Making a Meal Over GM Ban
It turns out that aside from chomping on kebabs in his recent visit to the Middle East, Victorian Premier Steve Bracks was also undertaking market research. He discovered, according to a press release on Thursday, that many parts of the Middle East have reservations about GM foods. He offered this as a major reason for banning the production of GM canola in Victoria. Canola is the most important oilseed grown in Australia and is the basis for a range of products including margarine and cooking oil.
Victoria's action puts pressure on the NSW Government to do likewise.
In announcing the ban, Mr Bracks acknowledged that all scientific studies and the Commonwealth's Gene Technology Regulator had declared the product safe for human health and the environment. His case rested on an alleged wish to avoid jeopardizing key Victorian markets, like the Middle East, where he claimed there were some concerns.
Yet the report he commissioned (by ACILTasman) could find no evidence anywhere that any such concerns adversely affected prices. That report also pointed out that Australia's main competitors which have embraced the new technology (the US, Canada, Argentina) have lost no market share. In the US, GM production accounts for over 80 per cent of soy, 40 per cent of corn and 75 per cent of canola.
Moreover, the Middle East, far from shying away from GM foods, is actually a major importer of GM grains from North America! And the timing of the decision is exquisite, since last week saw the lifting of the EU's embargo on GM canola, removing the restraint from the only area where it had been in place!
It also turns out, according to the data assembled by the Victorian Government's consultants, that Australia actually imports GM products. Soy meal is imported from the US and its main use is as feed for dairy cattle.
So why introduce the ban?
Well there is the usual noisy clutch of anti-science groups and the organic farmers. There is also support from some other farmers who want to proclaim their goods as GM free and avoid any costs entailed in segregating them from GM products. They care little that their fellow farmers are denied a product with massive productivity advantages.
There is another constituency the government quotes in support of its decision. This includes some major players in the Victorian dairy sector, ironically a sector that is already using GM products for stock feed. Dairying may, however, feel it stands to gain from the decision to exclude home grown canola. After all, butter and margarine (mainly produced from canola) are vintage competitors. Older Australians will recall the days when governments advantaged butter by insisting on margarine being coloured pink. Some dairy producers may see a threat from GM canola, which is 15-30 per cent more productive than regular canola. That would pretty soon translate into a price reduction of this order and lower prices to the consumer.
Preventing a competitor obtaining an advantage is a classic industry strategy. Equally, the proper role of government is to combat this.
The dairy industry actually has no issues with GM products, and the United Dairyfarmers of Victoria have criticized those in the industry that gave comfort to the Victorian government position. The industry is keenly awaiting the development of faster growing or salt tolerant GM grasses as inputs to its own products.
The Bracks decision also flies in the face of a major arm of the government's industry strategy. It closes many doors on the biotechnology industry. Paradoxically, the Victorian government has been engaged in a bidding war with Queensland to attract biotechnology research to the state. It has funded bodies like the BioMelbourne Network to promote biotechnology in foods 'such as papaya, soybeans and corn'. This is now looking like a bucketful of wasted money, especially since its main rival, Queensland, already produces GM crops and has no problem abiding by the decisions of the Commonwealth's expert, the Gene Technology Regulator.
In this respect, the experience of the European Union is salutary. EU Commissioner Philippe Busquin lamented that the EU moratorium on GM crops taken without sound scientific evidence, had severely harmed European capabilities. He said, 'If we do not reverse the trend now, we will be unable to reap the benefits of the life science revolution and become dependent on technologies developed elsewhere.'
Of course, Bracks' claims of industry support for his fundamentally anti-technology decision are purely a smoke screen. In putting the ban in place, the Bracks government is pandering to irrational green hysteria. Unfortunately, the decision speaks volumes about the Premier's lack of leadership and willingness to abandon technology and soundly based public policy at the first whiff of a green panic campaign.