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GM Canola

November 28th, 2007

The recent announcement that the production of genetically modifed canola will be permitted suggests that the long controversy over the GM issue is drawing to a close, with a reasonable chance of an outcome that should be satisfactory to most.

GM foods can be produced and sold in Australia, but, in general, must be labelled as such. Producers and consumers can decide to avoid GM if they want to, but those who are willing to embrace GM will not be prevented from doing so. There’s a problem here in relation to canola, since it’s mostly processed into oil for use in margarine and other products and this isn’t covered by the current labelling requirements – this should be fixed.

The policy decision reflects a pretty clear scientific consensus that the products in question are safe to consume, and also a long period of experimental work with genetic modification. With a few exceptions (notably those driven by Monsanto in the US), this work has been carried out with admirable caution, beginning with the Asilomar conference in 1975, which may be seen as the first application of the precautionary principle. Given the experience of the past thirty years, and the scientific understanding that has developed over that time, it seems pretty clear that any risks associated with GM are modest and manageable, not the potential catastrophes that worried the participants at Asilomar.

The outcome of the GM policy process has been criticised from two directions. Supporters of a continued ban have made various arguments, but two deserve particular attention. First, there are claims about health risks. The problem for this argument is that rigorous scientific assessment hasn’t found any convincing evidence of serious risks. Perhaps, as this article claims, there are allergy problems associated with some products. But, as the article itself predicts, if so, consumers will reject those products and producers will go out of business.

Second, there’s the possibility of cross-contamination of non-GM crops by GM neighbours, which would remove the option, for producers and consumers, of avoiding GM. It appears that the systems in place to prevent this, while not infallible, are pretty good. As with all kinds of products of the modern world, from pesticides to electromagnetic waves, it’s probably impossible for anyone to avoid GM food completely. But most people averse to consuming GM foods (for whatever reason) will be satisfied with 99 per cent, and those who aren’t can’t expect to impose their preferences on the rest of us.

On the other side is the position, that, in the absence of proof of harm, there should be no requirement for labelling. This view was pushed successfully by Monsanto in the US, but the end result was to increase public distrust and slow the acceptance of the process. Those who are now complaining about the time it’s taken to allow production in Australia should know where to point the finger.

Finally, it’s worth comparing this debate with that over climate change. There’s a superficial symmetry in the sense that GM is an issue where lots of environmentalists are opposed to the consensus view of mainstream science. But the debate has been conducted sensibly and there’s been nothing like the vitriolic politicisation we’ve seen over climate change (except in contributions from rightwing culture warriors trying to cover their own anti-science position with tu quoque slurs) Moreover, while Green parties have maintained an anti-GM position, the socialist/social democratic/labour left has generally followed the science, in sharp contrast with the embrace of delusionism by the US Republicans and their followers.

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  1. 2 tanners
    November 28th, 2007 at 08:54 | #1

    About time.

    As for your last point, I disagree. With Prince Charles lending his royal ignorance to any anti-GM movement and campaigners running scare campaigns about “frankenfoods” I haven’t exactly seen reason and light replacing sound and fury.

    However, one difference is that the boot is on the other foot. This time, it’s the anti-delusionists who are the rich corporates.

    Green movements that object to fewer pesticides, greater yield and higher nutritional content in products are conflicted to say the very least. They are also prepared to run the ‘no action until proven safe beyond any possible doubt’ argument here, while taking the ‘balance of scientific opinion’ stance in relation to AGW.

  2. Tom N.
    November 28th, 2007 at 09:45 | #2


    Nice post John. The labelling issue troubles me though. If GM really is safe (or, at least, no less safe than most other things) as the science says, then why should consumers who don’t buy the green scare campaign have to bear the labelling costs (assuming, reasonably, a pass on of these costs into the price). Why not allow “GM-free” as a labelling option for those producers who think sufficient customers will value that information sufficiently to justify the labelling costs on their products?

  3. melanie
    November 28th, 2007 at 09:53 | #3

    You might be right about the anti-GM argument. It’s not something I’ve followed terribly closely. But I did have the impression that it was more about (a) loss of diversity through contamination and (b) putting more control into the hands of corporations rather than farmers. These appear to be problems of the industrialisation of agriculture rather than of GM per se. But it does seem to be another nail in the coffin of counter-culture/traditional farming technologies.

  4. Cris B.
    November 28th, 2007 at 10:02 | #4

    Tom, on labelling: the consumer shouldn’t have to justify their reasoning for their choices to corporations. I might want to buy non-GM products because I don’t want to my money to end up with Monsanto and similar. Or I might want to ensure that products *do* contain GM, on the grounds that they reduce pesticide use.

    By making safety the determinant of whether or not labelling is necessary, you’re prejudging what consumers have a right to consider. I’d put the onus on those who want to enter the food market to tell consumers exactly what they are selling. Consumers can than choose what they want to buy on any basis they please, regardless of whether or not corporations (or any other gatekeepers) consider those grounds rational.

  5. November 28th, 2007 at 10:10 | #5

    John you’ve concentrated on the arguments relating to the safety of GM foods for consumption but as melanie suggests, there are important production issues as well. Too many to list here and I’m no expert anyway, but they can be summarised in two main points I think:

    (1) Loss of diversity will cause unanticipated consequences (e.g. a single, currently-unknown vulnerability to a disease could wipe out the entire crop as happened with the Irish potato blight). There is simply insufficient data to make an informed decision.

    (2) To the extent that safe use of GM crops depends on humans observing prescribed procedures, there will inevitably be breaches. To illustrate the point, look no further than the recent equine flu outbreak.

    This is not necessarily to argue that GM crops should be banned, but the issues are more complex than whether they are safe to eat.

  6. Hermit
    November 28th, 2007 at 10:15 | #6

    The GM/GW connection is that we rely heavily on Brassica family plants (canola, cabbage etc) which are under attack from not only humidity loving insects but lack of liquid water and expensive fertiliser. Thus something like the Irish Potato Famine could re-occur but for this family of plants. Unfortunately cross pollination may mean that weeds like wild mustard won’t respond to insect bio-control or mild herbicides. People will suffer discomfort regardless of food choice. So it’s yet possible this could turn out to be a huge mistake.

    I think as a result of litigation agriculture may tend to split into very hardy outdoor non-GM crops (eg barley) and indoor hydroponics, with commensurate changes to diet.

  7. November 28th, 2007 at 10:21 | #7

    I’d like a label on all packaged food products that tells me how much government subsidies went into the production process. I don’t want to support products that increase taxation. 😉

  8. melanie
    November 28th, 2007 at 10:28 | #8

    Terje, after your drubbing on Saturday, try doing a Turnbull and get off the bandwagon!

  9. Chris
    November 28th, 2007 at 10:37 | #9

    My issue with GM is unrelated to safety. I object to corporations claiming plant genomes as their intellectual property. It leads to situations where companies no longer sell seeds, but sell licenses to grow seeds for a single year – if you plant the seeds but don’t renew your license, you’re in breach of their copyright. I’ve got nothing against GM as long as it’s open-source GM.

  10. Tom N.
    November 28th, 2007 at 10:44 | #10

    I agree, ChrisB, that consumers should not have to justify their preferences to corporations. However, the basis for (some) consumers wanting particular information is highly relevant to the actual issue I raised in response to John’s post: ie, whether governments should regulate to require corporations to supply that information. Information and its provision are not costless; in this case, imposing GM labelling requirements would impose costs (passed on in the form of higher prices) on all consumers, but would only benefit those consumers who cared about whether the products they are consuming contain GM ingredients. Thus, this is not a “consumer vs evil corporations” issue: it is a “consumer vs consumer” issue. Accordingly, the real (rather than imagined) value of the information is very important in determining whether its disclosure should be made mandatory.

  11. November 28th, 2007 at 10:48 | #11

    Very nice post. Raises a lot of questions.

    I am edgy about GM foods, but not opposed to them on principle. I would be opposed to a blanket-approval of GM foods in general, especially without strict labelling, and I think a case-by-case approach is necessary.

    First, I don’t think the labelling costs would be significant enough to affect product prices at all. And, if GM increases yield significantly, we should see an overall cost decrease. If the financial cost of responsible labelling was so significant as to risk the profitability of the industry, then the industry is not viable and shouldn’t go ahead. Labelling is essential, from a social responsibility standpoint, even if just for peace of mind.

    A major problem lies in the assumption that GM foods necessarily mean “fewer pesticides, greater yield and higher nutritional content in products” as ‘2 tanners’ suggested above. In many cases, (eg. Roundup Ready Crops) GM means that plant crops are able to withstand harsher pesticides or greater doses than they ordinarily would. ‘Greater yield’ through faster-growing crops can simply mean, for example, larger fruits with a greater water content, effectively reducing the ‘nutrient density’ or quality of the food. ‘Greater nutrient content’ also means that fertiliser use must be increased dramatically to provide those soil nutrients. GM foods may also allow crops to be produced in settings that would not have been previously possible. (For example higher temperatures and lower water conditions brought about by climate change, or for temperate crops to shift to tropical regions etc…) This should raise the question of whether we think this is A Good Thing, or does it provide an excuse for farmers to mis-manage their current agricultural systems and over-exploit the resources in agriculturally-inappropriate locations?

    Farmers and consumers need to have full information about the effects and science of each crop that they would consider using or buying.

    There is also a problem in the assumption that GM foods are ‘generally’ nutritionally safe, when the science would analyse the ‘specific’ safety, crop-by-crop.

    Safety and nutrition varies greatly between crops, and also within the same crop when considering different types of genetic modification. When you are messing with biology, literally creating new DNA and thus new forms of life, you must continue to be rigourous and test the safety of EVERY modification.

    And we haven’t even begun to discuss the legal effects of crop-contamination, or the economic/ethical effects of ‘terminator genes’ in a developing world context.

  12. brian
    November 28th, 2007 at 11:39 | #12

    This pice by John has got to be one of the most misinformed of any academic….
    I suggest you look thru http://www.gmwatch.org/p1temp.asp?pid=1&page=1
    Which will show you a list of the sort of persons and companies pushing GM…a shady bunch.

    Or read Jeffrey Smiths new article:

    Farmers and scientists unite to decry increased entry of GMOs!

    You seem to treatt Monsanto as a small player, and not a major public menace, which has already taekne farmers to court onto whose farm their seeds blow….

    1. ‘The problem for this argument is that rigorous scientific assessment hasn’t found any convincing evidence of serious risks. Perhaps, as this article claims, there are allergy problems associated with some products. But, as the article itself predicts, if so, consumers will reject those products and producers will go out of business.’

    What rigrous scientific assessment? You mean by scientists funded by Monsanto and other industries? Have you even assessed these studies?
    Why do you suppose the EU has banned GM??? It wouldnt if the ‘rigorous scientific assessments’ said GM was safe…
    In fact lots of rigorous studies show it is UNSAFE.
    Or have you forgotten the Showa Denko Tryptophan disaster:

    When will they reject the product? After they find they find they are now allergic? How will they get rid of the GM INSIDE their bodies?
    You actually admit its ok to knowingly let loose an allergen onto the public! Thats amazing! Its also criminal

    More later…

  13. derrida derider
    November 28th, 2007 at 11:46 | #13

    “When you are messing with biology, literally creating new DNA and thus new forms of life, you must continue to be rigourous and test the safety of EVERY modification.”
    LOL – on this criterion the only crops we’d be growing are einkorn wheat and primitive barleys.

    The trouble with the “don’t allow it unless its proven to do no harm” line is that it’s very hard to prove a negative. Rather than interpreting the precautionary principle as “never do anything that’s irreversible” we should be interpeting it as “balance the known risks against the known benefits, with irreversibility being just one of the weights in “known risks”.

    The former makes innovation impossible, for all innovations are irreversible. But I realise that for some agricualtural Utopians this is a feature rather than a bug.

  14. Bruce Bradbury
    November 28th, 2007 at 12:12 | #14

    I’m quite happy to eat GM foods. However, it seems reasonable that some consumers won’t want to. Hence there should be a substantial market for non-GM crops (which can be voluntarily labelled as such).

    My concern is for the farmers trying to grown non-GM crops. Can they sue neighbouring GM farmers if cross-pollination destroys their livelihood? If not, why not?

  15. Anna K
    November 28th, 2007 at 12:17 | #15

    The precautionary principle is that ‘lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as an excuse not to protect against causing irreversible environmental harm’. So while the PP does NOT say ‘don’t do it unless its proven to do no harm,’ it DOES say ‘don’t do it if there is a risk that irreversible harm may occur’

    So yes, you have to reasonably rule out irreversible harm in EVERY case of Genetic Modification (which, by the way, is different to hybridisation and selective breeding, which you refer to with your ‘einkorn wheat and primitive barleys’.) Just because putting a fish gene in corn turns out to be ok, doesn’t mean that a peanut gene in wheat will be. Test everything stringently, ensure that it does agricultural and general economic good rather than greater profit alone, then I’ll consider eating it.

  16. Charlie Bell
    November 28th, 2007 at 12:22 | #16

    JQ wrote “Second, there’s the possibility of cross-contamination of non-GM crops by GM neighbours, which would remove the option, for producers and consumers, of avoiding GM. It appears that the systems in place to prevent this, while not infallible, are pretty good.�

    JQ, as a practicing plant breeder and population geneticist, I think this is an overestimation of the ability to control gene movement from GM crops to non-GM crops. That’s why there is an ongoing push to increase the level of GM contamination allowed in non-GM products. It is extremely difficult to prevent GM contamination of non-GM crops, and to allow GM crops is an almost certain end to “organicâ€? foods from those plant species involved. While I don’t particularly take sides in this argument we do need to realise that we can’t have GM crops and organic crops within many kilometres of each other, and we have to decide on any need for compensation for loss of existing markets.

    I agree with the earlier comments that we should have a food labelling process, if that’s what consumers want, as a moral issue alone. But, I think that food labelling is a much wider issue than just relating it to GM produce. We already do meat tracking for the Japanese market for general food safety reasons. We already have much food labelling to satisfy consumer desires about product origins and health options. GM/non-GM labelling is just one more in a whole list of properties that should be on the label. The consumer pays for “organic� labelling and “made in Australia� labelling, so I presume they will also pay for “GM� labelling.

    If you add the risks of loss of diversity from contaminating the natural gene pools and from reduced numbers of commercial breeding lines because each line that is genetically modified costs a small fortune, then I think we should still be taking slow and cautious steps into the GM world.

  17. Tom N.
    November 28th, 2007 at 12:39 | #17

    Actually, Anna K, there are several variants of the PP, from weak to strong. The formulation that you mentioned – “don’t do it if there is a risk that irreversible harm may occur” – is a stronger version, and if followed would result in many welfare-enhancing innovations not proceeding. More sensible formulations of the PP recognise that while irreversible effects deserve extra weight, they do not deserve infinite weight.

  18. Ernestine Gross
    November 28th, 2007 at 12:54 | #18

    Sure, the risks are manageable – for some. It takes a lot of financially little people to put in a few dollars each to launch a legal challenge to a big multinational.

  19. Fozzy
    November 28th, 2007 at 14:14 | #19

    John I’ve tended to align with the anti-GM view, but I’ve found your arguments convincing. I suppose another comparison is with the effects of mobile phones. There is a possible radiation issue but the population seems to consider the benefits outweigh the risks.

    The one outstanding concern I have with GM is what happens if a problem is discovered years down the track? I would like to see possible penalties/compensation be very harsh – e.g. dissolution of the company responsible.

    I should add I would hope this would never be required.

    However, I feel this would send the correct signals to the stock market and employees to ensure the companies are properly and fully focusing on the safety of GM products. There would be favourable consideration given to companies who notify early of possible harmful consequences.

    Great Piece!

  20. brian
    November 28th, 2007 at 14:53 | #20

    JQ wrote “Second, there’s the possibility of cross-contamination of non-GM crops by GM neighbours, which would remove the option, for producers and consumers, of avoiding GM. It appears that the systems in place to prevent this, while not infallible, are pretty good.�

    Exactly what systems are in place? And dont you think that the very need for such Quaranting shouldnt set off alarm bells? Why is JQ peddling GM at all…This puts him in the same class as Monsanto. He cant be doing it because it wil feed the poor…The state labor(???) govts excuse is money! Its a cash crop.

  21. observa
    November 28th, 2007 at 15:12 | #21

    It’s somewhat ironic we should be talking about GM canola when canola itself is a very hybridised cultivar of rapeseed. That and the fact that ‘rape’ in rapeseed might offend some consumer sensibilities made the new name ‘Canola’ a logical choice for the Canadian Oilseed Association or some such where it all started. Let’s trust the Canadians don’t get stroppy like French winemakers and the labelling pedants aren’t even more confused with Rapeola, Ozola, Monsantola or Methoda la Canola and the like on their supermarket shelves real soon.

    The problem of long term safety of GM aside, there is clearly a problem of externalities with GM crops. That’s why Japanese buyers recently agreed to buy all of SA’s Kangaroo Island’s GM free Canola crop at a hefty premium recently. http://www.abc.net.au/rural/news/content/2007/s2077259.htm
    Clearly these sorts of premia are threatened by the relaxation of GM crop bans and it will be difficult to ask for compensation if the inevitable happens. Like legal asbestos and tobacco,(and now add fossil fuels) there should be no comeback on private individuals or corporate entities for legally engaging in the trade of any communally accepted product. Until such time as we as a community ban a product or behaviour, it should be perfectly legal to continue to trade. It’s our call via our govts and if we get it wrong it’s down to us to wear it communally.

  22. observa
    November 28th, 2007 at 15:20 | #22

    “Why is JQ peddling GM at all…This puts him in the same class as Monsanto.”

    Err, excuse me brian, but would you like to explain your stance on stem cell research, IVF and even unnatural intervention like abortion, or are you just another cherrypicking, naturalist green when it suits you? The people who do these things get paid to do them too it may surprise you to know and many even work for companies who…gulp…make profits.

  23. brian
    November 28th, 2007 at 15:27 | #23

    JQ pushing GM, but as hes an Economist he depends like the rest of us on qualified expertise. His experts , his ‘scientific consensus’ seems to think GM is safe to eat….But it takes only one nay case to bring those experts into doubt:

    Female rats whose diets were supplemented with genetically modified (GM) Roundup Ready soybeans gave birth to many severely stunted pups, with over half of the litter dead by three weeks, and the surviving pups were sterile [1] ( GM Soya Fed Rats: Stunted, Dead, or Sterile , SiS 33 ). This is the first time that anyone has investigated the effects of GM feed on reproductive function, foetal and neonatal development, in an experiment lasting more than 90 days, a period set by the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) [2], and the GM soya has been commercialised worldwide for food and feed since 1996.

    Like a long string of scientists who have tried to tell the public what they have found, Dr. Irina Ermakova, senior scientist of the Russian Academy of Sciences who heads the investigation, has had her funding cut, and is now strongly discouraged from continuing with the research. She is pleading for other scientists to repeat her experiment to see if they can replicate her results.

    Ermakova’s findings are not an isolated case. They top a growing stack of evidence accumulated from all over the world, indicating that GM food and feed may be inherently hazardous to health (see Box 1). GM crops are also proving disastrous for agriculture [3, 4] ( Roundup Ready Sudden Death, Superweeds, Allergens… , Scientists Confirm Failures of Bt-Crops , SiS 28), which is all the more reason they should be banned.

    Box 1
    Accumulating evidence on the health hazards of GM food and feed

    1. Between 2005 and 2006, scientists at the Russian Academy of Sciences reported that female rats fed glyphosate-tolerant GM soybeans produced excessive numbers of severely stunted pups and more than half of the litter dying within three weeks, while the surviving pups are completely sterile (see main article).

    2. Between 2004 and 2005, hundreds of farm workers and cotton handlers in Madhya Pradesh, India, suffered allergy symptoms from exposure to Bt cotton [5] ( More Illnesses Linked to Bt Crops , SiS 30).

    3. Between 2005 and 2006, thousands of sheep died after grazing on Bt cotton crop residues in four villages in the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh in India [6] ( Mass Deaths in Sheep Grazing on Bt Cotton , SiS 30).

    4. In 2005, scientists at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Canberra Australia tested a transgenic pea containing a normally harmless protein in bean (alpha-amylase inhibitor 1), and found it caused inflammation in the lungs of mice and provoked sensitivities to other proteins in the diet [7] ( Transgenic Pea that Made Mice Ill , SiS 29)

    5. From 2002 to 2005, scientists at the Universities of Urbino, Perugia and Pavia in Italy published reports indicating that GM-soya fed to young mice affected cells in the pancreas, liver and testes [8] ( GM Ban Long Overdue , SiS 29)

    6. In 2003, villagers in the south of the Philippines suffered mysterious illnesses when a Monsanto Bt maize hybrid came into flower; antibodies to the Bt protein were found in the villagers, there have been at least five unexplained deaths and some remain ill to this day [8]

    7. In 2004, Monsanto’s secret research dossier showed that rats fed MON863 GM maize developed serious kidney and blood abnormalities [9] (see main text).

    8. Between 2001 and 2002, a dozen cows died in Hesse Germany after eating Syngenta GM maize Bt176, and more in the herd had to be slaughtered from mysterious illnesses [10] ( Cows Ate GM Maize & Died , SiS 21)

    9. In 1998, Dr . Arpad Pusztai and colleagues formerly of the Rowett Institute in Scotland reported damage in every organ system of young rats fed GM potatoes containing snowdrop lectin, including a stomach lining twice as thick as controls [11]

    10. Also in 1998, scientists in Egypt found similar effects in the gut of mice fed Bt potato [12]
    11. The US Food and Drug Administration had data dating back to early 1990s showing that rats fed GM tomatoes with antisense gene to delay ripening had developed small holes in their stomach [11]

    12. In 2002, Aventis company (later Bayer
    Cropscience) submitted data to UK regulators showing that chickens fed glufosinate-tolerant GM maize Chardon LL were twice as likely to die compared with controls [13] ( Animals Avoid GM Food, for Good Reasons , SiS 21 ).


    IS JQ or any of you aware of these cases? Mae Wan Ho of Isis.org.uk is a qualified geneticist, and he views on GM are very different to JQ ‘scientific consensus’….

  24. brian
    November 28th, 2007 at 15:36 | #24

    On Ansilomar, JQ writes:
    ‘beginning with the Asilomar conference in 1975, which may be seen as the first application of the precautionary principle. Given the experience of the past thirty years, and the scientific understanding that has developed over that time, it seems pretty clear that any risks associated with GM are modest and manageable, not the potential catastrophes that worried the participants at Asilomar. ‘

    But a bit of internet surfing turns up the following:

    ‘There is a curious tension in accounts of the Asilomar conference. The conference has been lauded as an exceptional event in which scientists voluntarily sacrificed immediate progress in their research in order to ensure that the field would develop safely. At the same time, many, perhaps most, of the participants resisted questions raised about the implications of their work and simply wanted to proceed. Self-interest, not altruism, was most evident at Asilomar.

    Eyewitness accounts (and the conference tapes) make it clear that all moves to address the social problems posed by this field in advance of its development were firmly suppressed.

    The tension disappears, however, if we understand Asilomar as an effort to justify a form of technology that is likely to be socially disruptive. In essence, Asilomar was about fashioning a set of beliefs for the American people and their representatives in Congress that would allow scientists to pursue genetic engineering under a system of self-governance. Equally important, it was about persuading the scientists to accept the degree of self-sacrifice that was needed for such a strategy to be effective.

    1 The Politics of Asilomar

    The decisions that led up to the Asilomar meeting were made exclusively within the scientific community.

    ‘Meeting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in April 1974, the Berg committee produced three main recommendations: first, a pause in some experiments; second, the Asilomar conference; and finally, in a move whose political significance was largely missed at the time, a proposal to the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to establish an advisory committee to explore the hazards of the new field, develop procedures for minimizing them, and draft guidelines for research. All these recommendations were acted upon.

    By the time participants gathered at Asilomar, the NIH committee (composed almost exclusively of people with actual or potential INTERESTS in genetic engineering) had been appointed, defined as a “technical committee,” and charged with investigating the hazards and, on that basis, developing guidelines for NIH grantees. The committee held its first meeting the day after the conference ended.(2)


    So we see, that Asilomar was not about public participation or social concern. Look at what the author says about the NIH committee…..and who is on it. Genetic engineers would be just as likely as any monsanto exec to turn a blind eye to hazards that might endanger their private scientific fiefdoms.

    Id recomment people to read the whole of Susan Wrights article…you can be sure JQ hasnt read it or has and, like any scientific consensus, chooses to ignore it.

  25. brian
    November 28th, 2007 at 15:55 | #25

    Lets continue with JQ article:

    ‘The problem for this argument is that rigorous scientific assessment hasn’t found any convincing evidence of serious risks’

    This is a carefully worded claim. Key words are ‘rigorous’ ‘scientific’ ‘convincing’. The last word esp as JQ doesnt define what he means by ‘convincing’. He implies there is contrary evidence to the ‘scientific consensus view that GM technology is safe. But that its been examined and found to be of little concern.

    I disagree. My post above, number 23, finds plenty of hazards that i find convincing. The Genetic engineers of Asilomar might not…but they’d be wrong.

    The list is not complete: there are some other cases of GM technology creating hazardous substances.

    1. Human Insulin:
    Its not well known that insulin is now genetically engineered, or that it has some interesting properties:

    ‘Report highlighted coma dangers to 15,000 sufferers who were switched to genetically-engineered human substitute:
    Evidence that thousands of diabetics in Britain may have suffered a deterioration in their health from genetically-engineered insulin has been withheld by the British Diabetics Association, whose role is to advise patients and to protect their interests.
    The evidence was contained in a report, commissioned by the association and completed in 1993, which highlighted dangers faced by about 10 per cent of the 150,000 diabetics who had been switched from the traditional animal-derived insulin to genetically-engineered human insulin.

    Some adversely affected began, without warning, to go into comas, known as hypoglycaemic episodes or ,hypos”. Same suffered severe injuries, a few crashed their cars, and others believed they would have died had they not been rescued as they lay unconscious. An estimated 15,000 people may still suffer because they are injecting themselves twice a day with insulin that may not suit them.

    Many doctors are unaware of the problem, or have failed to put their patients back on animal insulin because they do not know it is still available. The association says it did not publish the report because it was ,,too alarmist”. Simon O’Neill, head of diabetes care services, said the association agreed that up to 20 % of insulin injectors preferred animal insulin and had experienced difficulties with genetically-engineered insulin. He added that the association had published a report, The Insulin Debate, which kept members informed of developments, and campaigned to keep animal insulin available to sufferers.

    Genetically-engineered insulin is manufactured by the drug companies, the Danish Novo Nordisk and Elli Lilly. Neither accepts that the genetically-engineered version has negative effects.

    The report was compiled following 3,000 letters of complaint over two years about the new insulin from association members. The letters told how lives had deteriorated after being switched to genetically-engineered human insulin. Eight out of 10 of a sample of the complainants examined by independent researchers said they could no longer control their symptoms and had lost warning signs of impending comas. The main conclusions from the letters were:

    Half the patients had no warning of passing out with hypos once on the new drug.
    A quarter said such episodes were more frequent, and one in five said they were more severe.
    Thirteen per cent said they became unconscious at night and 5 per cent suffered convulsions.
    Ten per cent had memory loss and another 9 percent were unable to concentrate.

    Has the ‘scientific consensus’ considered this evidence?

    Then theres TNG14112…an immunomodulatory drug, that was tried on human volunteers, with disastrous results:

    ‘In its first human clinical trials, in March 2006, it caused catastrophic systemic failure in the subjects, despite being administered at a supposed sub-clinical dose of 0.1 mg per kg, some 500 times lower than the dose found safe in animals,[3] resulting in the hospitalization of six volunteers on 13 March 2006. At least four of these suffered multiple organ dysfunction, and one trial volunteer is said to be showing signs of developing cancer. The developing company, TeGenero Immuno Therapeutics, entered into insolvency proceedings later in 2006. Tentative opinions from an as-yet uncompleted inquiry suggest that the problems arose due to “unforeseen biological action in humans”, rather than breach of trial protocols, and the case therefore has had important ramifications for future trials of potentially powerful clinical agents.

    That phrase: ‘unforeseen biological action in humans’ is why GM is so dangerous, ad why it should be shelved. Because the ‘scientific consenses’ cant forsee everything, and is just as likely to turna blind eye as it has with GM human insulin.

    So JQ is dead wrong when he says:
    ‘The policy decision reflects a pretty clear scientific consensus that the products in question are safe to consume’

    No they are not.

  26. jquiggin
    November 28th, 2007 at 15:59 | #26

    I’m well aware of a number of these reports, Brian. I’m also aware of similar evidence on most of the issues where I choose to follow the overwhelming weight of evidence and scientific opinion, rather than that selected by advocates for the minority view – for example, climate change (real), risks of passive smoking (serious), risks of mobile phones (not serious enough to worry me).

  27. brian
    November 28th, 2007 at 16:03 | #27

    JQ writes:
    ‘As with all kinds of products of the modern world, from pesticides to electromagnetic waves, it’s probably impossible for anyone to avoid GM food completely. But most people averse to consuming GM foods (for whatever reason) will be satisfied with 99 per cent, and those who aren’t can’t expect to impose their preferences on the rest of us.’

    Yes, the products of the ‘modern world’ aka ‘industrialised scientific world’ ARE notoriously hazardous. As with GM, the hazards are either ignored (as with EM eg cell phones) or suppressed. because the convenience or benefits are said to outweigh the ‘risks’. Altho a person whose cell phone has given him/her brain cancer may argue that ‘risk’ is a very light weight word.

    the problem with GM is you cant keep it from spreading…How do you plan to keep the pollen from GM plants confined, JQ? Under a glass case?

  28. brian
    November 28th, 2007 at 16:06 | #28

    JQ again: ‘On the other side is the position, that, in the absence of proof of harm, there should be no requirement for labelling. This view was pushed successfully by Monsanto in the US, but the end result was to increase public distrust and slow the acceptance of the process. ‘

    But as weve seen there is plenty of evidence for harm! So how did Monsanto manage to push its case successfully? JQ doesnt say.. but that IS the US,and the US has a fixation on technology. As with VIOXX and SSRIS,adverse events are ignored, until the public experiences them.

    So, JQ why havent you heard of any of the cases of ‘harm’ that ive put forward?

    The public is wise to distrust Monsanto and its ilk, but also to be suspicious of phrases like ‘scientific consensus’.

  29. brian
    November 28th, 2007 at 16:13 | #29

    ‘I’m well aware of a number of these reports, Brian. I’m also aware of similar evidence on most of the issues where I choose to follow the overwhelming weight of evidence and scientific opinion, rather than that selected by advocates for the minority view – for example, climate change (real), risks of passive smoking (serious), risks of mobile phones (not serious enough to worry me).’

    JQ, youre ‘aware’ and choose to ignore.Thats your perogerative. But to push the same hazarous materials onto the public…

    Minority view? Cast your mind back to Ignatz Semmelweiss….he had the minority view that physicians who didnt wash their hands after dissecting corpses could give women in labour puerperal fever. Who would say now that he was wrong?

    Youve not shown us any of this ‘overwhelming weight of evidence’.

    As with drugs like VIOXX and SSRIS the public is being expected is the guinea pig for GM. Your alluding to the Precautionary Principle is ironic, since, you really choose to downplay it.

  30. brian
    November 28th, 2007 at 16:14 | #30

    Finally, your post shows an absence of harm with GM…but then you chose not to mention any. Thats the way your ‘scientific consensus’ seems to operate….See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

  31. jquiggin
    November 28th, 2007 at 17:32 | #31

    I’d request you to take a break with the final observation above, Brian. You’re monopolising the thread.

  32. melanie
    November 28th, 2007 at 18:05 | #32

    The decisions of the Victorian and NSW state governments were based on a report of the Chief Scientist (which I have not read). Bearing that in mind, I’m inclined to go with JQ’s assertion on the scientific consensus with regard to safety.

    However, we shouldn’t make decisions with social and economic consequences based on scientific evaluations alone. My presumption is that the Chief Scientist’s report was only written because of pressure on governments from certain quarters to introduce GM products. It seems that it focuses only on safety and not on the possible social consequences which, after all, are not really within the purview of scientists.

    This is about what kind of society we want to live in and whether people have the freedom to choose alternatives. For that reason, labelling seems to be crucially important. But it’s a measure of the two state governments’ willingness to kowtow to big business that they’ve relied solely on the scientists and not at all on the social scientists.

    I’m really only tossing this in as a provocation, but the Americans are the only people who’ve been eating GM foods for decades (usually without knowing it), yet they’re getting shorter relative to the non-GM Europeans. Maybe this has nothing to do with the nutrient/water content, but it could have something to do with the social consequences of just going along with corporate control over food production.

  33. November 28th, 2007 at 20:10 | #33

    There is a qualitative difference between GM and evolution. Evolution involves the interaction between selection – even guided – and much slower spontaneous mutation. The result is much better behaved transitions than we can expect from GM, since both processes occur on a similar timescale there. Result: keep going until you get it wrong. The nearest natural experiment we have is introducing plants or animals from other ecosystems. And it is certainly worrying that there is so much pressure to avoid, say, buffer zones.

    Oh, and on points of principle, it is intellectually dishonest to assert that compromise is good enough; that’s an argument that is appropriate for political processes, but to transfer it to the plane of theory is poor argument.

  34. Ikonoclast
    November 28th, 2007 at 20:21 | #34

    I am not confident about the safety of GM food at this point. The 7:30 report tonight certainly provided some reason for a thoughtful pause on the issue. The GM issue is rather different from the Global Warming issue in terms of vested interests versus disinterested science. The pro-GM argument is being promoted by those with a vested interest in it. The GW warning was put out by disinterested scientists who were opposed by the vested interests.

    GM science is not a precise science yet by any means. The gene splicing process at this stage would be better described as a scatter-gun approach. Much collateral damage and many unintended changes are being created in the genetic make-up of the target species.

    The fact that the CSIRO hastily cancelled their own GM pea project at a late stage indicates they had some very concerning test results at a late stage. This could indicate anything from good testing vigilance that caught a specific problem with a specific project to generic flaws which might afflict the whole GM process.

    The bottom line is that caution is still indicated and there is no need for Australia to rush into GM Canola or GM anything. We still have assured markets in Japan, China and the EU where GM products are banned or severely restricted and still subject to significant(and one might say reasonable) public suspicion.

  35. Chadders
    November 28th, 2007 at 20:54 | #35

    While there is no system to prevent the contamination of non-GM crops by GM crops, people who would prefer not to eat GM foods are having their abilty to make that choice undermined completely. Once there is cross-contamination, there is no way to ensure that in the future anybody will be able to avoid GM varieties at all, let alone with “99%” surety!

    It seems that we have, on one hand, people who don’t care whether or not they eat GM food, and on the other, people who are vehemently opposed to eating it. The thing is that people who don’t care are not actually exercising a choice, but rather a lack thereof. Why should one person’s apathy be put before another person’s active choice? Or maybe we should ask; why is the complacency of the un/mis-informed consumer masses allowed to override the deep concern of the assertive few? I think we all know the an$wer to that.

    As a response to question above, many people who at first claim to be be apathetic about eating GM food suddenly become champions of the developing world. They claim that they would actually choose *to* eat GM foods in order to increase their economic and agricultural viability and increase food production, thereby alleviating third world food shortages. For these people I have the following quiz;

    1.[Short answer. 5 pts.] How will the broad patents which companies that develop GM seeds desire on their inventions protect the rights and nutrition of starving africans?

    2. [Please finish the following sentence. 1 pt only as this should be very easy for Keynesian economics students or anybody who has ever paid for petrol] Grain will be cheaper if…
    A) four American companies own a handful of varieties left in the world, or
    B) thousands of varieties from all over the world are owned by all the people of the world.

  36. MH
    November 29th, 2007 at 07:11 | #36

    Saw the ABC 7.30 Report on the issues last night. I have only one unscientific comment and one political comment:

    1) I become very nervous when old blokes in suits smoothly assure us its all OK and intelligent women are saying no it isn’t.

    2) Safe GM is a delusion, and I am a contrarian on this matter. Millions of years of Darwinian natural selection would argue an unexpected outcome from this process. This not to argue against gene technology per se, but when major agri-businesses drive the process, caveat emptor.

  37. brian
    November 29th, 2007 at 08:00 | #37

    yes, the 7.30 report was quit good…it also undermines JQs nonsense that there is a scientific consensus as to GM safety etc. SO why is JQ so keen to back GM? Has he invested in biotechnology?

  38. brian
    November 29th, 2007 at 08:20 | #38

    I’m deleting long and general attacks on GM. If you want to discuss the post with other commenters feel free. Otherwise, give a couple of links to useful anti-GM sites and leave it at that. – JQ

  39. jquiggin
    November 29th, 2007 at 08:37 | #39

    Re #37 I have to take back at least some of my post. This kind of thing (assumption that mainstream science is driven by financial self-interest) is par for the course among global warming delusionists, defenders of smoking and so on, and obviously nothing is different here.

    On a more general point, I share a lot of concerns expressed here about plant variety rights and related issues. Again, the role of Monsanto and similar companies in this has been pernicious. Like Chris at #9, I’d be much happier with open source GM.

  40. gordon
    November 29th, 2007 at 09:42 | #40

    We owe brian a debt of gratitude for picking up this ball and running with it so effectively. A couple of further points:

    First, you don’t have to go to Russia to find a scientist who has been muzzled for opposing GM – remember Dr M. Stapper (now ex-CSIRO).

    Second, on the commercial (I won’t say economic, because that would be mistaken) benefits of GM canola, the following quote: “Canada lost its EU canola market to Australia in 1999 — a market we still supply, at premium prices. Australia is set for a record crop of GM-free canola this season, so risking our competitive advantage makes no sense at all”.

    Third, the majority scientific opinion might not be reflected by a report nominally authored by an immunologist (Nossal), a member of the Southern Regional Panel for the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) and former Chair of the Victorian Farmers Federation Education Committee (Curnow) and a farmer who has been on the Victorian Catchment Management Council (Forster). Only one of these people has any scientific background so far as I can gather. Not exactly the IPCC, is it?

    Finally, it must be the spirit of Christmas at work to put Prof. Quiggin and Jennifer Marohasy on the same side.

  41. jquiggin
    November 29th, 2007 at 10:26 | #41

    As regards the EU, the official policy there is very similar to ours, and is based on labelling and case-by-case approval. The Canadians recently gained approval to export GM canola to the EU for animal feed and industrial use, so our advantage on this score is probably not permanent.

  42. November 29th, 2007 at 11:15 | #42

    One point that needs to be made about IP rights in plant breeding is that plant breeders’ rights are granted on non-GM plants as well.

    Furthermore, this is how some of the mutations used by “naturally” bred crops are obtained. I fail to see why GM is inherently any more dangerous than aiming a genetic blunderbuss at some seeds and sorting through the results.

  43. jquiggin
    November 29th, 2007 at 11:26 | #43

    That’s a fascinating link, RM. I was entirely unaware of this.

  44. brian
    November 29th, 2007 at 11:46 | #44

    JQ:’I’m deleting long and general attacks on GM.’

    Now we know why JQ knows so little about GM, safety and ‘scientific consensus mentality’
    Id call that censorship, JQ..you may recall Dr Stapper was similarly censored when he was sacked by industry friendly CSIRO.

    Thanks for illustrating a truism.

  45. brian
    November 29th, 2007 at 11:50 | #45

    ‘I fail to see why GM is inherently any more dangerous than aiming a genetic blunderbuss at some seeds and sorting through the results.’

    naturally GM friendly JQ is fascinated…under GM farmers cant save seeds…they need to buy them from the likes of Monsanto,who hold th GM patents.

    GM crosses things that do cross i nature..like fish and tomatoes.
    You cant have read my posts RM, but the JQ has been deleting them!

  46. brian
    November 29th, 2007 at 11:53 | #46

    ‘So much so that the issue is framed not as ‘industry interest versus public interest,’ but as ‘Science versus Luddites.’ ‘

    this is how JQ thinks…or rather the trend of his conditioning.

  47. brian
    November 29th, 2007 at 11:54 | #47

    ‘global warming delusionists’???

    and what do you mean by that JQ?

  48. brian
    November 29th, 2007 at 11:56 | #48

    JQ: ‘gain, the role of Monsanto and similar companies in this has been pernicious. Like Chris at #9, I’d be much happier with open source GM.’

    You wont, because GM is driven by corporate greed…not the public interest! Duh!

  49. brian
    November 29th, 2007 at 12:01 | #49

    what cheek!:

    ‘He rolled the dice again. This time, he was mimicking what he and his colleagues have been doing quietly around the globe for more than a half-century — using radiation to scramble the genetic material in crops, a process that has produced valuable mutants like red grapefruit, disease-resistant cocoa and premium barley for Scotch whiskey.

    “I’m doing the same thing,� he said, still toying with the dice. “I’m not doing anything different from what nature does. I’m not using anything that was not in the genetic material itself.�

    Dr. Lagoda, the head of plant breeding and genetics at the International Atomic Energy Agency, prides himself on being a good salesman. It can be a tough act, however, given wide public fears about the dangers of radiation and the risks of genetically manipulated food. His work combines both fields but has nonetheless managed to thrive.’


    Now isnt it sus that the fellow making this sort of claim works for the IAE!!!

    Think people…think… his use of the word ‘radiation’ refers to nukes….
    Scrambling the genetic material, sounds very very dangerous.

  50. brian
    November 29th, 2007 at 12:07 | #50

    ‘Radiation breeding is widely used in the developing world, thanks largely to the atomic agency’s efforts. Beneficiaries have included Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Thailand and Vietnam.’

    Altruism? or pushing nukes…

    Of course, Lagoda doesnt tell you what happens to the nuclear waste…heres a hint:

    ‘Nuclear Weapons
    Depleted uranium (DU) is the U-238 waste product that has been “depletedâ€? of U-235. DU has been used to make armor piercing bullets, tank shielding and more. When used in warfare, DU bursts into flames upon impact, spreading uranium dust into the environment. DU is radioactive for billions of years and hundreds of tons of it have contaminated Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and testing locations like Vieques, Puerto Rico. It’s the primary culprit in Gulf War Syndrome and many other health problems.’

  51. Aidan
    November 29th, 2007 at 12:18 | #51

    GM allows genes to be shared between Kingdoms.

    Genes are being inserted into plants that have never existed in that Kingdom before (as far as we know).

    Current thinking tends to believe the final phenotype is more important than the process through which it is obtained and that there is nothing more inherently risky with cross-kingdom genetic modification. I don’t agree with that. I think there are enormous risks and so far fairly marginal benefits.

    One need only look at the failed CSIRO pest resistant pea to see the possible downsides of widespread genetic modification. The fact that the project was cancelled after an allergic reaction was detected in mice was considered to be an affirmation that the regulation of genetically modified organisms was sound. I don’t know if this sort of testing is widespread for genetically modified crops, this mob seem to think it isn’t.

    Though there may still be some lingering doubt that it was the genetic modification that caused the allergic reaction it is clear that it was a surprising result.

    I don’t think the public good is the main driver of genetically modified agribusiness. The poster boy for this was Monsanto’s round-up resistant soya bean. The patent on Monsanto had expired and they needed a way to force farmers to buy their herbicide.

    This is a genie that cannot be put back I reckon.

  52. jquiggin
    November 29th, 2007 at 13:17 | #52

    Brian, you have well and truly abused my hospitality here. Please don’t post again for 24 hours. Before returning, please read the comments policy. If you don’t like the rules here, feel free to start your own blog instead of whining about censorship.

  53. Charlie Bell
    November 29th, 2007 at 13:43 | #53

    Two comments on some of the previous.

    First. Lagoda says that in his radiation experiments, “I’m not using anything that was not in the genetic material itself.� That’s not really true. The whole point of DNA is that it is a “blueprint� for the organism – it is only the information content that is relevant, not the fact that it is made up of molecules represented as A,C,G,T. The radiation mutations created are new information content that was not in the genetic material previously. Thus radiation breeding is quite like GM transfer across existing breeding barriers – it is not equivalent to natural or artificial selection of existing genetic information.

    Second. I agree that differentiating between GM processes and traditional breeding is nonsense. All new (and existing) foods, and other products, should be individually tested and labelled to maintain safety standards, and to allow consumer choice. The only real objection to allowing well-tested GM crops is that by contamination of non-GM crops we are quite specifically removing consumer choice. That should be a moral question for us all, not a scientific or economic question.

  54. Tom N.
    November 29th, 2007 at 14:15 | #54

    As a frequent reader of this blogsite, I endorse Q’s actions in relation to brian (post #42), whose arguments were often tirade-like, overly lengthy, difficult to follow, and ultimately tiresome. There may be good scientific arguments against GM, but brian’s contributions did not attract this reader to his cause.

  55. brian
    November 29th, 2007 at 14:58 | #55

    You obviously didn’t bother reading the comments policy before ignoring my request. You’re permanently banned.

  56. brian
    November 29th, 2007 at 15:56 | #56

    I’m a troll who doesn’t understand the meaning of the word ‘banned’.

  57. Brian Bahnisch
    November 30th, 2007 at 00:54 | #57

    I’m not the other Brian.

    This topic has been done over many times, also on this blog. In the past David Tribe usually showed up as a very knowledgeable GM advocate. Now he has his own blog.

    I’ve never encountered a topic where the facts are so comprehensively under dispute. One minute we are told that GM canola farmers in Canada get higher yields, make more dosh and use less chemicals. The next minute we are told the reverse by people who ostensibly should know.

    In the main my concerns had been over such things as the drastic reduction in diversity, the corporate monopolies that market the stuff and the rights of farmers who want to continue to grow GM-free produce. They are put in a situation where their cost of production is raised (I’ve heard claims of 20%) and they carry additional (uninsurable) risk. I understand that the standard for organic produce is ‘nil detectible’. If they are niche marketing a premium product they risk having to sell their produce for animal tucker and ruining their reputation as a supplier if some bees wander in from next door or the commercial harveter didn’t clean his machine properly.

    I used to regard GM food as harmless until I heard Dr Judith Carman (please note the spelling) interviewed at length a few years ago. She has a list of impressive and relevant qualifications and was the sensible female on the 7.30 Report the other night. Her argument is not that GM is unsafe; rather it is inadequately tested and we can’t be sure that it’s safe.

    Trust is a big factor in food choice and as a lay person I’ll trust GM when she says it’s OK.

  58. November 30th, 2007 at 04:23 | #58

    Good to see you post on this John, and I agree with most of what you say.

    One of the big problems with providing information is that public and journalists get taken in by poor quality information and overt misinformation. Vic Parliamentarian Tammy Lobato believes that the pro- GM crop side are woefully misinformed, but happily accepts flaky piffle from visiting American Jeffrey Smith as do The Age in the link you give to an Age Opinion piece by Smith, while it’s left to the Rural press Weekly Times to show what nonsense Smith trots out –three Smith bloopers.

    I’d suspect Tammy just doesn’t want to be informed that Jeffrey Smith’s “research” is so careless.

    But in the comments, there’s several themes running that are based on misconceptions.

    GM crops do not in themselves threaten crop diversity. They in some cases increase diversity – by facilitating new variety introduction; soybean varieties have gone up in number in the US for example. Additionally transgenic crops are themselves an instance of increased genetic diversity. They ARE infact new combinations of genes, and can be the vehicle for enhancement of crop diversity in the traits that matter.

    For example GM could be used to engineer increased genetic biodiversity of disease resistance traits, and increase the resilience of crops against disease threats.

    Additionally, by sparing arable land from the plough, GM a tool for preserving wilderness and promoting conservation.

    There’s mention of the Precautionary Principle, but it too should be applied without bias. The harms that results from BLOCKING technology should be evaluated , and if sustainability is damaged by discarding perfectly acceptable tools, then thats a problem too. Freeman Dyson, see my (Memorial Marriage of Heaven and Hell) puts it best I think: There is a hidden cost to saying no.

    I wouldn’t see Dr Judy Carman as a well qualified expert on this topic. Minister Kim Chance in Western Australia, while funding her with taxpayer funds, declines to produce her publication record in WA parliament because it consists of about three not so relevant papers in toto. Check it out at

    PubMed data base with Carman J search term, after discarding the other J Carman who works at a US drug company, and whom I’ve checked is a different person.

    Edited JQ

  59. Neil
    November 30th, 2007 at 04:36 | #59

    I’m Brian and so’s my wife!

    (sorry, couldn’t help myself)

    For me, the info provided by Robert Merkel (#42) is the clincher. It is frustrating that people are willing to sign off on the safety of crops that have been developed with technology that is essentially a ‘shake-and-bake’ of the genome, but demonize a more controlled technology.

    I think the best path forward is to hold both technologies to the same safety standards – you want to extensively test the safety of GM crops? Fine, so long as you hold the randomly mutated crops to the same safety standards. After all – it is theorectically possible to produce the same phenotype using both technologies (yes, that would be a lot of monkeys and a lot of typewriters)

    If you do that, you eliminate the need for GM labelling – unless you have a ethical opposition to GM technology – in which you should bear the burden of the cost (i.e. ‘GM-free’ labelling, not ‘contains GM’ labelling). And there is already a pseudo ‘GM-free’ label as anything the ‘organic’ standards already eschew GM.

  60. Brian Bahnisch
    November 30th, 2007 at 07:28 | #60

    Neil, two wrongs don’t make a right. Just sayin’.

    I once heard a plant geneticist say that he saw the role of GM as in the lab as a pathfinder technology to find types that conventional plant breeding then worked towards. I have no expertise in the technology, but he seemed to see some intrinsic value in doing it the conventional way when producing the variety that was actually going to be used in human consumption.

    PM Lawrence was, I think, making this point back at 33. Last night in Australia Talks a retired geneticist said that he worried about the number of artificially derived genes being fed out into the environment.

    I’m mentioning this in part to show that there are sensible concerned scientists out there who worry about what GM technology. This issue may have some parallels with the GW debate but personally I think Prof Quiggin has over-cooked this aspect.

    On paying, if maintaining a large diversity of strains has value, the suggestion was made on Australia Talks that the GM industry should pay for maintaining this diversity. For example they could pay to maintain 135 different types of cotton grown in Gujerat.

  61. David
    November 30th, 2007 at 09:06 | #61

    I thought this thread could do with some basic info from Food Standards Australia New Zealand 2005


    Basically in regards to GM food. Its like eating any other food. For example, if you eat a fish you do not turn into a fish.

    The body breaks down all food into proteins and nutrients in the gut(acid Ph2) which the body absorbs. The body does not absorb DNA. If it did we would really be what we eat!

  62. Aidan
    November 30th, 2007 at 09:25 | #62

    David, with all due respect, what you say is extremely simplistic.

    Counterfactual #1: variant-CJD.

    Counterfactual #2: CSIRO GM peas with alpha-Amylase Inhibitor

    The body does not absorb DNA. If it did we would really be what we eat!

    No, but what we are talking about here is modifying genes to express proteins which we do ingest and which can have surprising results (see above).

  63. melanie
    November 30th, 2007 at 09:28 | #63

    Humanity has been tinkering with nature for a very long time – even across species (mules). I think the parallel with the GW debate may be more in the line of “where do we reach a tipping point where our tinkering at the margin leads us into something more macro than we could have imagined?” We have extinguished a lot of species already and this is a technology which actually aims to extinguish a few more. Mind you, pesticides might have been responsible for even more extinctions. I remain agnostic, but I wonder if enough caution is being exercised by the pollies.

  64. gordon
    November 30th, 2007 at 09:42 | #64

    Further to the issue of the commercial success of GM canola, readers might be interested in this report (.pdf) from the Network of Concerned Farmers website. The website summarises the findings thus:

    “27th November 2007:

    The Network of Concerned Farmers (NCF), an alliance of Australian farmers, have released a report today on the economic costs of genetically modified (GM) canola, revealing that the introduction of GM canola will cause a loss to Australian canola farmers of over $143 million a year with non-GM farmers carrying an unjust burden of over $65 million a year. NSW Minister for Agriculture announced the lift of the moratorium for GM canola in NSW before it has had official government approval. Premier Brumby of the Victorian Government announced his decision on lifting the GM moratorium at 2pm today. The NCF is calling on the new Federal Minister for Agriculture, and all State politicians to intervene immediately to prevent any decision to lift any State moratoria on GM food crops due to evidence of unreasonable costs on existing farmers…

    The NCF report highlights that since GM adoption, Canada experienced an inability to segregate and suffered price penalties and market rejection associated with marketing as GM. Using similar assumptions both, Australian non-GM and GM canola farmers would conservatively face at least $81.9million less for their canola every year. If 20% of Australian farmers adopted GM canola, the additional costs for GM growers would total $10.83 million without including further additional costs such as volunteer control, resistance management compliance and crop management compliance. While Bayer Cropscience’s own yield data shows similar yields to non-GM canola, Roundup Ready canola trials showed an average of 13% less yield than non-GM varieties and therefore, farmers would likely experience a shortfall of a further $50.2 million. A conservative estimate of losses amounts to $143million”.

    I am interested in Prof. Quiggin’s admission that he would prefer “open source” GM seed, yet still is prepared to support growing GM crops in Australia under the existing (“closed source” – where seed is patented) arrangements. How can this be justified?

    It was wrong to ban brian. He was neither abusive nor coarse in his language, and had good points to make. Length of comments isn’t much of an issue, now that we have these new-fangled wheel-mouse thingies which enable rapid scrolling. And without some cut-and-thrust, blogging becomes too dull to bother with.

  65. November 30th, 2007 at 10:54 | #65

    Gordon: it’s Quiggin’s site, we play by his rules here (for what it’s worth, I would have banned him from Larvatus Prodeo for the same behaviour, regardless of the position he was arguing).

    Brian B, as always, a thoughtful contribution. One point I’d make is that on the IP/monopoly issue, the government isn’t forcing farmers to plant GM crops, they’re giving them the option to do so. I had a friend who worked for one of the agricultural lobby groups. Many farmers apparently think that the GM crops offered thus far aren’t particularly financially compelling to plant.

    In the case of GM canola, I think there’s pretty good evidence as to the safety of this specific product. We’ve had millions of Americans road-test the stuff for us already.

  66. jquiggin
    November 30th, 2007 at 10:58 | #66

    Gordon, if GM canola were as bad as claimed here, it seems to me that no-one would want to produce it.

    As regards open source, I think the answer here is to expand public good research not to ban one technology tangentially related to the issue.

  67. Aidan
    November 30th, 2007 at 11:00 | #67

    David, I think these statements are a little simplistic:

    Basically in regards to GM food. Its like eating any other food. For example, if you eat a fish you do not turn into a fish.

    The body breaks down all food into proteins and nutrients in the gut(acid Ph2) which the body absorbs. The body does not absorb DNA. If it did we would really be what we eat!

    The body does not absorb DNA, but it does absorb the proteins that are expressed by genes in the DNA.

    Prions are proteins that are capable of causing disease. An example of which is ingested BSE infected cow causing variant-CJD in humans.

    It is also worth noting that the CSIRO project to express bean alpha-amylase inhibitor in peas was stopped because of an immune response to the expressed protein that did not occur with the same protein in the bean where it naturally occurred.

    From the CSIRO

    To understand why the mice reacted to the GM pea alpha-amylase inhibitor, the CSIRO team analysed and compared the molecular structure of the bean and pea alpha-amylase inhibitor proteins.

    This revealed small mass differences in the two proteins, most likely to be caused by different protein processing steps in two types of cell, including one step called glycosylation.

    These processing steps play an important role in making certain proteins, and can lead to variation in a protein’s structure. This research shows however, that these variations can have other effects supporting the need for case-by-case assessment of GM crops.

    To paraphrase, proteins ain’t proteins. Simply bunging a gene into some foreign DNA does not guarantee you will get the same functional protein expressed.

    I would like to be assured that all GM foodstuffs will be the subjected to testing as rigorous as that which the CSIRO carried out.

  68. Aidan
    November 30th, 2007 at 11:16 | #68

    Many farmers apparently think that the GM crops offered thus far aren’t particularly financially compelling to plant.

    Then why are we allowing it?! GM Canola will spread to non-GM crops:

    Intensive research over the past 10 years has produced many genetically-mofified lines of oilseed rape with market potential. Assessment of these lines in statutory trials prior to their release as cultivars is necessary, owing to concern over the likelihood of transgene escape from such crops. Here, we examine the movement of airborne pollen grains from oilseed rape fields and assess their capacity for long-range geneflow.
    Pollen dispersal from isolated rape fields was monitored over two seasons and related to the distribution of fields and ‘feral’ (domesticated plants growing outside cultivations) populations of the crop in Tayside and North East Fife regions of Scotland. Airborne pollen density declined with distance and at 360 m was 10% of that at the field margin. Pollen counts of 0–22 pollen grains m3 were observed 1.5 km from source fields and apparently were sufficient in number to allow seed set on emasculated bait plants. Oilseed rape pollen has greater capacity for long-range dispersal than had been suggested by small-scale field trials. Mean separation of oilseed rape fields in the survey area was 410 m and the mean distance from ‘feral’ populations to commercial fields was 700 m. Sixty percent of ‘feral’ populations with more than 10 plants occurred downwind and within 2 km of an oilseed rape field. Provided that the flowering biology of genetically-modified oilseed rape does not differ from the conventional crop, these data suggest that transgene movement to non genetically-modified fields or ‘feral’ populations is likely following commercial release.

    If canola is so hard to contain it seems a poor choice.

  69. Neil
    November 30th, 2007 at 12:00 | #69

    Hey Brian,

    I’m not claiming that randomly mutated crops is a ‘wrong’, quite the opposite – I see it as a baseline for safety comparisons. I have absolutely no problem with stuffing my gob chock full of canola oil containing products that were produced from randomly mutated canola seeds. I’ve been doing it all my life and the doctors can’t find anything wrong with me.

    Now, this old, crude method of genetic modification (and, remember, random mutation of the genome is still genetic modification) is now being superseded with a more controlled method. All I’m saying is that the same safety standards should apply to both technologies.

    It is also interesting that the with the current paradigm of food safety – organic foods – it is acceptable to use randomly mutated genetically modified crops but very muchly not acceptable to use targeted-ly mutated genetically modified crops. I have my theories why this is so, but none of them have anything to do with food safety. Especially as many of those randomly mutated crop strains are not genetically stable – they lose their high yielding phenotypes within a couple of seasons. And I’d be grateful if someone, anywhere, can explain to me why it so safe to spray crops with spores of BT, yet, so dangerous to take one protein from the BT organism and have a plant express it……

  70. Brian Bahnisch
    November 30th, 2007 at 12:26 | #70

    David, as I understand the process different DNA will produce different proteins, which interact with each other in ways that are not exactly predictable to produce different charactisctics in the organism.

    I’ve discussed this issue with a friend who is an Emeritus Prof, but is a mammalian toxicologist of international standing. At a great age they still pay his way to attend overseas conferences. He has a wall full of certificates including the one from the US where they take 300 candidates every year and let no more than half of them through. For years he was on the national poisons classification body.

    He wasn’t particularly up to date on GM, but had two comments worth sharing. One is that independent testing is essential and he doesn’t consider that we should accept testing done in the US. The place is too corruptible.

    Secondly, he said that allergic reactions are almost infinite and will always be with us. Some of these are very serious for a few people and non-existent for the many, some are very mild and affect nearly everyone.

    I’m not confident that the Americans can trace back to source long-term health issues. I faced an intriguing problem myself last year.

    After prostate surgery (why did it happen to me when the odds are only 1 in 23 for my age group?) I filled in a survey. They were trying to identify the causes of prostate cancer, which they haven’t unravelled. Of interest were baldness (yes), close contact with engine exhausts (I spend hours weekly with a brushcutter tucked under my arm) and consumption of soy products (I use soy milk as a dairy milk substitute).

    My doctors think the soy thing is very low risk, but admit they don’t know. So I continue to use it because the fats are supposed to be better for my heart (I’m a member of the zip club).

    So I continue to use soy milk, non-GM to be on the safe side.

    I’d be surprised if there was anything dramatically harmful about GM food, but we do need to know in order to make our personal choices. And I’d like to think my choice isn’t priced out of the market. I’m already paying a 25% premium.

  71. Aidan
    November 30th, 2007 at 12:49 | #71

    As Brian noted just because the same gene is inserted does not mean the same protein will be expressed. The CSIRO Alpha-amylase inhibitor GM pea was abandoned when it was discovered that the expressed protein caused an allergic reaction and was structurally different to the protein expressed in the originator bean species.

    In response to David above, it is not the DNA that is the problem, it is the protein that is expressed by the inserted gene that could potentially cause problems. One only has to think of prion diseases like variant-CJD to realise that ingested proteins can cause disease regardless of stomach pH.

  72. Aidan
    November 30th, 2007 at 12:51 | #72

    John, I keep trying to post something about protein expression (3 times now) and it keeps not appearing. Am I tripping a spam filter?

    Caught in the spam filter, but free now – JQ

  73. Brian Bahnisch
    November 30th, 2007 at 13:10 | #73

    Robert M, I’m a bit surprised that GM cotton is not as widespread as the PR would have us believe and I’m not sure why. I gather you do spray less frequently and it’s usually done in the middle of the night, which would give me a big incentive to go GM.

    On another tack, I heard a brief item the other day on Newsradio, I think, about a study in Britain on organic farming. I thought I heard them say that there was a clear advantage nutritionally to organic. Does anyone know anything more?

    I’d also like to know how organic nets out with respect to carbon emissions, including soils as a sink or a source.

  74. David
    November 30th, 2007 at 14:16 | #74


    Check out the quick and dirty analysis I did on GM cotton on the RSMG blog

  75. gordon
    November 30th, 2007 at 15:52 | #75

    Prof. Quiggin: “…tangentially related to the issue”. Does that mean that “open source” canola is available in Australia to compete with the patented varieties?

    Why does anybody grow it? Good question; part of the answer may be subsidies, another part may be that contamination means that if your neighbour grows GM you basically have to as well, because you can’t market your crop as GM-free any longer. On US subsidies, another quote from the Concerned Farmers site:

    ” “United States farmers received government subsidies to grow Roundup Ready soybean instead of the varieties they were used to. So they were financially better off replacing their old varieties, even though they had to pay Monsanto for the seeds and the herbicide, and the yield from Roundup Ready soybean is less than that of other varieties by about 10%. One reason for the reduced yield is that Roundup Ready soybean does not cope with heat stress as well as other unmodified varieties. With increasingly hot summer seasons in the Northern Hemisphere, American farmers are realising the increased risk of crop failure with Roundup Ready soybean, which now represents about 60% of the US production, rather than the 90% it used to at its peak in about 1997. With herbicide-resistant crop plants, farmers are being encouraged to use just the one herbicide repeatedly, but agronomists are advising farmers that this is not a good idea, this is a proven recipe for generating herbicide-resistant weeds, which further complicate farm management”.

    And on Canadian subsidies (from the GMWatch website): “Genetically modified (GM) seeds are a key part of the maximum-production, max-technology, max-input, max-energy-use, max-cost system outlined above. Canadian net farm income over the past 20 years has been falling. Today, it stands at its lowest level ever. Were it not for massive taxpayer-funded support programmes, off-farm income, access to credit, etc., farming in Canada would have to cease”.

    On rules (Robert Merkel) – there are rules of social intercourse that can’t be overridden on a whim. If you run a blog (or comment on one) you are going to get your pride and your self-importance wounded sometimes. There is an old saying about heat and kitchens.

  76. November 30th, 2007 at 16:11 | #76

    T comment 69, Neil said “Now, this old, crude method of genetic modification (and, remember, random mutation of the genome is still genetic modification) is now being superseded with a more controlled method.”

    Don’t get the idea that “more controlled method” means that what you get is what you want. Not only is there the time scale problem I mentioned above, but putting human decision into a control loop presents an even worse risk: PIO (Pilot Induced Oscillation). This hit Keynesian economic policy implementations pretty badly, once upon a time.

  77. jquiggin
    November 30th, 2007 at 16:42 | #77

    “there are rules of social intercourse that can’t be overridden on a whim”

    Such as that, when you go to someone else’s place, you abide by their reasonable requests. But since some people don’t seem to understand this, the rules for joining in the conversation here are posted for anyone to read. Those who don’t like them are welcome to leave, and those who ignore them get the bum’s rush.

  78. December 1st, 2007 at 10:22 | #78

    There’s a superficial symmetry in the sense that GM is an issue where lots of environmentalists are opposed to the consensus view of mainstream science. But the debate has been conducted sensibly


    Oh please, my sides hurt, stop it.

  79. gordon
    December 1st, 2007 at 10:39 | #79

    So brian is banned yet David Tribe (who, as Brian Bahnisch notes, runs his own pro-GM blog) is allowed (at #58) to attack Judith Carman as not a disinterested investigator. That is just as much a personal attack as anything brian wrote – in my opinion more so. I think that is inconsistent and unfair, and call on Prof. Quiggin to rescind the banning of brian.

  80. brian
    December 1st, 2007 at 15:10 | #80

    I am a troll who thinks he can do what he likes to other people’s websites, and imagines that using a new email account will evade a ban – Brian Souter

  81. Damien
    December 1st, 2007 at 16:19 | #81

    The question with GM canola at the moment is whether the yield potential is great enough to offset: 1.)overseas backlash from countries currently paying premiums for our GM free canola presently. 2)the potential health implications 3)inevitable glyphosate resistance that will develop in Australian weeds.
    It is difficult to support yield and oil content increases based on research conducted in the last 7 years as drought made canola research highly erroneous.
    Not something to dive into half cocked…

  82. jquiggin
    December 1st, 2007 at 16:35 | #82

    Gordon, read the discussion policy. Brian Souter’s actions in continuing to post after I called a temporary halt are clearly stated as grounds for an immediate and permanent ban.

    I missed the sentence you objected to in David Tribe’s post, but have now removed it.

  83. Brian Bahnisch
    December 1st, 2007 at 21:58 | #83

    Gordon, can I point out that we don’t know what was in the comments made by brian that were deleted.

    For what it’s worth I thought brian started off by making some good points apart from accusing JQ of promoting GM (when he was only reporting developments and expressing an opinion) and implying that he had an interest in doing so. This was prima facie offensive to our host. As he went on brian seemed to lose it and I was expecting the outcome that actually happened.

    Neil said:

    “All I’m saying is that the same safety standards should apply to both technologies.

    I can agree with that.

    David, thanks for the link. Interesting.

    David Tribe at #60 criticises Judith Carman for her lack of publications. I’m interested in what she knows. When she talks she is very convincing.

  84. gordon
    December 2nd, 2007 at 09:17 | #84

    Brian Bahnisch, Judith Carman is a Director of the Institute of Health and Environmental Research (IHER), which is just as much an anti-GM outfit as Tribe’s GMO-Pundit is a pro-GM outfit. But IHER have some technical publications, submissions, etc. which look good – the site looks rather new. On that site she says she has been a senior lecturer at Flinders and is currently Affiliate Senior Lecturer in the Department of Public Health at the University of Adelaide. Tribe is senior lecturer at UMelb. You pays your money…

  85. Brian Bahnisch
    December 2nd, 2007 at 21:41 | #85

    Thanks for the link, Gordon. I have no doubt at all about David Tribe’s expertise and knew he was at the University of Melbourne.

    After hearing Carman on the radio I googled Carmen and of course had the spelling wrong. They reeled off her qualifications and at the time I thought they were very relevant. It turns out she has “an Honours Degree in Organic Chemistry, a Ph.D. in Medicine in the field of nutritional biochemistry and metabolic regulation, and a Master of Public Health specialising in epidemiology and biostatistics.”

    This statement is a worry:

    “She obtained ANZFA’s safety approval document and was appalled at the quality of the science used to justify safety. Of greater concern, she found subsequent safety assessments to be even worse.”

    As I said further up, trust is a big factor in food choices. I don’t have the time or the qualifications to resolve the safety issue, so meanwhile I’d like the option of not eating the stuff.

  86. February 17th, 2008 at 14:57 | #86

    I videotaped the recent NSW Parliament press conference of two top Canadian farmers speaking about their 12-year experience with growing GM canola. They reported that Monsanto ruthlessly sued the smaller growers out of business, and now there was no way to segregate the Non-GM canola from the GM canola, plus the price of the GM seed skyrocketed. These farmers don’t understand why Australians would want to give up their market advantage when Europeans and Japanese badly want GM-free produce.

    The links to the 3-part series are in order below:

  87. mark
    March 20th, 2008 at 23:08 | #87

    Very important to see both sides. Thanks for allowing ruths links, I would like a link to brians own “Trollpage”, I suspect he would be more objective there. Separately,
    What about the more distant relatives of canola, the brassicas? Have any tests been done as to the gm contamination possibilities for broccoli, cabbage, radish, chinese cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, even wasabi? Or have the genes already jumped over while we were distracted? They are a major segment of the food chain, their contamination and loss would be more than significant for the whole planets future??

  88. Jeremy Tager
    April 16th, 2008 at 08:35 | #88

    Unfortunately, this piece is exceptionally ill-informed – unfortunate because I expect more and better from John Quiggin. There are ZERO measures that have been imposed on growers to prevent contamination (you can find the licence conditions at http://www.ogtr.gov.au). There are about 300,000 canola seeds in a kilo – in other words they are tiny. They move large distances in wind, during transport and harvest, they persist (depending on which study you look at) in the soil for between 10-16 years and contamination is virtually inevitable. Not only is it inevitable, the Federal Government’s own investigation of liability found that in most cirucmstances the common law would not protect non-GM farmers in the event of contamination Finally, canola oils will not be labelled in Australia. The story is of course much worse than this – loss of food security, food quality, environmental and health impacts – these are all well established in the peer reviewed literature. For Quiggin to claim that there has been stringent assessment is wrong – GE foods are approved in Australia with almost no testing, no requirement for peer review or independent evaluation. Most approvals are granted on the basis of data submitted by the company. Our regulators have never said no to a single application. I’d urge Quiggin to look at this issue again – and dig a lot more deeply than he has so far.

  89. jquiggin
    April 16th, 2008 at 09:09 | #89

    Jeremy, you could start by providing a link to the license conditions. It’s not obvious how to find them from the link you gave.

    On labelling, you might note that I began the post by criticising the absence of a labelling requirement.

  90. Jeremy Tager
    April 16th, 2008 at 17:54 | #90

    Hi John
    Here’s the link to Bayer’s approval documents. Licence conditions is one of the listed documents.
    I’d also suggest you take a look at the CSIRO pea study – not CSIROs take (or FSANZs) but the actual peer review paper. It indicates that a genetically engineered pea, engineered from a closely related legume with only small changes in protein expression resulted in immune damage in mice. It wasn’t supposed to happen. In fact, it’s not a test required by FSANZ – and if the pea had been in the regulatory process it would have been approved under current criteria. Similarly, FSANZ approved a GE corn (MON863). The only peer reviewed study into MON863 by Seraline last year, questioned the approval of MON863 on the basis that Monsanto’s own feeding trials showed statistically significant damage in lab animals. FSANZ did an internal review but continued to assert that Monsanto’s interpretation was correct. The environmental impacts in Australia are completely unknown. If you look at the OGTRs risk assessment it is based essentially on a desktop analysis of the likelihood of GE canola becoming a weed. You won’t find a single assessment of the impacts of GE canola on a single Australian species of anything (the Farm Scale Evaluations in the UK, the most thorough test ever done on GE canola, showed significant damage from GE canola and significant persisent of GE canola seeds in the soil). One of the big points of contention is whether the use of GE (herbicide tolerant) canola will result in a decrease or increase in the use of herbicides. While not peer reviewed (hard to find anything peer reviewed on this) Dr Charles Benbrook reviewed 9 years of USDA data on herbicide use and concluded that an initial 3 year decline in the use of herbicide had been followed by increasing weed resistance (hardly surprising), and 6 years of increased use of chemicals until it was well above conventional use. Finally, I think this is a classic situation of industry driven technology – not science – and the efforts of poorly funded, independent scientists to catch up with an enormous commercial push has been incredibly slow and incredibly difficult (try and get GE seeds from Bayer or Monsanto!).
    I think if you look closely at the technology you will see if offers few if any benefits to farmers (and some serious potential market downsides – there is virtually no market in the EU for GE canola in food – it has to be labelled and no one bothers because it won’t sell), no benefits to consumers and no benefits to the environment. It does continue to hold risks that no one has assessed. There is an incredible amount of hype from the industry about fighting hunger, climate change, salinity and drought. These are still pipe dreams – and based on our current understanding of the complexity of the interactions of genes, proteins and the environment, likely to remain a pipe dream for a very long time.
    I hope you’re well

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