Report from Australia: On biotechnology, sheep, and “beautiful lies”

This is the second guest post from Melbourne writer Jillian Burt, who also has her own blog, Yamazaki’s Notebook. (Read her first report from Australia.)


“Drought-burdened sheep feeling the first rain in 12 months outside Nurioopta, South Australia.” Photograph by Charlie 2.0 at Flickr.

I’ve been aware that there are probably foods made from genetically modified crops on the shelves of supermarkets in Australia because the made-in-Australia tofu I buy from Asian convenience stores proudly trumpets its absence. Yenson’s Extra Smooth Silken Bean Curd lists its ingredients as Soya Bean (GMO Free), Water and Mineral Salt (516, 575). I avoid food labeled with long strings of numbers and polysyllabic ingredients, and even with only the slenderest knowledge of genetically modified food, I instinctively shun it too. It seems something dangerously strange, unknowable, alien. Goofy plant/animal hybrids don’t seem appetizing to me.

The Victorian Government has a website with information on ‘healthier living’ that promotes genetic modification of food as something expedient, accelerating evolution and acting with more imagination than nature. In theory, genetic engineering allows genetic material to be transferred between any organism, including between plants and animals. For example, the gene from a fish that lives in very cold seas has been inserted into a strawberry, allowing the fruit to be frost-tolerant. As yet, this has not been incorporated into currently available commercial food crops.

Last Sunday morning the lead news story on the home page of my Yahoo! Australia account was an Australian Associated Press brief report that the Victorian government was expected to lift the ban on growing genetically modified crops when it expires at the end of February next year. “Pressure has come from farm groups and the federal government,” the story suggested. GM supporters claim a surge in agricultural productivity could happen, with farmers able to plant crops resistant to weeds, insects, and salinity, and that need less water.

AAP quoted an interview in Melbourne’s newspaper, The Age, with Federal Minister for Agriculture Peter McGuaran, who said:

I strongly believe in the environmental and economic benefits of GM crops. Farmers have much to gain, particularly in times of drought, from growing GM crops such as wheat and canola that use less water and herbicides than conventional crops. Our farmers will endure significantly higher costs, for no greater return — and consume more water than necessary — if they are prevented from adopting GM technology. But for farmers to benefit, Victoria must lift its moratorium on GM crops.

In an editorial, The Age raised the question of exactly who those ‘farmers’ might be:

The debate is also about which corporations will control the world’s food. …Now the pro-GM publicity machine is highlighting the potential to create crops that use less water. Such claims might prove true but we should be clear about one thing: GM is bankrolled by huge multi-national corporations that stand to make huge money. That is why they can afford the best spin doctors and lobbyists that money can buy. To ask Big Agribusiness about GM is a little like consulting Big Tobacco about the risks of smoking.

And Victorian Agriculture Minister Joe Helper commented: “The federal Office of Gene Technology Regulator is responsible for the regulation of human and environmental-health issues, while the states have responsibility for marketing and production issues.”

The title ‘Federal Office of Gene Technology Regulator’ sent shivers down my spine. There’s also the Biotechnology Ministerial Council, which carries out the Australian Government’s policy of being “consistent with safeguarding human health and ensuring environmental protection, that Australia captures the benefits of biotechnology for the Australian community, industry and the environment, while protecting the safety of people and the environment.”

These websites are written in a cold, dull tone, with ugly jargon borrowed from the business world that the Australian writer Don Watson has called ‘weasel words.’ They’re meant to reassure us that people with insight and knowledge are thinking carefully and weighing up the advantages and disadvantages and protecting us from danger. Instead, reading these reports, I began thinking of agriculture and science and politics and business in brutish, nightmarish alliances: George Orwell’s novel “Animal Farm” and Alexis Rockman’s painting, “The Farm,” which is a speculative portrait of his research into genetic modification and climate change, and Richard Adams’ 1997 novel, “The Plague Dogs,” about the mistreatment of laboratory animals and two heroic dogs who defy the system.

In the AAP story, McGuaran said “it was time to move on.” I think that is the most odious phrase in the language of politics. It always makes me feel as if I’m being hurried past something important that I should be paying attention to, or that significant voices or events or data from the past are being buried. We’re being hurried past strategies about managing our water supply, too. This week I’ve been reading news stories about water restrictions (MS Word doc) creeping up from the mildly inconvenient stage 3 (where Melbourne is), to the “let’s get serious now” stage 4, to the savagely tough stage 5, which parts of Queensland are under, with bans on watering gardens, using sprinklers, washing motor vehicles and filling swimming pools. The states set their own levels for water restrictions, but the federal government is setting up a plan to connect and synthesize the different approaches to water. Its plans are shrouded in secrecy. Through the Freedom of Information act, the Seven Television network (which owns a stake in Yahoo! Australia) applied for papers relating to the federal government’s $10 billion national water plan, which, it noted incredulously, comprises only 22 documents and appears to have been created with few consultations with experts within or outside of government.

In this country, there’s a panicky, hazy quality to the thinking through of the big environmental issues, particularly those that involve water: Australians are being asked to make split-second, life-or-death decisions whose unexplored and unpredictable consequences will reach far into the future, many lifetimes beyond our own, and the solutions might be far worse than the parched state the country finds itself in now. Ironically, the debates about secrecy and water allocations are being played out this week while it’s raining in in parts of Australia, although it’s unclear whether the water is falling into catchment areas where it can be stored.

I live in Melbourne’s CBD and if it’s raining, I take a detour to the City Library through the department stores Myer or David Jones. On Wednesday, I was hurrying to a meeting and rushed out through the front doors of David Jones without looking and ran straight into a pen of sheep beside the tram tracks. There were also Alpacas and a kid goat with long, silky wool. A crafts display was being packed up, and there was a huge Chanel advertisement propped against the side of the alpacas’ pen. These were pampered, plump, and well-groomed animals: ornamental creatures. Their kin who live on working farms are more likely to resemble the one in the photograph at the top of this post.

Urban Australians have a disconnected, petting-zoo experience with agriculture, yet have made national icons of rugged individuals who tamed the land in order to graze sheep and cattle: see the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame. Not looking deeply at our agricultural practices, from the time of the arrival of the first European settlers, has prevented us from appreciating the gravity of our environmental problems and finding solutions to them, believes environmental scientist Tim Flannery.

Consider the sheep. It was one of the first species introduced into Australia, arriving with the First Fleet in 1788. In Flannery’s 2003 essay “Beautiful Lies,” from the Quarterly Essays series, he writes that giving large patches of land over to grazing sheep signaled the beginning of this continent’s environmental degradation and the disappearance of some native fauna. When Australia was going through good times agriculturally in the 1950s, with wool and meat production buoyant, the country was said to be “riding on the sheep’s back.” Lately the export of live sheep to be slaughtered in other countries has drawn vociferous criticism from animal rights groups because of the way they’re treated during transport.

“In the face of the irrefutable, there are those who still argue that human resourcefulness, armed with technology, will save us if only given enough time,” writes Flannery. We would do well to consider what human resourcefulness and technology has done to our friend the sheep: Dolly, the sheep that was the first cloned animal, that was euthanized at the age of six, suffering from lung disease and arthritis and the accelerated effects of aging.

“Beautiful Lies” is a synthesis of two of Flannery books — last year’s “The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change,” an urgent call for action to face the issue of climate change, and the previous decade’s “The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People.” In the essay, he suggests that we’ll only be able to create a future by considering the past, with all of its complexities and contradictions, and that we have to begin by acknowledging the indigenous Australians, those who were here when the first European settlers arrived, and how they related to and inhabited the land. Our creation myth is our “founding lie,” he says, the notion that the First Fleet set foot on an empty land — terra nullius — whose “Aboriginal inhabitants of some 47,000 years’ tenure had, under British law, no rights to their country whatever.”

Flannery writes:

In a sense, colonisation resulted in a classic mismatch — Australia is the ultimate round peg in a square hole; the round peg being the colonial insertion of a European people, their domesticated species and their laws, while the square hole was the environment of the continent. Despite our long-held beliefs to the contrary — with all of our aspirations to create European gardens, drought-proof the continent and create an Anglo-Saxon society at the end of the world — it is the “square hole” of Australian nature that remains immutable. After two centuries of being bashed up by drought, flood, fire and ecological catastrophe of every kind, we are slowly discovering that if a fatal mismatch is not to occur, it is the shape of the round peg — the colonial insert — that will have to change.

The title for his essay is taken from a remark made by Samuel Langhorne Clemens (also known as Mark Twain) when visiting Australia; he said that Australian history reads like the most beautiful lies. “I think that Clemens felt that way,” writes Flannery, “because the histories he was given to read were indeed filled with romantic falsehood. From now on — for the next little while at least — the history we create must be more mundane. It should tell the story of a small country that did the best it possibly could for the people and the environment of the world.”

2 Responsesto “Report from Australia: On biotechnology, sheep, and “beautiful lies””

  1. Trevor Wells says:

    A very interesting website. It seems to me that if the Federal minister believes that there are GM plants which use less water and herbicides than unadulterated crops then he believes that pigs can fly. GM crops are specifically bred to sell herbicides. There is no gene that will make a food plant grow big and fat without water. We have had a professor here in Cape Town University who is always quoted as breeding drought resistant maize with a gene from a desert plant. The word is that no one in the labs where this is supposed to happen has ever seen it. The GM industry has only two genes. One to sell their herbicide and one that kills larvae (worms). This is the one that they claim reduces pesticides. Why then are there so many suicides in India? Because resource poor farmers invest heavily in these seeds which promise to kill insects but they only kill worms. When other insects attack their crop they then either lose their crop or invest in pesticides. Either way they go bankrupt and then commit suicide at the rate of one every 8 hours. Tragic but true.

  2. Anastasia Bodnar says:

    Yes, the big bad companies are bad. We all hate Round Up Ready – it is the opposite of sustainable farming. BT is a good idea, but Monsanto has made too many changes in the gene sequence, looking for bigger and bigger profits.

    If governments and non-profits spent more money on research, some real improvements could be made, improvements that actually benefit farmers and consumers. What so many people fail to realize is that universities with non-business interests are also researching crop improvement via genetic engineering.

    For example, Dr. Kan Wang of Iowa State University has some impressive stress resistant crops. Also at ISU, researchers are working to improve amino acid balance and iron levels in crop plants. This research has the goal of helping people, not lining someone’s pocketbook.

    All technologies have positive and negative applications. Please realize that all genetic engineering can not be lumped together.