Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Tasmania Bans GM Indefinitely

By Ian Lowe

The Tasmanian government has turned its moratorium on genetically modified crops into an indefinite and complete ban.

The Tasmanian government’s decision in January to turn its moratorium on genetically modified crops into an indefinite complete ban sparked a vigorous debate. On one side, the state’s farmers’ organisation was very unhappy, saying that the moratorium was an opportunity to work through concerns with the community in the hope of gaining approval for GM crops.

I was interested to hear the farmers’ representative say that the most likely crop to be commercially viable was opium poppies, with the island state a major supplier of legal opiates for pharmaceutical use. On the other hand, she conceded, Tasmania’s beekeepers were strongly opposed to the use of GM crops.

Environmental campaigners wel­comed the move, saying that the 160 submissions to the government’s inquiry did not show commercial prospects for any of the modified plants. Gene Ethics director Bob Phelps pointed out that the licences for field trials of GM poppies had been surrendered more than a decade ago, while the trials of possible modified pasture grasses for dairy cattle had also been discontinued several years ago.

Gene Ethics argued that the State’s clean, green reputation allows it to claim premium prices for its produce. The farmers agreed that this argument holds for specialised products like those from King Island, but are not convinced that the benefits flow more generally.

As with the debate about GM crops on the mainland, the political issue is that so far the modified crops have offered little or no benefit to the consumer. Any benefits go just to growers and agri-business corporations. I suspect there will continue to be little political enthusiasm for the new technology.

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I recently took part in a TV discussion to mark the 50th anniversary of the US Surgeon-General’s report linking tobacco with lung cancer. About the same time as the US report came out, UK epidemiologists also joined up the dots and linked the sudden epidemic of lung cancer to smoking. Fifty years ago, the majority of adult Australians smoked.

Today, about 18% of men and 15% of women are still smokers. That is a social revolution.

Smoking was freely permitted on aircraft until 1972, when a domestic airline began designating part of the cabin non-smoking. Consumer choice gradually expanded the non-smoking section until 1992, when the government imposed a complete ban on smoking with barely a flicker of protest.

After Liesel Scholem successfully sued the NSW Department of Health for emphysema she contracted from exposure to the tobacco smoke of other employees, large employers began to restrict smoking in the workplace. Then unions representing those working in hotels, bars and restaurants successfully argued for their members to be protected from second-hand smoke.

We now know that tobacco is not just a major cause of lung cancer, but is also linked to a wide range of health problems and shortens the lives of half its users. But the industry is still vigorously promoting its products and using legal means to challenge restrictions.

The Gillard government mandated plain packaging and legislated for excise to increase by 12.5% per year from 2013. The Coalition opposed the move when in opposition, but do not seem anxious to forego the revenue the measure will generate.

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It’s the sort of thing you would like to think still happens now and again. CSIRO received a letter last year from a young Brisbane girl called Sophie, asking whether the science organisation had done any research on dragons. Sophie offered to care for a young dragon if one could be supplied.

CSIRO initially responded apologetically, saying they had neglected this area of study. But in January they used their 3-D printing facility in Melbourne to produce a titanium baby dragon, which they named Toothless.

Having previously used the technology to print very large, anatomically correct insects and well as biomedical implants, the Additive Manufacturing Facility decided they could produce a dragon and send it to Sophie. “Titanium is super-strong and light weight”, said the facility’s Operations Manager, Chad Henry, “so Toothless will be a very capable flyer”.

Apparently the young girl is now convinced that Australian scientists can do anything, and wants to become a scientist herself. It is great to have some good news to report.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.