Who's afraid of the big bad GM?
Unlike their American and Asian competitors, Australian farmers face major barriers if they want to grow genetically modified (GM) foods.
GM uses the laboratory rather than trial and error cross-breeding to develop improved seeds.
These provide benefits like higher plant yields, resistance to pests or herbicides and reduced water requirements.
Most farmers are eager adopters of improved technology. But they and the seed suppliers face hostility to GM technology from activists including consumerist organisations and organic farmers.
Opponents have concocted concerns that the products from GM plants might harm consumers or that the crops might cross-breed with other crops.
Such claims are nonsense. No serious scientist argues that the technology can be harmful. But, spooked by the fuss, Australian governments have adopted extremely conservative approaches to approving GM products.
Around the world, approved GM crop varieties have been readily accepted by farmers wherever the seed companies are able to demonstrate cost-effective productivity improvements.
Monsanto's GM soyabean improves yields by 5 per cent and lowers production costs by 20 per cent.
Other companies like Aventis, Dow, Syngentia and Pioneer also offer competitive seed products.
GM crop varieties are now responsible for 70 per cent of US corn and 80 per cent of soy production. And you can bet your life that the US's notorious litigiousness would have uncovered any problems had they been present.
Due to international trade, almost every consumer in Australia and the rest of the world has been eating GM products for a decade or more, without any adverse effects.
The former Victorian Government opposed most GM farming applications claiming they would harm our image and bring adverse sales effects in key markets.
The groundless nature of such fears is demonstrated by Canadian farmers, whose GM canola dominates the product's international trade.
Under international agreements, Australian regulators must authorise GM foods as long as they are "as safe for human consumption as food derived from conventional varieties". As a result, Australia approves GM canola, soy, corn, sugarbeet, and rice for food consumption.
However, multiple regulatory barriers prevent most of these approved varieties from being actually grown in Australia.
Even when products have been approved for Australian consumption, a successful application to grow them in Australia, at best, takes many years before commercial use is permitted.
The nation is a clear loser when the regulatory barriers prevent better seeds being used. And even if approval is eventually granted the costly and lengthy trials demanded by Australian regulations impose expenses that the farmer and consumer ultimately must pay.
Australia's regime of regulatory overkill in GM seeds in denying productivity gains to our farmers not only disadvantages growers competing in world markets but also reduces the international competitiveness of agricultural processing businesses and brings higher consumer prices.
Australian agriculture has a proven record of efficiently producing crops in spite of the variability of our climate.
We should build on this and avoid shackling the industry with regulatory restraints, especially when our overseas rivals, including the US, are adopting a more liberal approach to new technology.