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.