Food Safety Western Australia Style: A Note from Ian Edwards
Australia has one of the most rigorous and transparent gene technology regulation Acts in the world, and is achieving its objective in protecting the health and safety of people and the environment. This was one of the key findings of the Independent Panel Review of the Gene Technology Act 2000, published in 2006. To those involved in the life sciences industry the act is considered almost draconian in its level of rigor, but most accept the fact that if we are to build public confidence in agricultural biotechnology it is both necessary and should be respected. However, this is clearly not the viewpoint of certain NGO’s ideologically opposed to biotech crops, and certainly not the viewpoint of Kim Chance, Western Australia’s Minister for Agriculture.
Under Australia’s Act the areas of human health and safety are a Federal mandate, while the states do have certain marketing rights. However Minister Chance, not content with imposing a state moratorium in April 2004 on the growing of all biotech or GM crops in Western Australia, took it upon himself to openly criticize Food Standards Australia – New Zealand (FSANZ) for not adequately safeguarding human health. In late 2005 he made public his intent to commission an independent feeding trial on genetically modified (GM) crops so that supposedly unbiased data would be obtained. He openly expressed a concern shared by Greenpeace that, because the companies submit data to the Gene Technology Regulator it is somehow automatically subject to bias. Lost in all this was the fact that Australia subscribes to the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CODEX), which mandates world’s best practice in food standards, and FSANZ not only uses the information supplied by companies and independent laboratories commissioned to do the specialized animal feeding trials, but also takes account of peer reviewed university studies and the findings of other regulatory systems such as the US, Canada, and the European Union.
The group he selected to conduct the feeding studies was the Institute for Health and Environmental Research in Adelaide, comprising three individuals (led by Dr Judy Carman), none of whom have scientific records in conducting or analyzing long term feeding studies. Dr Carman toured around with UK activist Dr Mae Wan Ho to speak against GM crops and food safety. Ho has a relentlessly anti-science agenda against GM crops (and modern Darwinian theory), while Carman has constantly attacked FSANZ for alleged food regulatory inadequacies, and had two articles (“Health Concerns” and “Threats to our Health”) published in Greenpeace’s True Food Guide 2003. To most rational individuals this would have raised a flag about Dr Carman’s competency to conduct independent trials, but not to Minister Chance.
In December 2005 Professors Stephen Powles (University of Western Australia) Graeme Robertson (Muresk Institute – Curtin University) and Mike Jones (Director – State Agricultural Biotechnology Centre – Murdoch University) pointed out to Chance that the IHER is in fact only a website and post office box, without employees, laboratories and infrastructure that one would reasonably expect to be associated with an organization purporting to undertake research/analytical work on health and environmental matters. They called into question the degree to which Judy Carman’s research could be construed as being independent. They also drew attention to the national framework for gene technology regulation. This advice was ignored.
This was followed up by thirteen international scientists writing to then Premier Geoff Gallop expressing concern over the approach of Minister Chance in who he selected to do the research, and also the manner in which the research was funded. The study was not submitted to the normal tender process and Chance has since claimed that this was not necessary because it was approved by Cabinet. In response to a question in the WA State Parliament (May 2006: Hansard 179) by Anthony Fels to the Minister regarding his attack on the regulatory system and the letter from distinguished scientists, Chance responded by saying (under Parliamentary privilege) that he had looked into these people an found that they were all in the pay of multinational companies. Perhaps two paragraphs from the response to this allegation that was provided by one of the signatories, Professor Bruce Chassy of the University of Illinois might be appropriate:
“I do not consult for ag biotech companies, I have never had a grant or contract from ag biotech companies, I have never worked for them, with them, or collaborated with them. I do not own and have never owned stock in a biotech company”.
“…………It might be wise to point out that it isn’t just a handful of scientists which Chance asserts are in the pockets of the biotech companies. It is the overwhelming preponderance of the scientific community, including some of its leading members. It is also the UN, OECD, FAO, WHO, The US Academy of Sciences (along with the academies of many other nations), The Royal Society London, a great many medical societies, and a host of the leading scientific societies around the world who have unanimously concluded that GMO’s are as safe or safer than conventionally bred crops and pose no threat to consumers or the environment”.
Minister Chance went ahead with the study by the IHER, with funding of $92,000. When questioned by the press on GM matters Chance has often stated that he has an expert “Ministerial GMO Reference Group” whose function it is to advise the government. As a member of this group I can state that the animal feeding study by Judy Carman was never referred to the reference group, but the Agriculture Department has since been directed to fund the project in Adelaide, South Australia. In a letter to an industry representative in February 2007 it was stated that the draft protocol was sent to 15 scientific experts in eight countries for comment before it was given to the Steering Committee to consider. The 10 person Steering Committee is reputedly made up of experts in a range of disciplines. However, the Minister has refused to disclose the protocol, the 15 international reviewers or the names of the Steering Committee to his own Ministerial Reference Group. He invited Judy Carman to address the group on May 25th, 2007 and, apart from her usual litany of complaints against FSANZ, she also refused to answer these questions. The Minister supported her position, totally ignoring the fact that public funds are involved. The study will apparently be published in peer-reviewed journals and “the protocol will be revealed at this time”.
So what answers on food safety does the Chance expect from a $92,000 study? During our June 20th Ministerial Reference Group Meeting he conceded that the funding was very small and is unlikely provide the answers being sought, but may raise questions for future studies. He also stated that “maybe Judy Carman may have other sources of funding to contribute to the study”. This is the new way of examining Food Safety Western Australia style!
Health concerns are a Federal Mandate, we have an inter-governmental agreement that is possibly being violated, and by both his statements and his actions the Minister is undermining public confidence in the national regulatory system. He has sided with a very narrow constituency, he has chosen to ignore the preponderance of scientific opinion and regulatory determinations worldwide that have guided GM crops through 11 years of commercial practice, and he has funded a secret study by a known anti-GM activist under the preposterous claim that it is “independent”.
As a footnote, a Freedom of Information claim was filed under Section 30 of the Freedom of Information Act, 1992 by John Cudmore of Perth-based Crabtree Consulting Company. In his decision of June 20th, 2007 the Minister claimed that the Information Commissioner believes that the information should not be disclosed, and that “the information does not appear to be from a bona fide public interest inquiry, but rather it is being sought to pursue a narrow private interest. There remains a right of appeal to this ruling.
Who are the real losers in all this? It is the farmers of Western Australia who are being denied a choice of technology to use on their farms while the Minister seeks excuses to continue the moratorium on GM crops. The leading farm organizations in Western Australia have all asked that the moratorium be dropped, and Victoria is reviewing their state moratorium at this time. Again, the question must be asked: “Who is Minister Chance serving?”
Ian B. Edwards, PhD; D.Sc; FCSSA
Chairman – AgBio Advisory Group – AusBiotech