Greens pitch for GM levy, labels

BRAD THOMPSONThe West Australian

The Greens have raised the stakes in the debate over genetically modified food, calling for a contamination levy on GM seed producers and the introduction of rigorous labelling laws on all products.

Money from the levy would be used to compensate farmers in cases where GM-free crops were contaminated by GM products from neighbouring farms.

The mandatory labelling laws would see foods that contained any ingredient, additive, processing aid or other constituent produced using GM clearly marked. It would include meat from animals fed with GM grains.

The Greens expect the policy to be a big vote winner at the election with some polls showing 90 per cent of consumers want ingredients derived from GM crops labelled on food.

Senator Rachel Siewert, who has a degree in agricultural science from the University of WA and worked as a research officer for the Department of Agriculture and Food WA before entering politics, said Australia did not have proper safeguards on GM food.

She said GM labelling was extremely limited and screening of products by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand and the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator inadequate.

Senator Siewert said the regulatory bodies did not test for double-stranded ribonucleic acid (dsRNA) proteins which a major study had shown could be unexpectedly produced in the genetic modification processes.

Research showed the proteins transferred easily to humans and animals and could change genes.

"We are concerned about consumers' right to know and about protecting farmers who want to stay GM free to give themselves access to premium markets," Senator Siewert said. "At the moment farmers are losing their choice to stay GM free and we make no apologies for seeking a levy on the companies that produce GM seed to create a compensation pool for those farmers."

But CropLife chief executive officer Matthew Cossey said the levy showed complete ignorance of the foundations of agricultural coexistence.

Croplife, an industry body representing the agricultural chemical and crop biotechnology sector, believes the proposal ignores "the agronomic, economic and environmental benefits of GM crops and the rights of Australian farmers to choose what approved crops they want to grow".

Mr Cossey said it was pure hypocrisy that the party which demanded the government adhere to and act on the science of climate change now failed to adhere to the proven science on agricultural biotechnology.

WA is on the frontline of the debate over the issue with Kojonup neighbours Stephen Marsh and Mike Baxter fighting a landmark court case and sales of Monsanto's GM canola seed booming in WA.

Mr Marsh alleges that GM canola from Mr Baxter's farm contaminated his land and caused the loss of his organic-grower status in a case set for trial in the Supreme Court early next year.

Monsanto, the world's biggest producer of GM products, recently paid $4.5 million to increase its stake in local crop breeding company InterGrain to 26 per cent under a controversial deal backed by the WA Government.

Since the WA Government gave growers approval for GM canola in 2010, the planting area has almost tripled to 209,000ha.

Monsanto has announced that WA growers purchased a record 416 tonnes of Roundup Ready seed, a 38 per cent growth in sales from last year compared to 22 per cent nationally.

Pro-GM farmers, including the Pastoralists and Graziers Association, accused the Greens of scaremongering and said there was danger the cost of any levy being passed on to grain growers.

China recently lifted restrictions on imports of GM canola but many key markets remain highly sensitive on the issue.

The discovery of GM wheat on a US farm this year saw Japan and South-East Asian flour mills impose import restrictions.

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