benefits may potentially be gained from GM crops (such as from improved disease and pest resistance, better agronomic traits or through savings from farming practices such as reduced till or reduced chemical applications). Further, GCA believes Australian growers should have the opportunity to choose the best production system to suit their needs, be that GM or non-GM. The NSWFA formed a biotechnology taskforce in 2000 to consider the issues surrounding gene technology, develop policy and communicate the technology to its grassroot members. Policy has been endorsed at the association's annual conference each year. The association's current policy covers biotechnology as a whole and also focuses on the possible introduction of GM canola into Australia. The association's policies are: The association supports continued research into, and trialing and testing of, individual GM agricultural products and the release of GM products provided the appropriate regulatory authority stringently assesses all possible food safety and environmental risks, and that the release offers substantial benefits to Australia's agricultural industries; The association also supports monitoring trials of GM canola to ensure compliance with the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) and the postponement of the general release plans for GM canola until all identity preservation issues affecting marketing and trade issues are fully addressed by Government and the industry; Support is also detailed for a three-year trial of GM canola in NSW (up to a maximum of 5000 hectares per annum) as a condition of the license issued by the OGTR, and/or as legislation of the NSW State Government, with these trial results made publicly available with an appropriate timeframe for industry comment before any commercial release. The association supports the creation of an independent GM canola committee to monitor and report publicly on the three-year trial (5000 ha/pa) of GM canola in NSW. The VFF in principle supports gene technology as detailed in its current policy statement. The VFF's existing policy recognises and supports gene technology as a tool for improving the functional properties of food and fibre produced on farms, improving the long-term sustainability of agricultural production systems and increasing agricultural productivity and profits, provided the concerns and recognised risks associated with the technology are managed. The federation supports the development of an integrated and science-based regulatory framework for controlling scientific research into gene technology and the use of GMO's by industry. It believes there must also be a provision for recognised industry bodies to have input into the decision-making process based on strategic and marketing issues. The VFF recognises the integrity of the regulatory regime is critical to maintaining public confidence in the technology. It also recognises that Australian farmers must have access to appropriate technology at reasonable prices to remain internationally competitive, and farmers should have the right to choose what technologies are used in their production system, be that organic or the use of gene technologies that have been endorsed by Australian regulatory authorities. All commodity groups of the VFF are bound by this policy developed at their annual conference in 2001. At the VFF's most recent annual conference held last July, the following resolution was supported: "The VFF seek independent regional variety trials of GM and non-GM crops showing yield and costs of seed and chemicals including the control of volunteer plants in the following years." Biotechnology policies of farm groups Farm groups around the country are currently discussing GM crops, and many have developed policies on the topic. A few of the policies feature below and further farm group biotechnology policies will be covered in the next Gene Scene column. Joining the debate: Nobel laureate and advocate for GM technologies in agriculture, Dr Norman Borlaug (right), in conversation with SA grain grower John Lush during a visit to Australia earlier this year to promote and explain biotechnologies.
Ground Cover 048 February-March 2004 - West