THE National Food Plan green paper says that global food security is at the heart of social and political stability and in our interests as a nation. It endorses the adoption of modern technology in meeting the world’s growing demand for food and contributing to the health and wellbeing of countries that lack food security.
Feedback is sought on options to improve innovation across the food supply chain, including a national strategy on the consistent application of modern biotechnology in agriculture. Constraints on adoption and path to market are mentioned.
Although the plan was mainly referring to genetically modified crops, that debate is largely won. As I have previously discussed, notwithstanding the dire predictions of alarmists, nobody has been harmed by the technology, the environment is considerably better off, and agricultural productivity has been substantially boosted. More importantly, all but the most paranoid consumers are eating food from GM sources, labelling notwithstanding, leading to constantly expanding areas of GM crop cultivation.
The food plan may play a part in helping Australia catch up to its competitors by promoting more widespread cultivation of GM crops, but if it is to make a real difference it needs to address obstacles to modern biotechnological innovations that are yet to reach the market. Chief among these is cloned livestock.
The case for cloned livestock is equally as strong as it is for GM crops. Cloning allows much faster genetic gain than conventional breeding. In combination with modern genetic testing it has the potential to dramatically increase the efficiency of animal protein production, thus helping to ensure affordable food for the hundreds of millions of middle class consumers now emerging in countries such as China and India.
The food products derived from cloned animals (ie. meat and milk) are just as safe as food from conventionally bred livestock. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently completed a review of its 2008 finding to that effect, confirming also that there was no difference in those from the respective offspring.
It further concluded that there was no change to its 2008 advice that the cloning of farmed animals poses no particular threats to genetic diversity or biodiversity, or carries any environmental risk.
To those with a scientific perspective, this comes as no surprise. Cloning is merely genetic replication, already widely practised in the plant kingdom. There is no reason to expect it should be any different when applied to livestock.
Yet the same could be said of genetic modification of crops. Conventional cross breeding rearranges all the genes and has the potential to throw up all sorts of results, whereas genetic modification alters a single gene with known characteristics. Objectively, the risk is far smaller.
And yet a whole industry has emerged with huge investments in people, resources and organic food production, devoted to keeping it off our plates. Science and rationality are of limited value when it comes to attitudes to modern technology.
Inevitably the same will be seen with livestock cloning. There will be assertions of risks to health, the environment, animal welfare, biodiversity and the world as we know it, with pseudo-qualified opponents trotting out scary stories based on crank science. The media, never good at getting its facts straight on scientific issues, will do its bit to scare the public into believing there is something to fear.
So the question arises: can the National Food Plan do anything to prevent that? Cloning is not yet being used commercially and the products from cloned livestock are not widely available (although cloned livestock from trials are being destroyed rather than sold for human consumption, a significant waste).
It is difficult to be optimistic. The European Commission also asked the EFSA to review its 2008 finding in 2009 and 2010, in the hope that it would come up with a different answer to justify its blanket ban on products from cloned livestock. Quite a few other countries have imposed similar bans.
Equally, Australian governments have a history of timidity on GM crops that belies their supportive talk about the importance of agriculture.
For all that, the food plan might be what is needed to prevent history from repeating itself. As it builds the case for feeding the middle class of the world, to the benefit of Australian agriculture, it highlights the enormous opportunity available. And just as Australians recognise we have inherent advantages in mineral production, it might convince them the same is true with food, with the future similarly being in Asia.
If that is reinforced by sensible government policies, such as endorsement of cloning rather than an EU style ban, and the use of S18 of the Competition and Consumer Act (which prohibits misleading and deceptive conduct) against those who tell lies about modern biotechnology in agriculture, our livestock producers might become world leaders.
That would be a worthwhile outcome from the National Food Plan.
David Leyonhjelm is an agribusiness consultant with Baron Strategic Services. He may be contacted at email@example.com