Beyond grassroots

Community garden. Photo by Don Sheil.
The introduction of genetically modified foods into Australia was heralded as an opportunity to increase efficiency and reduce water usage. However, skepticism in the community has encouraged residents to take matters into their own backyards. Donal Shiel reports.

Victoria Park railway station in Melbourne’s north is devoid of anything visually striking, as two adjacent concrete slabs provide a pathway for Melbourne’s bustling public transport.

However, just a few paces down from platform 1 you’ll spot a lush community garden teeming with rows of carrots and cabbages.

Gardens such as these have sprouted up all over Melbourne thanks to the help of 3000acres, an organisation that works alongside local councils to use vacant land for the creation of community gardens.

Ellie Blackwood, a team member at 3000acres, says city siders are sorely missing an opportunity to cultivate their own food.

“The system isn’t really set up for people to connect with food,” she says.

The disconnect many Australians have towards where their food comes from is only set to grow as genetically modified food becomes more prevalent on our store shelves.

Australian crops have included genetically modified varieties since 1996. Most of these are made of cotton and canola.

According to Cotton Australia, representing the cotton industry, almost all Australian cotton uses some form of biotechnology.

Most varieties of GM crops in Australia contain one of three enhancements: either a natural resistance to the herbicide glyphosate which is found in the weed killer ’round-up’; a self-producing pesticide known as BT; or modification to improve a crop’s water consumption.

The introduction of genetically modified foods into Australia was heralded as an opportunity to increase efficiency and reduce water usage. However, experts and others have been largely sceptical.

Gene Ethics executive director Bob Phelps says genetically modified foods have failed to achieve the promised results they carried when first introduced.

“It’s been rolling along on the basis of false promises for the last 30 years, now we need a review,” Phelps says. “We particularly need to look at the benefits derived from the billions of dollars of public money that was spent. Did we actually get anything out of it?”

Don Blackmore, former head of the Murray Darling Basin Commission, also doubts the need for GM crops, saying Australia’s agricultural security is not something to be concerned about.

“Australia is completely food secure,” he says.

While genetically modified strains have shown “marginal improvements in efficiency,” according to Blackmore, they are not vital to reach Australia’s agricultural demand.

“Genetic engineering will be a part of the future, love it or hate it…It won’t bring massive chances to water efficiency though.”

Tammi Jones, president of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, agrees. “There is plenty of evidence that small-scale organic agriculture can feed the world,” she says.

While experts are certain GM crops are not needed to reach Australia’s agricultural demands, the long and short-term health effects of consuming GM ingredients is yet to be fully proven.

Dangerously high levels of glyphosate (found in the aforementioned herbicide ‘round-up’) were present in human breast milk during a 2014 study by Mothers Across America (MAM).

According to a recent study conducted by MAM, high levels of glyphosate in mammals is known to cause cancer, birth defects, and neurological disorders.

CSIRO and Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) insist that all GM crops in Australia receive scrupulous testing and regulation before they leave laboratories.

The CSIRO has been continuously questioned over its testing methods, though remains certain it is conducting the correct examinations. “These regulations require safe conduct of gene technology research within laboratories…and for the controlled and safe release of genetically modified organisms into the environment,” it says.

Fran Murrell, co-founder of Mothers Are Demystifying Genetic Engineering (MADGE), is not convinced. She says regulatory bodies have been negligent when conducting studies of GM strains.

“There is no requirement for long-term, multigenerational, developmental and fertility testing on any GM plants by any regulator anywhere in the world,”she says. “It’s outrageous.”

Certain GM foods are known to include genes from multiple species, which has the potential to alter proteins within crops and cause potentially harmful effects upon consumption.

Molecular geneticist Dr Michael Antoniou argued this in a 2015 lecture, saying “GM has unpredictable outcomes, you don’t know in advance what the consequences of the GM transformation process may bring… you need to conduct these long term studies.”

FSANZ responded to such claims in a statement, saying: “FSANZ has established a rigorous and transparent process for assessing the safety of GM foods.”

Furthermore, the lack of well-defined labelling of GM ingredients has repeatedly sparked the flame of anti-GM groups. FSANZ has no labelling regulation for meat, eggs or milk that comes from animals who were fed GM grain in their lifespan.

While anti-GM organisations have conducted copious reports on the potential health risks of consuming GM products, or products obtained from animals fed GM grain, no such report has yielded results significant enough to bring legal attention to the assessment methods of either the CSIRO or FSANZ.

In fact, the law has favoured GM foods.

Late last year, Western Australian organic farmer Steve Marsh lost his legal battle with a neighbouring farmer after his crop was contaminated with GM seeds.

Tammi Jones says she believes cases such as Marsh’s “set a very dangerous precedent” which says that we have no right to keep contamination off our farms from GM produce and that this could potentially destroy the organic movement.

A debate fuelled by scientific studies but ruled by emotion, anti-GM organisations have yet to show without doubt that consuming GM foods will cause immediate and severe harm to humans. The lack of long-term toxicity tests by the CSIRO and FSANZ may very well be a contributor to this.

“This is not an emotional debate, we are trying to get to the facts as well,” Phelps says.

However, for Ellie Blackwood the many community gardens emerging across Melbourne are more than just an opportunity for people to see where their food comes from. Ultimately each provides a platform for people to start engaging with their food as a community.

“These gardens are much more than growing food… we’re trying to foster a conversation and a sense of community where it hadn’t existed before…it’s quite equalising,” she says.