SA faces constant battle on GM issue

SA faces constant battle on GM issue

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IT has been 5300 days since SA imposed a moratorium on growing genetically-modified crops, and change is unlikely to occur in the near future.

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COMMON THEMES: Andrew Barr, who started harvest at his Pinery property this week, says there are common reasons people give for not supporting GM technology.

COMMON THEMES: Andrew Barr, who started harvest at his Pinery property this week, says there are common reasons people give for not supporting GM technology.

IT has been 5300 days since SA imposed a moratorium on growing genetically-modified crops, and change is unlikely to occur in the near future.

This is despite SA being the only mainland state to maintain a moratorium, after WA repealed its legislation two years ago.

At the moment, a ban on GM crops will be in place until September 2025, after a bill by Greens MLC Mark Parnell was passed last year.

Mr Parnell said the Parliamentary Committee inquiry set up after the bill was passed would have its first verbal evidence heard on November 22.

“I think the moratorium is worth hanging on to but I’m keen to look at all the evidence and see how it stacks up,” he said.

“I’m not expecting the inquiry to be finished before the middle of next year.”

Another independent review on the moratorium is also under way and will report to Primary Industries Minister Tim Whetstone in early 2019.

There remains opposition to the moratorium being lifted, with Gene Ethics only last week putting up a Facebook post urging people to sign a petition backing the GM ban.

But there is a will to drive change in parts of the farming community, and with this is mind a meeting was held last week by Rural Media SA to present the case for change. 

Guest speaker and Grain Producers SA chief executive officer Caroline Rhodes said at the moment if a SA grower grew GM canola, they would face a maximum penalty of $200,000, and if a farming systems group conducted a GM trial without a ministerial exemption it would face the same penalty.

“If a grower in WA sends a consignment to Vic, under our laws, they need to divert their truck movement to the NT,” Ms Rhodes said.

“So rather than enhancing SA’s reputation, it could be argued that it suggests the parliament doesn’t have faith or trust in producers.”

Another guest speaker was University of Adelaide Emeritus Professor Peter Langridge, the former chief executive officer of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics.

“The ACPFG had one person employed full-time to deal with regulatory requirements from a couple of small GM trials we had at Glenthorne Farm, and you do ask whether it’s worth the effort,” he said. “In a different world, without the regulatory burden, who knows where we might have been? I believe we certainly would have been 20 years further ahead.”

Viewpoints

PINERY graingrower and plant breeder Andrew Barr estimates he has given 100 talks about genetically-modified crops across the past 30 years, but he says it is still hard to influence people’s views on the topic.

“In a 30-second news grab it’s hard to build a case for GM, but we’ve still got to undertake the debate with our urban friends,” he said.

Dr Barr said there were some common statements people made about why they opposed GM crops.

These included the technology being too new, concern about perceived health risks, worries there were no environmental or consumer upside to the technology and the fear it would ruin biodiversity. Other concerns included the technology not being available to smaller landholders, that markets would never accept it and that GM and GM-free could not co-exist.

“People think big multi-nationals get the benefit from GM crops but in the developing world an estimated 75 per cent of people are vitamin A deficient,” Dr Barr said.

“Childhood diseases arise because of this issue, and developmental problems, and Golden Rice (a GM crop) has been proven to reverse vitamin A deficiency.

“We have the potential to cure a human health issue with GM yet green lobbyists worldwide have campaigned against it.”

Dr Barr said while the debate often centred around Roundup Ready canola, the technology offered much broader potential.

“With the corn industry in the United States, the use of GM is relatively unencumbered and that has led to the development of stacked trait varieties,” he said.

“They started off with herbicide resistance, then added insect resistance, then resistance to root diseases, then a GM-derived drought tolerance gene and there’s other traits in the pipeline.

“It gives a snapshot of where the technology is heading in a system where you can really explore innovation.”

Interstate experience

WAFARMERS grains section president Duncan Young says the uptake of genetically-modified canola in croppers’ rotations in his home state shows it can be grown without incident.

Mr Young was an early adapter of the technology in WA after being granted an exemption to the then-moratorium almost a decade ago.

“I was one of seven growers who were allowed to grow it the year before it was commercially allowed to be grown in WA,” Mr Young said.

“We were a test case and grew GM canola and non-GM canola side-by-side.

“There were also trials with our bulk handler CBH, to ensure they could segregate GM from non-GM canola successfully and there were no issues found. The bulk handler can segregate GM canola from non-GM canola as easily as they can segregate malt barley from feed barley.”

Mr Young said the trials also showed how easy it was to kill off any unwanted GM canola plants.

After those successful trials, from 2010, WA growers could apply for an exemption to the moratorium and six years after that the moratorium was repealed entirely. 

“Since 2010, there has been a strong uptake of people growing GM canola and it now makes up about a third of all the canola grown in WA,” Mr Young said.

“I think the biggest reason for this uptake is that growers see GM canola as a rotational tool, so they don’t have as much reliance on one chemical group.

“Another benefit is having less chemicals applied to the crop.”

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