Sep 30, 2016

Aus GE food labelling debate: what it means for us

Last month, we reported on the recommendation by Australia's Productivity Commission that Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) drop GE food labelling.

With public submissions into the Draft Report now closed, OANZ's Niki Morrell has been following its progress and investigating the ramifications for New Zealand if the Australian Government decides to act on the Commission's GE-related recommendations.


Category: General
Posted by: oanz

Last month, we reported on the recommendation by Australia's Productivity Commission that Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) drop GE food labelling.

The recommendation was part of a much broader, nine-month public inquiry into the "regulatory burden on farm businesses" commissioned by the Australian Government.

The Draft Report, released in July, also advocated that state governments remove all existing prohibitions on genetically-modified crops and repeal legislation enabling them to prohibit the cultivation of these crops.

Current situation
The Draft Report was released on 21 July 2016. Public submissions on the report closed in September. The final Inquiry Report will be handed to the Australian Government on 15 November. The Government must then table the report in both its Houses of Parliament within 25 sitting days of receipt.

GE-related recommendations in the Draft Report
The following are taken directly from the Report:

There is no economic or health and safety justification for banning the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) organisms.
• The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) and Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) assess GM organisms and foods for their effect on health, safety and the environment. Scientific evidence indicates that GM organisms and foods approved by the OGTR and FSANZ are no less safe than their non-GM counterparts.
• The successful coexistence of GM and non-GM crops is possible and has been demonstrated both in Australia and overseas. This means that if there are any market access or trade benefits (including price premiums for non-GM products), they would be achieved regardless of whether GM crops are in the market.

The New South Wales, South Australian, Western Australian, Tasmanian and Australian Capital Territory governments should remove their moratoria (prohibitions) on genetically modified crops. All state and territory governments should also repeal the legislation that imposes or gives them powers to impose moratoria on the cultivation of genetically modified organisms by 2018. The removal of the moratoria and repeal of the relevant legislation should be accompanied by the provision of accurate information about the risks and benefits to the Australian community from genetic modification technologies. State and territory governments, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator and Food Standards Australia New Zealand should actively coordinate the provision of this information.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand should remove the requirement in the Food Standards Code to label genetically modified foods.

[Supporting information] 
Some participants argued that mandatory labelling of GM should be removed because GM foods are safe (and mandatory labelling imposes a cost on businesses). All GM foods must undergo a safety assessment by FSANZ, and therefore GM labelling is a consumer value issue, not a food safety issue. The Commission is not convinced that GM labelling should be mandatory merely to inform consumer choices — if consumers want to avoid GM foods, suppliers have an incentive to respond by voluntarily labelling their product as ‘GM-free’. While some consumers may use GM labels as an indication of food safety, the labelling of food in this way conflicts with regulatory assessments of the safety of GM foods. Consumers’ concerns about the safety of GM foods would be better addressed by providing accurate and accessible information about the scientific evidence.

The report has attracted 302 submissions: 92 initial submissions and a further 210 after the Draft Report’s release. Many submissions by individuals relate solely to the two GE-related recommendations.

Farmer groups including Grain Producers Australia, the National Farmers’ Federation and affiliates such as WAFarmers spoke strongly in favour of one, or both GE-related recommendations. Unsurprisingly, groups like the Environmental Farmers Network, the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance and GE-free Tasmanian producers including the Tasmanian Red Meat Industry Council spoke strongly against them.

Likelihood of the Australian Government adopting the recommendations
The Government is under no obligation to act on any of the Productivity Commission’s recommendations. Historically, however, it has usually taken on board more than it has rejected.

Implications for New Zealand if the Australian Government approves removal of GE food labelling
Food policy covering labelling and composition for both countries is set by the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation. FSANZ’s role is to develop and administer the policy. Glen Neal, General Manager Food Standards with FSANZ, says there are safeguards built in to the process that ensure New Zealand retains authority over its food supply.

“If Australia felt strongly enough about this recommendation – and that’s a big if – the Australian Government would have to get the Ministerial Council to instruct FSANZ to do something about its GM standards,” he says. “FSANZ would have to take on board all the requirements listed in the Act for setting or changing a standard and that includes public consultation.

“At the end of the day, New Zealand can still opt out of any particular arrangement should it choose to do so.”

He says the Country of Origin labelling requirements are a clear example of where New Zealand has previously opted out of trans-Tasman arrangements.

Implications for New Zealand if the Australian Government approves the removal of state and territory moratoria on GE crops and the repeal of local laws prohibiting their cultivation
This is a contentious recommendation. Australia’s Federal Government would probably prefer to let the wrangling remain at a state and territory level. If adopted, it will certainly add fuel to the fires of GM lobby groups in New Zealand, who are no doubt following the Report's progress with interest.