SOUTH Australia’s new Minister for Agriculture, Leon Bignell, thinks he knows something about agriculture.
A former journalist, born and bred on a dairy farm in the State’s south-east, he represents McLaren Vale and regards being Agriculture Minister as his “dream job”.
In my opinion he hasn’t got a clue - or more precisely, whatever clues he has in regards to genetically modified (GM) crops are ill-informed claptrap. But because he is in a position to adopt policies that reflect his views, he could cause enormous hardship to the southern agriculture sector.
In a recent radio interview Bignell acknowledged he had “led the charge” in affirming the State’s ban on the cultivation of GM crops. SA and Tasmania are the only States that still have such bans.
In the interview he said: “We don’t know what the long-term health benefits or problems are. The jury is still well and truly out. Most of the science is coming from the big 'poison' companies – Bayer, Monsanto and the like”.
He went on: "I don't want to be the politician who was like the politicians in the 50s, who listened to the story of big tobacco and thought, 'Oh yeah, it's ok'. I don't want to be the politician like the politicians in the 70s, who listened to James Hardie who said there are no dangers with asbestos".
And perhaps most telling of all, “I think the general population is actually quite scared of the consequences of GM”.
I’m no psychologist, but I suspect he is personally frightened of something about which he knows less than nothing, and has extrapolated that fear to assume this view is representative of his fellow South Australians. And while we are all entitled to our opinion, his passion on the subject makes me doubt he has much interest in addressing this ignorance.
That he is profoundly wrong cannot be doubted.
In 2013, 11 types of GM crops were grown by more than 18 million farmers in 27 countries. GM crop areas have increased from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to over 175 million in 2013. To say the "general" population is scared or doesn't want GM is to take a very narrow view.
GM crops have reduced the need for 497 million kg of pesticides, cut CO2 emissions by 27 billion kg in 2012 alone, saved 120 million hectares of land from being placed in agricultural production, alleviated poverty for 16.5 million small farmers and farm families totalling more than 65 million people, and reduced water use in cropping by up to 32 per cent.
In Australia, more than 600,000 hectares of GM cotton and canola were planted in 2013. Last year, planting of GM canola in Western Australia went up 38pc from 2012.
Among all that, there is not a shred of evidence to suggest anyone’s health was even remotely harmed.
And how long does the jury have to be out before reasonable people reach a verdict? GM cotton (from which edible cotton seed oil is produced) has been grown in Australia since 1996 while the US and Canada were growing GM tomatoes, cotton and canola for several years prior to that.
Bignell’s comparison of GM food with asbestos and tobacco is a shabby slur on the conscientious experts at Food Standards Australia New Zealand and the Office of Gene Technology Regulator. These organisations were established, backed by legislation, to prevent exactly the kind of things Bignell is worried about. They are the ones, along with numerous other regulators around the world, which have relied on sound science to declare GM food safe.
As for “poison companies”, Bignell must have grown up on a different type of dairy farm from me. We used poisons to control things like worms, lice and mastitis in our cows. I expect he has never heard the famous observation by the sixteenth century toxicologist Paracelsus, who said, “Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy”.
In any case, Monsanto’s sole “poison” is glyphosate, barely more hazardous than dihydrogen monoxide. And Bayer and Monsanto both employ tens of thousands of employees globally, spend billions on research and development and pay billions in taxes.
SA’s government has a legitimacy problem. As the Australian Financial Review’s recent editorial put it: “Against their wishes, South Australians will be lumbered over the next four years with a minority Labor government that has run out of ideas, is at the end of its electoral cycle after three terms in office and which should have been tossed out”.
South Australians certainly did not vote for a government that promotes the ignorant policies of green extremism, and the State’s farmers did not vote to be kept uncompetitive against their interstate and international competitors. They deserves better.