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.”