Ground Cover North : Ground Cover 064 September-October 2006 - North
Global GM position takes shape COMMENTARY BY DR GIO BRAIDOTTI* n For a field of science that is more often marked by creative dissent than agreement, agricultural scientists from around the globe are finding a common voice on the potential presented by biotechnology. At the 2006 Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference in Melbourne in August, researchers from every continent and from every socioeconomic circumstance spoke of the growing role and importance of biotechnology for achieving economic, environmental and humanitarian goals. Over three days of debating new developments, future challenges and stumbling blocks, it became clear that the implementation of biotechnology – GM and non-GM tools – is now following two distinctive paths, local and global. At the local level, regionally significant crops are being improved in collaboration with growers to produce reliable and consistent yield improvements, plus potential answers to environmental, social and economic problems. This involves more than just gene technology and includes elements such as protecting or harnessing naturally occurring biodiversity. At the other end of the scale, multinational corporations are using an approach that sees the same basic innovation – for example Monsanto’s Roundup Ready® herbicide resistance gene – delivered to a variety of plant types using gene modification (GM) techniques that then incorporate the patented technology into local agriculture. This single-gene approach is considered ‘first-generation’ technology and the big companies are keen to move to GM plants capable of delivering more complex traits, such as water and nitrogen-efficiency. Such developments are clearly what growers are looking for. However, progress is dependent on the identification of clusters of genes, involving complex gene interactions. The timeframes for delivering such advances remain well into the future. Despite this, there was universal enthusiasm for the potential of biotechnology, especially in the grains industry. The one source of pessimism and confusion was ongoing consumer antipathy, especially for GM technology. A repeated question was: why do the public and regulatory institutions distrust agricultural biotechnology while embracing medical biotechnology? It is a question asked by many Australian graingrowers, aware of the production gap opening up between them and competitors in other countries. The blame was variously sheeted home to the media, science illiteracy, scare- mongering by the anti-GM lobby, and scientists’ inability to communicate. None of these reasons stood up to scrutiny in a session devoted to the issue. The message from a panel of public-opinion professionals was that “the public doesn’t care that you A VITAL TOOL: ECONOMIST n Biotechnology has become an essential tool for improving the productivity of crops and for minimising agriculture’s environmental impact, according to a leading international agricultural economist, Professor Martina Newell-McGloughlin. Speaking at the International Association of Agricultural Economics conference in Queensland in August, Professor Newell- McGloughlin said that biotechnology offered a far more sustainable method of producing crops than traditional farming. But she added that these new technologies should not be seen as a cure-all; rather a new way to overcome crop disease, soil salinity and develop new crop products. Professor Newell-McGloughlin said that in the first decade of gene modification, which is just one of the new biotechnologies, global net farm income increased by US$27 billion and farming’s environmental footprint was reduced by 14 per cent. “In the age of large-scale genomics, we have a much better understanding of how plants function and of how whole metabolic pathways operate,” she said. “This gives us a much better chance to face the challenges of climate change, salinisation and the wholesale depletion of our arable land. “This technology means more ecologically healthy fields and much more efficient use of resources. It allows reduced tillage, which cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions, water runoff, machinery use and soil erosion.” Professor Newell-McGloughlin also believes GM technology will have a significant role to play in converting crop and forest waste into fuel. More information: Professor Martina Newell- McGloughlin, email@example.com know, but wants to know that you care”. Other areas raised as being central to a country’s adoption of biotechnology were commercial, regulatory and pricing policies. Different countries have taken different approaches to fostering biotechnology adoption. In the case of GM cotton, for example, there is no technology fee for growers in India and China. This is to make sure that even the smallest farmers have access to the advances. In the Australian cropping context, researchers warned that GM technologies alone would not necessarily deliver immediate yield benefits or cost reductions. For example, GM varieties that incorporate herbicide resistance and pest-control genes would reduce, but not eliminate, the need for chemicals. As such, a single gene alone cannot be seen as a universal problem-solver, and frameworks for the adoption of GM technologies are going to be as varied as the circumstances to which they are targeted. Perhaps the most salient advice to Australian graingrowers, in advance of Australian states reviewing their moratoriums in the coming year, was to use this time to learn as much as they can from countries where GM technologies have been introduced. This would help growers here to extract the maximum benefit from the technology when it does finally become available. * Gio Braidotti is a Ground Cover writer and former researcher in molecular genetics. SEPTEMBER -- OCTOBER 2006 GROUND COVER 5 Biotechnology n An insight into the complexities of charting a safe and acceptable passage for the international trade of GM grain was given at a recent forum at Horsham, Victoria. Dennis Stephens, a consultant to the Canada Grains Council, outlined to growers and advisers his experience in trying to find an agreed framework for trading GM crops, and why complementary rules are needed for domestic and international trade. He said the international Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which was drawn up in 2000, had been ratified by 134 countries. The document aimed to ensure protection in the safe transfer, handling and use of GM seed. However, Australia, Canada, Argentina and the US were among those countries that had not ratified this protocol. He said this was because it had not clarified issues such as litigation and testing rules. The protocol had been based on environmental and not commercial considerations, leaving issues such as tolerance levels, testing procedures and liability still unresolved. Mr Stephens said there had been rigorous debate, for example, on whether traders had to declare their shipment “may contain” or “contains” GM material, with potential rigorous testing consequences if the former declaration was adopted. And even in trying to resolve matters like this, the science was quickly overtaken by emotion and politics. He said one of the main trading issues still to be settled was the question of adventitious presence (AP) or accidental contamination of small amounts of GM material. Mr Stephens said work was being carried out to develop risk assessment guidelines for AP, but some countries were still calling for zero tolerance. When GM crops were first introduced to Canada the country had already developed a regulatory framework that made sure GM varieties had the same inherent qualities as existing varieties. This was at least enabling the Canadian industry to develop its own domestic trading frameworks for GM, from seed development to processing and handling, to exporting (to markets that do not oppose GM grains). Mr Stephens said that in Canada, industry protocols were considered preferable to government regulation. WHAT THE GROWERS THINK Dennis Stephens attracted only a small turn-out of growers when he spoke at Horsham, but it provided an opportunity for a straw poll of growers from the Wimmera region on the GM issue. Bruce Crafter, Kewell I reckon (GM) is a great idea but unless (developers of GM) give growers (as well as themselves) something, I think it is going to flop. We have to make money out of it. It could be a frost-resistant or rust-resistant gene, but it can’t just be a chemical gene. They have to put in some bait to make us use it. We might get better yields, but will we make more money out of it? Max Hedt, Horsham The big problem with GM is the way it was introduced by the companies. Had GM been introduced in a manner that showed there would be significant health benefits to the population there would be no further prob- lems. The mistrust in GM is directly related to the mistrust people have in corporations. We have got to learn at the farm, transport and processing levels to segregate these crops, because if the money is there people will still want to grow non-GM crops. Alan Speirs, Lower Norton GM grain can’t be segregated with 100 per cent surety and you are going to need world standards or the importers won’t accept it. I am not happy to grow it in the short term because you can’t keep it on your side of the fence. Mark Johns, Dooen The biggest fear people have is variety owner- ship. Roundup Ready® crops would solve so many people’s problems but if, in the process, you have to pay royalties, it cuts into the profit. I would be sceptical of drought-resistant or salt-tolerant varieties. Are they as good as they sound? There could be niche markets for on- farm storage, but it is not physically possible to have that many segregations. LEGAL TOLERANCE BLOCKS GM TRADE Dennis Stephens speaks at Horsham. Trial GM canola being windrowed at Bayer CropScience's research facility at Saskatoon, Canada.
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