Ground Cover North : Ground Cover 065 November-December 2006 - North
GROWER COHESION NEEDED FOR GM MOVEMENT A number of gene technology forums have been held around Australia in the past two months. Emma Leonard reports on the views and questions raised by growers in South Australia n Concerns held by growers rather than consumers appear to be the main reason for Australia delaying the availability of GM crop varieties. This became the clear message at some of the GM Forum roadshows held across South Australia in late September. At Minlaton on the Yorke Peninsula, the consensus at the end of the day seemed to be that politicians would not move on the issue until growers were able to present a united voice. Six forums were held across SA, mirroring a series of similar grower-organised forums in WA. The SA forums, organised by Kimba grain producer Heather Baldock, were an attempt to provide growers with facts to help them decide whether GM crop varieties were an option they wanted to pursue. (The forums led to Heather being recognised as the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation’s SA Rural Woman of the Year.) A panel of five speakers explained the issues from the point of view of GM science, agronomy and production, legislation and regulation, storage and handling and domestic and international marketing. Belinda Barr, from the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics, reminded growers that GM crops and gene technologies are not new. The first successful gene transfer experiment was conducted in 1973 and the first field trial was a herbicide-resistant tobacco in 1986. Further research led to the commercial release of GM crops such as corn, maize, cotton and canola in 1996. Only GM cotton is commercially available in Australia. She also pointed out that scientists are making use of many of the tools involved in GM crop production, such as marker technology, to produce non- GM, that is, conventional varieties. In 2005 more than 90 million hectares across the globe were sown to GM crops, a fact that Ms Barr and Max Foster of ABARE used to demonstrate the wide acceptance of GM crops by the market. Mr Foster has studied the impact of GM crops on market acceptance and commodity prices. Soya, corn, cotton and canola are all GM crops widely traded and consequently considered to be accepted by the market and consumer. He used canola as a specific example, as it is of most relevance to the Australian market. Nearly 75 per cent of the world trade in canola originates from Canada and comprises GM and non-GM varieties. But it is undifferentiated in the marketplace so is viewed as 100 per cent GM canola. The remaining 25 per cent of the market is largely supplied by Australia. Mr Foster’s research showed no significant difference in world prices for Australian and Canadian canola, indicating little or no market advantage to Australia for being GM-free. Japan imports a little over 40 per cent of the world’s marketed canola, and nearly 50 per cent of Australian exports go to Japan, so this is a market where Australia and Canada are in strong competition. This market is showing no convincing evidence of paying a widespread premium price for Australia’s non-GM canola. In the EU, there are separate price structures for GM and non-GM crops but the market is only paying a premium of two to five per cent for the non-GM soybean that makes up about 15 per cent of total EU soybean imports. Geoff Masters, of ABB Grain Ltd, identified a separate issue relating to markets. He explained that markets must have agreed acceptance to a GM trait before a GM variety is released in Australia. In the case of herbicide-resistant GM canola, GROWERS KEEN -- WITH CAUTION -- ON GM n Growers attending the GM Forum at Minlaton wanted more information on GM crops or access to the advantages of varieties bred using GM technology. Deb and Mark Anderson, who farm at Brentwood, attended the GM forum with their son Mark, who is studying biotechnology at Flinders University. They could see the usefulness of the technology, but like many growers they still have concerns about the possible impact on markets. They were pleased to hear that the panel of specialists regard GM foods as actually safer than conventionally bred crops because of the higher level of testing for agronomic, environmental and human health issues that will precede the release of any GM varieties. The GM traits of most interest to growers at the forum were improved agronomic traits such as herbicide and drought tolerance. Warooka grower Graham Hayes believes crops genetically modified to repel white and conical snails would be the most effective modification for crops in his region. Port Vincent grower Richard Way has been actively involved in GM policy in SA and says it is not as simple as saying yes or no to the introduction of GM crops. He says the decision needs to be made on a case-by-case basis. He is concerned that the moratoriums have stalled the debate and that the Australian industry has lost valuable time in establishing all the required protocols before the moratoriums are lifted. When GM crops are allowed, Mr Way would like to see the first use of the technology being a trait that offers direct consumer benefits. John Pointon, from Curramulka, believes there has been too much hysteria and not enough science in the public debate about GM crops. He was pleased that the industry was starting to be more proactive with the workshops, roadshows and other educational activities being organised by bodies such as the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics that are equipped to explain the science of GM breeding to students and the public. Minlaton grower Anthony Litster looks forward to the introduction of GM crops such as Roundup Ready® canola. He feels crop resistance to glyphosate is better for the environment, user and consumer than the existing triazine-tolerant canola. Pinery grower John Tiller says GM crops are important for a more fundamental reason than growers’ immediate agronomic needs, saying the technology has a key role to play in establishing global food security. He says the pressure to grow fuel crops, together with continued industrial and urban pressure on agricultural land, is resulting in less land being available for food production. He is confident that GM breeding offers major opportunities, even for organic growers, but he says persuading the market will take a lot of time and effort. these traits are already approved by many countries and for these markets, approval is not considered to be an issue. However, traits being developed by Australian researchers, such as drought, salt and frost tolerance, must be approved by the market before variety release, and not vice versa. If market agreement did not come first, the whole market sector for that crop would be under scrutiny. Mr Masters explained the costs of testing to prove non-GM status on a individual load basis could be substantial if GM varieties are released, although on-farm quality assurance systems could be used as a way to reduce the cost of testing. As things stand, the SA, NSW and Victorian moratoriums on GM crops remain in place until early 2008. But as consultant Peter Carr explained, even if these are lifted in two years’ time, growers should not expect to have access to GM canola varieties immediately, due to the time needed to resume breeding and to enable the build-up of commercial quantities of certified seed. More information: Belinda Barr, Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics, 08 8303 6725 Gene technology GROUND COVER NOVEMBER -- DECEMBER 2006 4 Speakers from the GM Forum stretch the DNA helix across the issues from regulation and marketing to agronomy and science: (left to right) Peter Carr, Geoff Masters, Belinda Barr, Trent Potter, Heather Baldock and Max Foster. PHOTO: EMMA LEONARD Brentwood growers Mark and Deb Anderson, and son Mark: they can see the benefits of GM, but are worried about market impacts. Pinery grower John Tiller says global food security needs to be a GM priority. PHOTOS: EMMA LEONARD John Pointon from Curramulka says there has been too much hysteria and not enough science in the GM debate. Port Vincent grower Richard Way says GM needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Warooka grower Graham Hayes would like to see GM technologies used to resist snails.
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