Science in Society Archive

Secret Trials in GM-Free Australia Raise New Fears of Contamination

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports

Julie Newman is a conventional grain and canola farmer with 12 000 hectares in Newdegate, Western Australia; she also owns one of the largest seed grading factories in Western Australia, and has been a contract crop-sprayer for 20 years. Julie is just the sort of big farmers that would embrace GM crops, right? Wrong.

Defenders of the biotech industry in Australia have nicknamed her “the laughing assassin” for good reasons. She strikes terror into their very heart, for being both extremely well informed and articulate; and not afraid to challenge the industry's propaganda at every opportunity. But, she does it ever so pleasantly. “ I don't take the debate personally, I enjoy talking to people on both sides of the debate, and what I am asking for is not unreasonable.” She explains.

Julie is a founding member of the Network of Concerned Farmers, a coalition of both conventional and organic farmers opposed to the introduction of GM crops into Australia, a country that has the strictest control over agricultural imports, as I learned on my recent lecture tour, which took me first to Perth, where I met Julie, and then to Melbourne.

Julie's argument is implacable: not only is there no market for GM crops, the slightest contamination with non-GM seeds or pollen, and that's the end of the farmers' export to Europe. “Farmers do not approve of the existing principle of co-existence of GM and non-GM crops; they want principles that will ensure non-GM farmers are not affected, and are protected by legislation and compensated for economic loss”. She says.

The situation is exactly the same in Europe.

“How many farmers know that the principle of coexistence is that non- GM growers are to avoid GM contamination when it is impossible to do so? How many know that it will be the non- GM growers that will be liable for ‘false and misleading advertising' when we cannot deliver the non-GM product we have guaranteed?” Julie asks. And, it could make farmers liable for infringing the patents of companies like Monsanto as well.

So, when she uncovered secret trials of GM canola in Victoria, a state that has an official moratorium on the crop until 2008, she was on the warpath again.

The way she uncovered those secret trials was ingenious. She had aerial photographs taken of suspected sites, which she posted on the Network's website, asking farmers to come forward to identify the fields and to state whether they were GM trials. T wo GM trial plots were identified in Victoria. “We are still looking for another two .” She tells me.

“Just look at the bags around the canola plants!” She exclaimed when showing me the photograph, “They are supposed to prevent cross-pollination, but you can see that some of the plants are in flower and they have not been bagged.”

She raised an aspect of contamination that's new to me. Canola pollen or seed could contaminate wheat and other seeds harvested in adjacent fields. She would know, as she also operates a big seeds business, and there is no seed sorting in Australia, because that's too expensive.

“The key issue is that since the federal government approved GM crops, it is now up to the farmer to sign to guarantee the GM-free status of their produce and to accept liability if we are wrong in our signed declaration. If we experience economic loss, we are gearing up for a class action against Bayer Cropscience and Monsanto (if Monsanto grow future trials).” She says. “We are doing a letter drop to ensure farmers contact Bayer Cropscience to collect their trespassing plants if trials have caused contamination.”

Australia has remained GM-free despite the approval of GM canola by the federal government, because, contrary to the situation in the European Union, it is possible for state governments to establish GM- free zones . So far, all states have either imposed a ban or a moratorium or are considered unsuited for growing GM canola.

Jim Scott, Member for South Metropolitan Region of Western Australia, played the key role in getting Australia GM-free, by convincing his parliament to impose the first state-wide ban on GM crops. I met Scott for the first time last year when he was on a fact-finding mission in Britain. He wrote a comprehensive report afterwards that triggered the Western Australian ban on GM crops. He is very proud of that report, and is ready to offer it to anyone who asks ( ).

Article first published 31/10/04

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