Australian food firms urged to avoid GM canola

By Dominique Patton

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Maize, Genetic engineering

Environment campaigner Greenpeace is urging Australian food makers
to resist use of genetically modified canola, which has entered the
market in the wake of a sharp drop in domestic output.

Australia has banned commercial production of genetically modified (GM) canola until 2008 but it has been approved as safe for human consumption by the country's food authorities and food makers are allowed to use it if imported as an ingredient. Furthermore, under the country's regulations on GM foods, companies are only required to label finished products that can be shown to contain altered DNA when tested. Canola oil, used in food processing and for cooking, is highly refined and is unlikely to contain any protein (and therefore evidence of altered DNA). But the recent arrival of a shipment of Canadian canola has prompted Greenpeace to issue a statement attacking importer Cargill for ignoring the demands of consumers and failing to support the country's farmers. Louise Sales, genetic engineering campaigner with Greenpeace, accused the company of bringing in the supply for "purely financial" reasons. "The ludicrous situation of GE canola imports is not due to a lack of domestic supply; the real reason is purely financial,"​ she said. "Australian canola currently attracts a premium on world markets because of its GE-free status, whilst Canadian canola is discounted because of widespread consumer rejection."​ Cargill, the country's biggest oilseed processor, denied that it was benefitting from lower Canadian canola prices, with spokesman Robert Green saying the shipment was needed "to fill the deficit caused by drought"​. "We have only produced 160,000 tonnes on the east coast but there is demand of more than 500,000 tonnes in the area's food industry,"​ Green told AP-Foodtechnology.com. Although canola output has been higher on Australia's west coast, much of this has traditionally been exported to global markets seeking non-GM canola and producers are unwilling to lose these export contracts. Greenpeace said in a statement that the recently imported canola would make its way, unwanted and unlabelled, into products such as margarine and canola oil. Independent polls in recent years suggest that Australian consumers are largely against eating food containing genetically modified ingredients. Research by the Swinburne National Technology and Society Monitor found that only 30 per cent of 1,000 consumers surveyed last year were comfortable with genetically modifying plants for food. Several leading foodmakers have as a result said they will not be buying any of the canola oil. Goodman Fielder said it only uses Australian canola in its products. "We have already advised the owner of that shipment that we will not be buying any of the oil,"​ said the firm's spokesman. "The company has canola supply locked in well into next year so there's no need to panic."​ However he added: "But this is not to say that we won't be paying higher prices in the next 12 months or so."​ Goodman Fielder previously said that it would likely increase prices in line with higher wheat and canola costs. "It's a matter of what you're prepared to pay, and we believe that consumers are prepared to pay more for non-GM foods,"​ said the spokesman. Unilever, Woolworths and McDonalds have also told local media that they did not buy any of the shipment. However, Unilever told the Sydney Morning Herald​ newspaper that if the drought continued, next year's canola crop would also be limited and "everybody who uses canola oil will be under pressure" to buy genetically modified seed. "One of the major problems here is that canola oil is unlabelled so it's impossible for consumers to know. But we're trying to get a commitment from all major food producers that their products will remain GMO-free,"​ said Sales. Australia has previously imported other GM commodities such as soy and corn but it has primarily been used in animal feed. Meanwhile New Zealand's Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry said on Friday that it was investigating the importation of GM sweet corn that was inadvertently cleared by its quarantine service in October. Two consignments of sweet corn seeds imported from the US totalling 1,800kg were incorrectly cleared by MAF. It is now checking to see where these seeds were sent and whether any have been planted this season.

Related topics: Policy, Oceania, Supply chain

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