In a commentary in The Age in June, Sir Gustav Nossal reported on genetically modified canola hearings in Victoria. This was one of a number of media outings, including an address to the National Press Club, in which Nossal reiterated the same biotech message that the pro-GM lobby has peddled for more than a decade.
The article claims that pro-GM farmers should be able to choose whether to grow GM crops or not. However, this ignores the fact that conventional farmers will be denied their choice because all crops face the threat of becoming contaminated by GM cross pollination and the mixing of seeds.
Nossal claims that GM and non-GM seeds can easily be segregated, ignoring the experienced opinion of farmers, carriers and seed merchants, as well as the extra costs involved in separating the seeds. Allowing pro-GM farmers a choice between GM and conventional crops takes choice away from opposing farmers and the consumers.
His article also claims that great financial benefits are promised from growing GM crops, paralleling a report on the potential benefits of GM crops presented by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics earlier this year. However, this ignores the real financial losses experienced by farmers who cannot get the premium prices given to certified non-GM canola.
Nossal suggests that farmers, consumers and anyone who expresses reservations about GM technology are against science. He suggests that critics believe GM 'is somehow against nature or God's plan'. This is far from the truth. Anti-GM farmers encourage scientific research, but they do not want to equate good science with GM.
In fact, farmers want more science, and praise research done by the CSIRO in the past. What they do not want is a reduction of funding to conventional agricultural research as is occurring under the Federal Labor Government.
Nossal also suggests that people who question the introduction of GM canola do not respect the democratic process. However, at the hearing, it was the pro-GM lobby which was the loudest and best funded. The opinion of the majority of farmers, expressed in surveys reported in The Land, is to continue the moratorium on commercial growing of GM-canola was ignored. This is hardly democratic.
The GM lobby argues that it is not really new but merely a 'high-tech extension of biotechnology processes used over millennia'. However, direct gene-swap between organisms through GM is totally new. Its proper name is revealing — 'recombinant DNA' and 'transgenic transfer'.
Individual genes can be compared to words, writes Steve Jones (The Language of Genes, 1993) — just as the meaning of individual words depends on their function within a language, a gene only functions properly within a living organism and its genome. GM 'distorts' this relationship.
The lobby also plays on people's hopes and fears by associating GM foods with genetic 'miracle cures'. However, the two processes are very different. In GM foods genetic information is passed on to following generations through breeding in the open environment. In therapeutic work genetic information usually stays with the particular human. The use of GM to produce such things as insulin stays in the controlled environment of the lab.
The most recent advocacy of GM plays on people's fears concerning climate change, suggesting that GM crops are better suited to withstand a changing environment. However, the genetic diversity preserved in conventional breeding has proven results and is cost effective while GM is only promises.
In his article, Nossal pushes the notion that GM foods will cure world hunger. The US embassy to the Holy See also used this argument in an attempt to get the Vatican to endorse GM technology. However, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization International Conference in 2007 concluded that organic agriculture remains the better choice between the two, being able to feed the world's poor better than GM promises.
Dr Charles Rue is a Sydney-based priest of the Columban Missionary Society, and coordinator of Columban JPIC (Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation).