Australia's SBS "Insight" program hosted by Jenny Brockie, a multi-award winning journalist and documentary maker with more than 20 years experience in quality broadcasting, today looked at GM Foods in Australia. Monsanto and supermarkets declined to appear.

Genetically Modified ("GM") foods are already on Australia's supermarket shelves, but due to Australia's labeling system, consumers may not know they are eating it. GM foods are pushed hard by bio-tech giants like Monsanto and Bayer.

The ban on growing genetically modified canola crops has been lifted in NSW and Victoria and it's predicted that a growing number of other GM crops will be approved over the coming years.

France and much of Europe strongly opposes GM foods, while the U.S. and Canada, countries with a much lower educational average, have embraced GM foods.

In Australia, the most populous states of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland have given the go ahead for GM crops, while other states in Australia maintain a ban on growing them.

The SBS Special Broadcasting System's program Insight took a look at how safe eating GM foods is, what research has been done, and how Australians can know what they are eating. The results were a clear damnation of GM foods.
Surveys show that most Australians, especially young males, are blindly trustful about what appears on super market shelves assuming that such products are safe and have undergone sufficient testing, with females and older generations being more circumspect.

Consumers who themselves have taken a look at GM foods feel that the research conducted into this field is biased as it is conducted by scientists commissioned by companies who stand to gain billions of dollar from GM foods.

Rob Knowles, head of the Food Standards authority of Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), was asked if he could assure Australian consumers whether the genetically modified (GM) food they are eating now is safe now and in the long term. Instead of answering "yes", he responded that the safety of a GM food product is "compared" with the safety of a non-GM product "on the basis of current knowledge".

Jeffrey Smith in Iowa, USA, the author of 'Genetic Roulette', when asked what evidence he had that GM foods are dangerous, said he had "worked with more than 30 scientists over 2 years to compile all the known health risk of GMO's (Genetically Modified Organisms), and had linked them with thousands of sick, sterile and dead livestock, thousands of toxic allergic reactions, and damage to virtually every organ and every system in lab animals."

He said that the fundamental assumptions that were used as a basis of safety claims and the evaluation process is not competent to even identify most of the 65 risks that the scientists looked at.

"It turns out that the process of inserting a gene results in massive collateral damage in the DNA, so at the end of the day you have 2 to 4 percent difference in the DNA after you've inserted a gene. All these mutations can create allergies, toxins and new diseases, and this is what was warned about by the Food and Drug Administration scientists in the United States."

Dr T J Higgins, the chief scientist on GM at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), which website bills itself as "delivering solutions for agribusiness, energy and transport, environment and natural resources, health, information technology, telecommunications, manufacturing and mineral resources" was asked if he thought genetically modified food was safe and said that he thinks it is as safe as food made from conventional plants.

He said that GM is a "new technique in plant breeding". Asked why he is so confident that foods altered by genetic modification are safe in the long term, he said it is "closely related to other techniques used for 10,000 years to modify our plants and our animals" without explaining further.

Clare Hughes of "Choice" said that the majority of GM crops permitted for use in Australian food include genetically modified soya beans, corn, canola and cotton. Derivatives of those crops are found in things like baked goods, in spreads that are based on oils, in confectionery (sweets), and in corn products like chips. The oil products don't require labeling, she said, as well as foods for animals, which we in turn eat.

Jeffrey Smith said that "when we fed genetically modified soy to mother rats, more than half of the offspring died within three weeks. When the testicles of rats were looked at which were fed GM soy, there were changes in their cells. When we looked at the cells of testicles in mice that were fed GM soy there was not only changes in the sperm cells but also the embryo of offspring also had changes in their DNA expression. Also, genetically modified soy has up to 7 times the amount of a known allergen, and soon after GM soy was introduced to the UK, soy allergies sky-rocketed by 50%."

He said that the "greatest concern for many people is that the only human feeding study every conducted on genetically modified foods, showed that the genes that were inserted into soy beans, transferred to the DNA of human gut bacteria, and continued to function. That means, long after we stop eating genetically modified foods, we can have foreign genetically modified protein, produced continuously inside our intestines."

Dr Judy Carman of the Institute of Health and Environmental Research said that the food standards authorities in Australia and New Zealand do not require any human studies to be done before they declare a food safe. They don't require animal studies to be done either before a food is declared safe. FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand) don't require any of these studies to be done. They say they will take studies into account if they are presented with them.

She also pointed out that "most of the animal feeding studies that are done with GM foods actually just assume that the GM plant is going to produce the novel thing that they expect the plant to produce, and then they take a purified sample of this, which usually comes from a bacteria that is genetically engineered, not even the plant, and they feed one single dose down the throats of some rats to basically see if they die over the next 7 to 14 days, and that's all."

Rob Knowles, head of the Foods Standards of Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), when questioned about the requirements for the labeling of foods, said that as "usually there is no presence of novel or modified protein FSANZ has adopted a policy whereby if it is possible to test, that product should be labeled as such." He said the European Union have a requirement in Europe that any presence needs to be labeled, but that "the difficulty with that is that the only way you can ensure compliance is having a quite stringent look for traceability."

He said that although tracing GM food presence is possible "the cost is huge and it is often used by countries as a way of avoiding free trade, that they use it as a protective trade restriction, and Australia and New Zealand have both argued in international forums that traceability is an artificial way of preventing free trade". This was said to the mirth of the audience, as Knowles pushed the argument that developing countries should allow in "frankenstein" foods simply as they don't have the ability to test for its safety, similar to what Australia and New Zealand are doing under his FSANZ lack of oversight.

When asked why canola, which in Australia is genetically modified, does not carry labels saying so even when it is known that this is the case, Knowles, who appeared to act as a spokesperson for profitable capitalist industries and the "free trade" of GM food worldwide rather than the head of a food standards agency, said: "Because to do it we would have to trace every grain back to its source of production, and the cost of doing that would be prohibitively expensive for industry and would reflect in very significantly higher food prices for the whole population."

One of the evident results of the discourse on prime time television in Australia on the SBS Insight program, was that the Foods Standards authority of Australia and New Zealand has little to do with health and safety issues and more to do with some random standards which suit industry but do not satisfy consumers of those products, observers noted.

The Producers Forum's Jeff Bidstrup, a farmer who grows GM crop revealed that his produce goes into the "oil of most of the fish and chips shops in Australia, and to dairy and feed cattle." He confirmed that consumers in Australia would not know, since there is no labeling of such produce to say it contains genetically modified organism. He said that the absence of labeling "has been that way for 12 years now and there have been no adverse effects I'm aware of at all." He did not say whether he thought the rise in cancers was an adverse effect.

Rob Knowles, head of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) said that "the obligation is on proponent to establish that it is safe and to submit all of the testing that they have undertaken which is then subject to review by our own scientists", thus revealing a big legal opportunity if, as is evidently the case in Australia and was shown recently to be in South Africa, the bio-tech companies proposing GM foods do not indeed show the negative results of some of their testing instead of only the positive results crafted along the loose lines outlined above by Dr Carman.

Knowles admitted under questioning that "proponents" means the companies that are "actually behind it, the big companies like Monsanto and Bayer". When asked if there is any requirement for independent testing to be done, he said "Well, the proponent has to submit all of the testing that they've undertaken, and our approach is consistent with what food authorities do all around the world [notwithstanding the contradiction earlier where he complained about the majority of countries refusing GM foods if they know them to be such and that those countries did not have the facilities to test produce for traces of genetic modification] but we don't do separate testing, we require the proponent to provide the proof of the safety, and our scientists if you like, review that work.

Asked whether the testing undertaken by those bio-tech giant proponents of GM foods that FSANZ review is publicly available, he said "some of it is and some of it is not. Some of it is commercial in confidence, which means that our scientists get to see it but we are not at liberty to publish that material." When asked why the public could not see such material he said that "great investments are made in this material and if in fact the research is published before the company is able to get approval and its product onto the market, then of course you reduce the investment in any of that research work.

The pronouncements of Knowles on the SBS program have laid open the way for legal challenges and future compensation claims against FSANZ and its scientists, and charges that its interests are toward industry and economy rather than the safety and health of citizens in Australia and abroad.

Dr Judy Carman of the Institute of Health and Environmental Research pointed out that most of the information that FSANZ possesses is done by the GM crop company seeking approval, is not released to the public, and is not published in peer review scientific journals.

Dr Chris Preston of the University of Adelaide, said he "takes a scientists view on this" but later under questioning admitted that he received funds from GM interests. Thus suspected of being a spokesperson on behalf of the GM food industry, he said that the reason food tests are not done on humans is because animals under these tests are fed large amounts of this food and to do so with humans would be unethical. He said humans could not eat the same food three times a day for three months without "going to the pub for a fish and chips and a beer." He said the second reason is that you cannot then dissect the human afterwards.

Dr Carman, who is doing ongoing animal trials, has however done human trials before, and set Chris Preston straight by saying that "the golden standard how to determine the effect of something on humans, is the four phases of a clinical trial. It has been long established over a long period of time. But before you get there you have to do some thorough animal testing first, because quite often what happens with pharmaceuticals is that they fail at the animal testing stage, and if they fail there they don't go on to each of the four phases of the clinical trial. GM foods haven't gone through anything like that and that's the main problem.

Dr T J Higgins of the CSIRO, who appeared on a video link from India said that in work he had been involved in himself, he had been testing a genetically modified pea to protect it against an insect pest and he found that there was an adverse reaction in mice to the genetically modified peas and "work was stopped immediately." He said it was a "mild reaction".

However, Dr Carman revealed that Dr Higgins' pea test had failed on all five allergic reaction tests and that that was the reason is was pulled back from marketing because it could have caused some severe allergic reactions to people. GM foods that are assessed by FSANZ - the food authority in Australia and New Zealand - however don't even go through that process, "they don't go through any animal studies like that whatsoever, and what this study shows is that they should."

Dr Chris Preston then gave what appeared to be a diversion performance of several sentences which seemed incomprehensible even to the assorted scientists in the studio who made faces of incredulity. When asked where the funding for his research comes from, he responded: "At the moment, the bulk of the funding for my research comes from, the [indistinguishable] Research and Development Corporation, I also have funding from the Federal Government from the CRC for Wheat, I also have some funding from the State Government of South Australia." When asked again about funding for his past research and whether he had relied on the big biotechnology firms for his funding, he said:

"OK, I've had funding from a whole range of sources over the years, err, to put it in context, ahm, my current funding that I did for research is almost half a million dollars this year, ahh, and the last funding I got from an agro-chemical company was ten thousand dollars, that was the end of 2005, prior to that we did a gene flow study where i think it was around twenty, thirty thousand dollars that we got from the industry for that. Mostly when I get funding from industry, and I get a little bit of funding from industry, it's really small amounts for particular projects and my attitude to that funding is I actually get involved in these projects if they are of benefit to me, and that is the answering questions I want to answer."

"Industry" in the parlance of GMO proponents, means the multi-billion dollar bio-technology companies pushing this new science onto the world, using entire populations as "guinea pigs" by unleashing them into the food chain, rather than containing their experiments to scientific labs.

Dr Judy Carman questioned on the sources of her funding for her research, said that she gets funding "from the Western Australian government and also from a body in the United States and also from ordinary mums and dads." When asked what the body in the United States is she said that Jeffrey Smith's group has given the Institute of Health and Environmental Research a small amount of funding to be able to expand upon the funding we've got from the Western Australian government. She said that the funding does "not tell us how to do the research". She revealed that in terms of every day funding, she had had to retire in order to be able to do this research and that she has "lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages in order to investigate her deep concerns about the safety of GM crops."

Dr T J Higgins, asked about whether the CSIRO receives funding from GMO companies such as Monsanto and Bayer, said "The CSIRO spends about 2 percent of its budget on GM related research, and less than a tenth of that would come from multi-national corporations. Most of our funding comes from non-profit organizations... from cooperative research centers and from small companies." He admitted money is coming from GMO companies but said it is only very small amounts, and claimed that the work is not affected by it. That companies like Monsanto can use third parties for donations was not addressed.

Dr Maarten Sapper, a former principal research scientist at the CSIRO, when asked if he supported other types of gene technology like stem cell research or gene therapy, said "I don't support those research directions, because we don't need to have those solutions if we eat properly, if we get good food with a high mineral density, so I'm on the track of biological farming, which is reducing the use of chemicals in fertilizers so that we get a higher quality of food for us humans, and less chemicals." He said that genes express themselves from the surrounding, and so the cause and not the symptoms requires addressing.

Dr Robert Sparrow, a Bioethicist at Monash University, said that "we need to be looking not only at where the direct sources of funding come from but also the institutional culture and the way in which science operates today. If you are a young research scientist, coming up in research in biology, not being pro GM, is a real career handicap. I think that becoming an expert in this area, to most people means being willing to work on the modified crops."

Australian grain farmer Graham Strong, is part of a network of concerned farmers opposed to growing genetically modified crops. This network is "totally self funded from their own pockets." He said "I am not going to grow anything that the market is not demanding, full stop. If there is any question about health issues, whether they are real or perceived, there is no way I am going to touch it. I have contracts for wheat that I sign off on quite happily at the moment because there is no GM in it, for a very large Australian company... Now suddenly I am pushed toward a niche market. Suddenly I've got to bear all the costs and liabilities, even down stream if there are health effects."

Julie Stave in the studio audience, summed up the concerns of citizens when she said "listening to all this, I now assume there are quite a few things that we are consuming on a daily basis, including if you eat a diet that is high in fried foods, if you eat fish and chips, if you eat potato chips, if you eat corn chips, you will consume a product with glucose in it that comes from corn syrup, if you consume supermarket bread that has a soy product in it, as most people do, there are people out there who without them knowing, are consuming a high amount of genetically modified product. And I'd like to be able to have the choice not to, so I want to know where it is."

When asked what benefits GM crops have, farmer Jeff Bidstrup of the "Producers Forum" which says it is "fighting for access to bio technology", said: "We've seen an 85% reduction in pesticides, we've seen massive environmental benefit, we've seen massive social benefits, and to a lesser degree economic benefits, but we've seen a whole change of our lifestyle and in the environment of our rural communities." The presenter did not ask him to elucidate on these sweeping social benefits and lifestyle changes. Instead, he was asked on the source of the funding for the "Producers Forum" to which Bidstrup said: "We're generally voluntary, we receive a little bit of funding from the grain growers association which is an organization of grain growers, this has been around 30 years or quite some time, to the absolute best of my knowledge they get no funding at all from any bio tech company and they fund our website, a little bit of travel, and so forth."

When pressed further about his relationship with Cotton Seed Distributors, Mr Bidstrup admitted that he is also the director of Cotton Seed Distributors "which is a not for profit co-op for farms, that actually sells CSIRO rice to farmers and we do also get money off Monsanto which we pool back into growing, into breeding varieties for Australian farmers of cotton for the benefit of Australian farmers." When it was pointed out to Bidstrup that he is thus connected to Monsanto he said: "Haha, I don't see any connection there that is any issue, it is totally a farmer co-op" then said "yes" while shrugging his shoulders in embarrassment.

Senator Lyn Allison of the Australian Democrats Party, said that "there are a number of reasons why we need independent research that is open, that is verifiable, which is transparent and which we can all look at. One of those reasons is that because there is so much money involved in GM foods. What we know is that it is likely that four companies will control all of the seed around the world, pretty much 70 to 100%, 100% in some cases, and that the cost of seed has gone up 600% as I understand it, those companies tightly control what the farmers do, through the patents system, so that's another reason that we haven't talked about tonight, about why people have a suspicion that what is being hidden from them might not be in their interest."

"I am not a scientist, but I am interested in what scientists have to say about what process has been gone through leading up to FSANZ approval of canola in this country, in particular, and that if there is criticism about that process, then it needs to be properly explored. Because we are talking here of a very big issue, that could change the course of food production around the world. So it is no small thing, and we need to get it right, and that is why if scientists are criticizing it as Judy and Maarten are, then we need to talk that out and get to the bottom of it", Senator Lyn Allison said.

Jeffrey Smith, author of 'Genetic Roulette' when asked if he saw any benefits to genetically modified crop development said: "Sure, in the possible future. I believe that products of infant science should not be fed to millions of people, or released into the environment where they can never be recalled. I urge the industry to put it back in the laboratory. As one scientist I heard said, wait 50 to 100 years while you do your homework. Independent scientists agree that this thing was thrust into the market long before the science was ready."

"The current generation (of GM foods) is fraught with unpredictable side effects. For example, we now know that genes transfer from the foods we eat into the gut bacteria, there's corn that produces its own pesticide, if a gene transfers to our gut bacteria it may turn our intestinal flora to living pesticide factories. The anti-biotic resistant marker genes in food might produce super diseases. These are the concerns raised by scientists all over for the current generation. Maybe some day in the future we can safely and predictably manipulate the DNA for the benefit of health and the environment. But right now the assumptions about genetic engineering are forty years old and false, and we don't have the safety assessments in place, to protect the public", Smith said.

An international report released last week expressed concerns about containing GM crops, and Bidstrup was questioned if he thought that was an issue for Australian farmers. "No, I don't believe that is an issue, so long as we only grow registered crops. It is no more likely to cross out than it's conventional counterpart", he said.

It was pointed out by presenter Jenny Brockie, that if it does however cross out, it changes the whole nature of the product that one farmer is producing next door. Farmer Graham Strong agreed: "Yes absolutely. It does not necessarily mean canola to canola, a canola field one side and GM canola the other, but also canola to wheat. I have been trying to get to the bottom of what do I do if I get my wheat contaminated by GM canola. As I said before I need to sell my wheat as non-GM, and no one can tell me, Monstanto can't tell me, Aqua can't tell me, none of these people can tell me."

The bio-tech companies Bayer and Monsanto were invited to appear, but they declined. SBS television also asked more than 40 food producers, the major supermarkets and the Food and Grocery Council to join the discussion and they said no too. It is clearly not easy to find out about the food you eat in Australia.