The threat of contamination

The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) has already issued fourteen licences for open field trials of GM wheat. Some of these trials are still underway in New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. In 2013, the OGTR has also given approval for a field trial of GM wheat in Victoria. Contamination of conventional wheat with experimental GM wheat is a real possibility despite strategies put in place to “prevent pollen dispersal”.

On May 29, 2013, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed a farmer from Oregon found illegal GM wheat plants in his field. This herbicide-tolerant wheat developed by the biotech transnational Monsanto to withstand direct application of Roundup was last authorised to be tested in open air fields in Oregon in 2001. US wheat importers reacted strongly to this announcement.  Japan cancelled a tender offer to buy US grain ,  South Korea Millers suspended imports of US wheat, Thailand put its ports on alert, the European Union urged its 27 Member States to test certain wheat shipments from the US while China and the Philippines were monitoring the situation.It is uncertain how the contamination happened.

If GM wheat is commercialised on a large scale, contamination of conventional and organic wheat would be inevitable. The GM contamination register, a reputable source noted by the United Nation Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), shows that contamination constantly occurs and can come from many sources. Wheat is considered predominantly self-pollinating, but the transfer of pollen at distances of tens of metres has been observed. Contamination also takes place in many other ways, both on farm and after harvest. For example, spillage during transport, mislabelling, misreading of labels, mistakes in handling, illegal planting, use of machinery without careful cleaning, and lack of effective segregation have all occurred with other GM crops. The precise mechanisms of contamination, however, are often unclear.

GM contamination comes at a high cost to all farmers. Researchers from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada referred to GM Roundup Ready wheat as “a lemon” because the inability to segregate GM wheat from non-GM wheat would have effectively soured the entire export market. They estimated that the introduction of Roundup Ready wheat in Canada would have caused annual losses of US$45.8 million and US$32.3 million respectively to the adopters and non-adopters of the technology, while bringing in a net return of US$156.7 million to Monsanto. All wheat producers would have lost because 82% of those importing Canadian wheat said they would not accept GM wheat.

Australian governments are aware that totally effective grain segregation is impossible and industry standards are set around this reality. The Primary Industries Ministerial Council (PIMC) allows a 0.5% adventitious presence of GM canola in non-GM canola seed-for-sowingand a 0.9% adventitious presence in harvested canola. GM food labelling is also “not required” where there is “no more than 1% (per ingredient) of an approved GM food unintentionally present in a processed food product”.

From experience with the GM wheat contamination case in Oregon, the potential introduction of GM wheat in Canada and the many examples of GM contamination all around the world, it is clear that the cultivation of GM wheat carries unacceptable contamination risks for Australia.


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