Let's be smart on genetic crops

Bookmark and Share Food & Environment | Jennifer Marohasy
The Courier-Mail 22nd November, 2005

CSIRO has scrapped its $5 million project to develop a genetically modified pea because it produced an allergic reaction in trials on mice, according to a front page story in The Courier-Mail (Nov 18).

But even if the GM pea had passed all the safety testing, it could not have been grown commercially because there are bans on GM food crops in all states except Queensland -- and we don't grow field peas in Queensland.

The bans on GM food crops are a result of campaigning by Greenpeace against GM canola. Canola is grown in southern Australia in rotation with wheat and is a source of vegetable oil.

GM canola has passed all national safety tests and been approved by the Federal Government's Gene Technology Regulator who determined that it was as safe as conventional varieties.

In 2003, the Victorian Government slapped a one-year ban on GM canola while commissioning an independent review.

The Victorian Government accepted the regulator's determination that there is no health, or environmental issue with GM canola but on the basis of lobbying by Greenpeace determined there might be a market risk.

In March 2004, the same day Premier Steve Bracks announced he was extending the ban to 2008, two government commissioned reports were released. Both stated that while there are sensitivities to GM in key markets there is little or no evidence of any general price discrimination or market access problems.

A detailed study undertaken in 2003 by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics reached the same conclusions: GM products are being traded on the world market; GM producing countries dominate the world grain trade; and there is no premium for non-GM product.

It seems double standards are increasingly common when the agenda is being driven by environmental campaigning. Indeed while there is a ban on GM food crops in New South Wales, the cotton industry has been growing GM cotton for nearly 10 years and selling GM derived cotton seed oil. Cotton is exempt from the bans on the basis it is grown primarily for fibre.

Few people realise that fully 35 per cent of the vegetable oil consumed in Australia is from cotton seed and that more than 90 per cent of the Australian cotton crop is now GM.

The first plantings of GM cotton predate the launch of Greenpeace's anti-GM campaign in Australia. Greenpeace has conveniently ignored cotton as an important source of vegetable oil and falsely promoted GM canola as the first GM food crop.

The cotton industry, fearing a backlash from the anti-GM lobby, is saying nothing. But there are costs and they are not just economic.

When Premier Geoff Gallop declared Western Australia a GM-free zone early last year it was purportedly to protect the state's "clean green status".

The immediate effect was to prevent WA canola growers from planting a new variety that could be grown with softer and less persistent chemicals. Traditional varieties are dependent on use of the herbicide atrazine -- a chemical being phased out in Europe on the basis it poses an unacceptable environmental risk.

The WA Department of Agriculture acknowledges that dependence on atrazine is a problem because of concerns over groundwater contamination. So Gallop was in reality increasing the risk of groundwater contamination with atrazine. GM crops are cleaner and greener than conventional varieties and in the case of canola give a 20 per cent higher yield. Last week CSIRO abandoned trials on GM peas because the trials indicated there was a potential human health risk. Clearly not all GM crops are safe and there is a need for each new GM variety to be carefully tested.

But when crops pass all the tests, as was the case with GM canola, then shouldn't they be given a fair go? Now is perhaps the time for southern states and WA to lift their ban on GM food crops and encourage the planting of GM canola.

We don't grow canola in Queensland, but we could give more support to research into crops that we do grow.

Scientists now are working on a new GM sugarcane variety that provides resistance to cane grub attack, and there is a drought tolerant GM wheat variety under the microscope.

Both offer the potential for smarter farming -- and after all, aren't we the Smart State?