MARK COLVIN: Farmers could soon be swapping writs over paddock fences as the battle over the introduction of genetically modified crops moves into the legal system.
Anti-GM farmers are worried that their crops will become contaminated and export markets will dry up.
The Network of Concerned Farmers, which opposed GM crops, is distributing letters to pro-GM farmers, warning them they’ll face personal legal action to recover any losses caused by the introduction of the controversial seeds.
But pro-GM farmers say the campaign is nonsense.
Ashley Hall reports.
ASHLEY HALL: It’s the latest battle in a long-running war over the introduction of genetically modified crops.
The commonwealth regulator and several state bodies have given the go ahead for the planting of some GM crops, including cotton and canola, but the Network of Concerned Farmers is still not convinced the crops are safe.
Julie Newman is the Network’s national spokeswoman.
JULIE NEWMAN: The tests that have been done on genetically modified foods to date, have adverse impacts, including damage to immune systems and increased allergies, development of lesions and/or pre-cancerous growths; unusually enlarged or damaged organs and unexplained deaths. These have been proven by the GM companies themselves.
ASHLEY HALL: The anti-GM farmers want more independent and thorough testing done before the crops are introduced.
Dr Judy Carman of the Institute of Health and Environmental Research in Adelaide has offered to do that testing, but so far only the West Australian government is prepared to fund it.
JUDY CARMAN: There are no animal tests for allergy, no animal tests for reproductive problems, no animal tests required for any damage to organs for example from long-term consumption of the food. And these really do need to be done.
ASHLEY HALL: But what really concerns the Network of Concerned Farmers is what will happen if their crops are contaminated with genetically modified seed.
They fear it will be impossible for farmers to separate traditional from modified crops, so they’ll be unable to sell to customers opposed to GM foods.
And they’re worried that if their crops are found to contain GM produce, they’ll have to pay royalties to the bio-tech companies which own the patents.
JULIE NEWMAN: We as the polluted have to pay a royalty. So we are expected to pay for getting contaminated. So one seed in our sample – which we will get because contamination will happen – could mean that the GM company has the right, as it does in Brazil, to deduct a user fee.
So automatically every farmer pays a percentage of their income to the GM companies.
ASHLEY HALL: The Network of Concerned Farmers says the biotech companies accept no liability for any contamination or loss of income that might follow.
So the Network is turning its attention to individual farmers, sending them letters, warning that they could face legal action if they plant GM crops and there are problems.
Julie Newman says there’s been a hostile response.
JULIE NEWMAN: It will be very difficult to take legal action against your neighbour but that is our only avenue of protection and we will take it. And that’s why we are distributing letters to GM farmers warning them that ‘no we will not accept any economic loss and it is their responsibility to contain their product and pay for any economic loss if it happens’. And they’re not too happy about this.
ASHLEY HALL: But members of the pro-GM group, the Producers Forum say the network’s fears about GM food safety amount to a scare campaign.
Chris Kelly is a canola grower in Woomelang in Victoria’s Mallee region, and the state convenor of the Producers Forum.
CHRIS KELLY: We don’t like to grow any crop that is certainly unsafe, that would be financially a very bad decision for us. We believe the European Food Safety Authority, the American Food and Drug Administration Authority and the World Health Organisation, the United Nations FAO, these are all the world’s most eminent scientists sit on these bodies and they believe the technology is very safe.
ASHLEY HALL: He says he’s not concerned by the threat of legal action, because all the evidence shows that GM crops can be contained without affecting neighbouring properties.
CHRIS KELLY: I think farmers just want to move on with the job. The Network of Concerned Farmers have had four years to voice their concerns and there have been a lot of reviews by government and independent bodies and quite frankly we don’t see any problems. We feel the science has been done on the subject and the state government and the Department of Agriculture feel that with good management this should not be an issue.
MARK COLVIN: Chris Kelly, the Victorian convenor of the Producers’ Forum; he was talking to Ashley Hall.