THE US has ratified moving towards a national system of mandatory labelling for Genetically Modified foods.
But a draft Productivity Commission report into Australian agricultural regulation has recommended doing the opposite, to avoid a potential “government imprimatur” that contradicts proven science about the human health and environmental safety of GMs.
Last week the House of Representatives in Washington debated and approved legislation - by a significant and unexpected margin of 306 votes to 117 - to label food products containing GMs.
The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives President and CEO Chuck Conner said the House vote - and a White House announcement saying President Obama intended to now sign the Bill into law - was “a tremendous victory for American farmers, co-ops and consumers”.
Mr Conner said the legislation would prevent a 50-State patchwork of labelling laws throughout the US and give grocery shoppers access to more information “than ever before” about how the food they purchased was produced
He said it would also provide producers and their co-ops with certainty as they made marketing decisions about the current crop and next year’s planting decisions.
“A key to getting to this point has been the unity displayed across the food and agriculture value chain,” he said.
In recent years, a debate has raged throughout the US about labelling GM products in response to activist campaigns that aim to subvert scientific views about efficacy and safety, sending potentially mixed messages to consumers.
Productivity Commissioner Paul Lindwall acknowledged the draft report into agricultural red tape in Australia’s farm sector - released this week - had recommended against imposing compulsory labelling for GMs in Australia, unlike the US situation.
He said, “Just because the US has done something, doesn’t make it right”.
Mr Lindwall said the Commission believed the Australian community should be well informed about the science of GMs, to understand the real product risks.
“To put it another way, if the science is fairly clear that something is safe, to make it mandatory to label that something for GM, or anything else that you can think is safe, gives an almost government imprimatur that there is something potentially unsafe about it,” he said.
Mr Lindwall said GM crops had been “very positive” for Australia with sound science about product safety.
But he said evidence about the supposed financial benefits derived from GM-free marketing and a higher price premium “is not very strong”.
GM cotton has been grown for about 20 years in Australia increasing farm viability and environmental outcomes while canola has been grown in Victoria and NSW for about eight years and WA.
Mr Lindwall said the Commission believed there was a case for the moratoria on GM crops to be removed in various States and the ACT and legislation allowing various state executives to impose a ban on crop biotechnology should also be removed.
“Overall we don’t think there’s any case for GM to have moratoria on it, we’re sceptical about marketing benefits and we think labelling shouldn’t be mandatory,” he said.
“If a producer wants to advertise that his or her or its product is GM free that’s up to them but we don’t think it should be mandatory.”
On the US labelling decision, American Farm Bureau Federation President Vincent “Zippy” Duvall said the passage of the GMO disclosure legislation meant the work of putting in place a uniform, national labelling system to provide balanced, accurate information to consumers, can now begin.
“Genetically engineered crops have a decades-long track record of safety and benefits for agricultural productivity and our environment,” the poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Georgia said.
“This legislation helps to continue those benefits by avoiding the confusion of differing and potentially misleading labelling standards from State to State.
“The next stop is the president's desk - we are pleased that Congress has moved quickly to finish the job.”
The US National Association of Wheat Growers said President Obama wrote to Julie Borlaug - the granddaughter of the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and notable wheat researcher Norman Borlaug - publicly stating his support for biotechnology and his shared belief that biotech was part of a solution to the planet’s agricultural programs.
“NAWG encourages President Obama to stand by the statement by signing this important Bill into law and creating real progress in achieving public acceptance of biotechnology,” a statement said.
“This Bill is a crucial step forward in informing customers about a safe and sustainable technology to ensure access to affordable food for consumers.
“The labelling options allowed in this law will encourage public acceptance of this reliable technology, while pre-empting the state-by-state patchwork that Vermont’s law alongside other potential future state laws could cause.
“This technology, which has been proven safe for human consumption, is one of the most reliable ways forward in assuring global food security and access to sustainably-produced food.”
The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food said since early 2014, more than 1100 food and agricultural groups had joined together to support Congressional action to pre-empt Vermont’s GM labelling laws and pass a national, uniformed labelling standard to provide consistency for consumers and industry.
Labelling disclosures in the Bill will provide product information to consumers, according to USDA standards, through a variety of methods like digital scanning on smartphones and links to websites.
The Productivity Commission report said the state and territory moratoriums on GM crop cultivation caused major concern for inquiry participants and many arguing the effective bans were unwarranted and denied farmers access to technological advances “critical to remaining competitive internationally”.
It said before issuing a licence for use of a GMO, the Office of Gene Technology Regulator must be satisfied that any risks to health, safety and the environment can be managed.
“The OGTR has approved certain varieties of GM cotton and canola for release in Australia, having assessed these to be no less safe than their conventional counterparts,” it said.
“Despite this, a number of State and Territory governments have imposed moratoria on the cultivation of GM crops, pointing to market access and trade benefits such as price premiums for non-GM crops.
“These benefits are questionable.”
The Commission said the NSW, WA, SA, Tasmania and ACT governments should remove their moratoria and also repeal the legislation that imposes moratoria or gives them the discretion to designate GM-free zones.
“This will provide certainty to businesses that the moratoria will not be re-introduced in the future,” it said.
“Removal of the moratoria should also be accompanied by providing accurate information to the community about the actual risks and benefits of GM technology and the gene technology regulatory framework in Australia.
“This should help build confidence in Australia’s regulation of GM technology.
“Government agencies in charge of the agriculture portfolio at the state and territory level should provide this information, and could be supported by the OGTR and Food Standards Australia New Zealand at the national level.”
The report also provided a contrast on the quality of risk assessment processes used to underpin and justify government decisions on the regulation of GM crops.
It said the Tasmanian government had prepared a regulation impact statement (RIS) to assess an extension of its moratorium on the commercial release of GMs with a marketing advantage in domestic and international markets noted as a core benefit of maintaining the State’s GM-free status.
However, the Commission’s report said the value of that marketing advantage was not quantified and was assessed to be “not insignificant”.
“The benefits of allowing GM crops were theoretically assessed as being relatively small,” the report said.
“The RIS concluded that the (unquantified) benefits were likely to be substantial and to exceed the costs of extending the moratorium from 2014 to 2019.
“By contrast, a cost–benefit analysis conducted as part of the review of the moratorium on GM canola in Victoria estimated that the Victorian moratorium imposed a net cost.
“The moratorium was allowed to expire.”
But a group called GM-Free Australia Alliance said it rejected the report’s recommendations and that GM crops, “pose unacceptable risks to our health, the environment and key export markets and removing the bans and GM labelling would eliminate choice for farmers and consumers”.