A murky water debate

GM crops could provide another tool to help farmers utilise their water more efficiently

SOUTH Australian federal Labor politicians who decried Malcolm Turnbull’s shift of Water into the Agriculture portfolio portfolio this week could have applied their energies far better than attacking a ministerial change that’s also been strongly backed by farmers.

Instead of raising hysterical political fears about Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce’s water management credentials, to try and scare people into thinking it’s a bad environmental move, they could have booked an urgent appointment to speak with their severely misguided State Agriculture Minister Leon Bignell.

If Shadow Water and Environment Minister Mark Butler, Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon and their Labor colleagues are genuinely concerned about efficient water use and the future of farmers, they could try and drill some common sense into Mr Bignell about the scientific reality and potential of plant biotechnology.

For those who may need reminding, Mr Bignell is the man who thinks genetically modified (GM) crops are just like asbestos or tobacco were in the 1950s and '60s where consumers used products, unaware of their potential to cause cancer.

He proudly backs his State’s long-running moratorium on the commercial production of GM crops despite knowing farmers in his own back yard overwhelmingly support the technology, based on strong scientific principles and economic evidence.

While federal Labor and the Coalition have many disagreements, including over the way they believe water should be treated in ministerial arrangements, their views on the safety of GMs are united and responsible.

A basic search of the internet – which we assume is a modern technological application Mr Bignell can access – shows Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) evaluates the safety of GMs and has given them the green-light for years.

“To date, we have identified no safety concerns with any of the GM foods that we have assessed,” FSANZ says.

“Other national regulators who have independently assessed the same GM foods have reached the same conclusions.”

However, Mr Bignell, who inherited the GM moratorium extension that was comically announced by his State Tourism Minister, still believes the long-term health consequences of GM crops are unknown and these plants must be resisted.

He and his fellow SA Labor friends would have been well-served by listening to the talk given last week at the National Press Club in Canberra by leading global GM expert and science communicator Jon Entine (pictured below).

Mr Entine outlined many GM food crops either currently under research somewhere in the approval pipeline or now available to market which can or do enhance water use efficiency, like drought tolerant wheat, while also providing environmental, farming and consumer health benefits.

“I'm not going to spend much time addressing the controversy over the safety of GMO foods today because there is no controversy over the safety of GM foods, not in mainstream science circles,” Mr Entine said.

“As of this week, I counted 244 global science organisations, including FSANZ that have concluded GM foods are as safe - or in many cases they conclude safer - than conventionally bred varieties and that includes organic foods.

“According to FSANZ, gene technology has not been shown to introduce any new or altered hazards into the food supply.

“Sustainable agriculture should be the focus of our food debate - not scare stories about Frankenfoods - but how we can feed the growing global population while using less water and chemicals, on less arable land.”

Mr Butler said the new Prime Minister had sacrificed the “finely balanced” economic, social and environmental interests at the core of the Murray Darling Basin Plan “just for his personal ambition and his attempt to try and buy the support of the National Party”.

But if that’s the case, one can only imagine what type of principle or truths Mr Bignell is sacrificing to gain a political edge by stealing votes off the Greens with his ongoing scare campaign against GM crops, in his own State.

That wilful ignorance ignores the fact these crops could provide another tool to help farmers utilise their water more efficiently and also benefit the environment and the State’s bottom line.

Mr Bignell also likes to use the argument that there’s a marketing advantage to be gained by his State remaining GM-free - a so called premium return for products.

However, in Tasmania where there’s also been a ban on the commercial release of GMs since 2001, that myth has been blown out of the water with no less sensitivity than Tony Abbott was blasted from the Liberal Party leadership by Mr Turnbull.

A 2012 report by Tasmanian consultants Macquarie Franklin investigated the market, economic, social and environmental issues relating to Tasmania’s GMO-free status.

It said the only tangible or quantifiable benefits identified were for GMO-free canola seed and some GMO-free canola oil meal being shipped to Japan with a combined farmgate value estimated at around $1.9 million.

But in contrast, the report said Tasmania had suffered an annual loss of around $9m at the farmgate due to the state’s GMO moratorium which had “closed down a potentially much larger GM canola seed industry”.

“After factoring in direct production costs, the net canola market disadvantage created by Tasmania’s GMO-free status is estimated at around $4 million per annum at the farmgate,” the report said.

“An additional cost of the moratorium has been an annual cost of $250,000 for monitoring former GM canola sites in relation to volunteer plants.

“Tasmania’s GMO-free status has resulted in the loss of gene technology research opportunities in some industries including canola, poppies and pastures.”

Mr Entine said the debate over the science of GMs “just doesn't exist in a science world”.

“It's a highly politicised debate driven by two things - anti-GMO activists who are very suspicious, have a precautionary views of the world, but it's driven by the organic industry as well,” he said.

“Every time there is a negative article about GMO conventional foods the price of organic foods goes up and the profits of organic companies goes up.

“They profit from demonising.

“They don't do pro organic advertising any more, they don't do pro organic marketing - they do anti-GMO marketing.

“They do scare stories and I think that's a very dangerous precedent.”

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


Cattle Advocate
1/10/2015 9:57:30 PM

In the past limited seal cull permits were issued for bad net damage, 100K fur seals can eat over 3000tn of fish a week.The local Pro fishing donate $249K of labour to community activities pa and pay fishing licence fees to run the fishery that tourist fishing doesnt. Local Major 'The Meningie scenario, particularly with the fisherman, the stress level on their families is appaling' A Traditional Owner who has culled seals savaging 1 of his totems the pelican 'Just by the jetty there you will find 4 or 5 dead pelicans just sitting there, down along the Coorong there's dead pelicans everywhere'
Cattle Advocate
1/10/2015 9:31:15 PM

In a W QLD town starving roos knocked down an elderly woman. With a shortage of pro roo shooters where are those apposed to humane roo culling? The Canadian Inuit people have culled seals for about 4000yrs and were damaged by the AR seal ban criticized by Jacques Cousteau. There are now 7.4M harp seals in the Atlantic over 3x the seals of the 1970s. Their grey seals eat over 1M tn of fish pa and threaten cod stocks, in 2015 Canada will cull over 460K seals the AR lobby want culling banned. In the Murray's lower lakes and Coorong fishery fur seals are damaging nets leaving half eaten fish.
29/09/2015 4:18:48 PM

The comments here are really naïve. Consumers are already eating GM. Almost every processed product on the supermarket shelf contains ingredients that are GM derived that includes Asia and Europe. Moratoriums are on production not consumption and only punish farmers.
Bondi Consumer
29/09/2015 6:16:02 AM

Find me the consumers who want to eat GMO's. Farmers can discuss, but why invest in a product no one wants to buy? why grow a product much of Asia refuses to import? why consider a seed that can eventually contaminate your neighbours farm, not just organic but any none GMO farms, leaving farmers with unsaleable livestock & grains.
Franks Final Grade Dugong Scrapers Walsh Shed
28/09/2015 5:33:14 PM

Because Australia needs another pile of grain or fibre that no one wants. Get real with a trend that does not involve keeping up with the lastest tech-knowledge know it all.
28/09/2015 3:49:31 PM

Very sad that SA farmers are being denied access to technology that will improve productivity and sustainability for no scientifically or economically credible reason.
Fran Murrell
28/09/2015 8:38:44 AM

The science is clear - not one GM crop has been shown to be safe to eat. There is scientific disagreement over the safety of GM crops. There is increasing evidence of harm from GM crops in 3 ways: 1) the protein the GM plant produces may be toxic 2) The process of GM breeding disrupts the genome causing harm 3) the pesticides sprayed on/as seed coatings/produced by the GM plant itself are harmful. See GM Myths and Truths for full scientific references. FSANZ accepts corporate data and has approved every GM application it has received. It requires no animal feeding studies nor independent tests
Just a Consumer
28/09/2015 8:33:35 AM

As a consumer I'm with Leon, and I'm grateful that there are men like him standing up to this. GMOs may be all that they are cracked up to be in improving water use, or they may just be a crutch for farmers too lazy to do it right - but there is not enough data around the long term effects of GMOs (i.e. across multiple human lifetimes). I will continue to spend my money on non-GMO products - if they've survived a million years, I think we can agree that it works. Tas will win in the long run by being GMO-free - especially from Asia, where the land has been destroyed by Agri-Chemical do-gooders
28/09/2015 8:31:35 AM

It is rather ironic that those who expouse "letting the science" decide on environmenta/water policy (the Basin Plan) will then ignore the "science" on GM crops.
28/09/2015 7:40:01 AM

Re GM component of the article. Everyone would do well to study the FACTS. GM is but one small tool that unfortunately skews the performance of normal crops. The next GM variety will contain a different gene the side effects of which will need exhaustive testing------more delay / cost. Straight plant breeders are doing very well and producing varieties for an eager market. Minister Bignel is right---for now.
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