Genetically modified ("GM")1 crops created by modern agricultural bio-technology have attracted worldwide attention over the past decade.2 Genetic modification involves the alteration of an organism's genetic material by manipulation of its DNA.3 A set of genes is removed from the DNA of one organism and inserted into the DNA of another, resulting in the production of genetically modified seeds.4 Such a transfer of genetic information across natural species barriers may not occur naturally through conventional breeding or hybridization.5 Principally, "GM crops are plants engineered by scientists who have inserted pieces or strands of foreign genetic material in an effort to change or supplement one or more of the plant's traits."6 In 2007, 114,000,000 hectares (281,000,000 million acres) of GM crops were cultivated in twenty-three countries, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).7 The GM varieties of soy and cotton have become widely accepted and account for approximately ninety percent of production in this sector.8
Nobel-laureate agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug9 has detailed the true value of genetic engineering:
With the technology that we now have available, and with the research information that's in the pipeline and in the process of being finalized to move to production, we have the know-how to produce the food that will be needed to feed the population of 8.3 billion people that will exist in the world in 2025.10
Dr. Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization ("FAO"), has said that "[GMOs] can help to increase the supply, diversity and quality of food products and reduce costs of production and environmental degradation, as the world still grapples with the scourge of hunger and malnutrition . . . ."11 Finding the means to feed a growing global population, which is predicted to reach more than nine billion by 2050, 12 is a challenge that must be faced in coming decades.13 The United Nations estimates that agricultural output will have to rise fifty percent by 2030 to meet this increased demand.14 GM technology has the potential to revolutionize world agriculture, particularly in developing countries, in ways that would substantially reduce malnutrition, improve food security, increase rural income, and possibly even reduce environmental pollutants.15
However, GM products have also generated enormous public concern16 regarding the health, environmental, legal, social and ethical issues raised by gene technology. While the debates over the advantages and disadvantages will continue, genetic engineering is already changing the face of agriculture.17 This article explains the arguments at the center of the debate and discusses the potential benefits and risks of GMOs. The legal issues surrounding GM crops have received less attention than the more popular social and environmental issues. In an effort to address this imbalance, this article presents a complex and critical focus on the legal liability issues associated with GM crops and the approach currently applied in Australia. In doing so, this article reviews the existing responsibilities under the Australian Gene Technology Act 2000 (Cth), identifies its limitations and offers possible solutions.
II. POTENTIAL BENEFITS AND RISKS OF GMOS
Many of the attitudes towards the use of GMOs in agriculture involve concerns about trust and perceived risk.18 Public perception of the use of genetic modification in food production is very emotionally charged, and it is therefore essential that the risks and benefits are considered carefully. This section examines the benefits and the risks-both perceived and actual-of GM food. The negative perceptions and fears about genetically modified foods worldwide are considerable.19 It has been suggested that some consumers reject GM food and agriculture because consumers believe they could be health hazards. …