GM Canola

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.

90 thoughts on “GM Canola

  1. 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.

  2. “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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

  6. 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…

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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…

  10. 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.

  11. 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:

  12. 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??

  13. 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 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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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