Threat to Choice Leaves Bitter Taste in GM Debate

Some moral questions reduce to empirical ones. Where you stand and what you’ll stand up for turns entirely on the facts.

Have the NSW and Victorian governments done the right thing by lifting the moratorium on the commercial cultivation of genetically modified crops, starting with canola? Both governments have sold the decision as one about choice. Lifting the ban allows farmers to choose to plant, and consumers to choose to eat or wear, GM crops.

But in the same way that the freedom to swing my fist ends where the tip of your nose begins, the rights of those wanting to cultivate and consume GM terminate at the point where this choice stops me making a different one. And this takes us to the factual question of whether anti-GM groups are right that cultivating these crops is the beginning of the end of non-GM agriculture, or whether the proponents of GM are correct to insist that segregation and coexistence are possible.

My reading of the evidence compiled in the two expert reviews commissioned to review the ban – both of which recommended lifting it – concede that contamination by GM crops of non-GM foods, organic and conventional, is inevitable.

For conventional crops, even effective supply chain management will see non-GM food contaminated by the “low level presence” of GM materials that grain industry standards allow.

A similar level of contamination is also seen as inevitable in organic produce but, unlike the grain industry, the organic one has zero tolerance for GM. To be certified organic, produce must have no GM at all. To solve this problem, the review panel suggests that current definitions of organic be softened, as has been done in Europe. “In the European Union, agriculture ministers have agreed to amend the regulation of organic food to allow a non-zero threshold (.9 per cent) for the unintentional presence of approved GM material in certified organic products”.

The proffering of such solutions to the risks of contamination, rather than a strict liability regime that would hold the GM farmer and seed supplier responsible for all losses incurred as a consequence of contamination, reflects the positive disposition of experts handpicked by government to conduct the review had towards the technology from the start. It’s politics, and that’s the way things go.

But when the NSW review expresses the view that contamination of non-GM crops by GM is not “catastrophic,” and a member of the Victorian review panel says in an interview that field contamination of conventionally-grown canola with the GM is nothing to worry about because “there is no danger or disadvantages to GM canola,” it’s hard to trust that the recommendations made by the reviews have to manage the introduction of the technology into Australia have the protection of non-GM enthusiasts forefront in their minds.

The thing about food is just that: it’s food. We baste and sprinkle and flambé it, but in the end food must be honoured as a gift from the planet essential t our survival. For some, the preciousness of food leads to the adoption of the precautionary principle when it comes to GM: a nay-saying born of a fear that the indeterminate risks of the technology to human health and welfare could be so high, we need to turn away.

But we don’t need to say, no. We just need to ensure governments stay true to their word that in the brave new world of GM food, we’ll all have a choice.

Publication history

Threat to Choice Leaves Bitter Taste in GM Debate  Sun-Herald (Sydney)