THE ISSUE of genetically modified (GM) wheat is a contentious one, but there’s one unequivocal point in the argument. Australia needs to conduct GM wheat trials.
Now before those against the production of GM crops leap up in the air, this is a long way from saying Australia needs to become the first nation to commercially produce GM wheat. We don’t know whether there is any breakthrough that will make it an essential part of the cropping rotation – that’s where the trials come in.
There’s been a lot of talk about the so-called ‘second generation’ of GM crops, ones that move past simple herbicide resistance and into a range of environmental tolerances, such as heat, moisture stress and frost.
Researchers are confident they will come up with GM varieties that perform better in tough conditions, which is of enormous interest to the many Australian croppers operating in semi-arid regions with annual rainfall of less than 400mm.
Those against GM wheat claim there are no gains that could not be made through conventional breeding techniques.
Again, trials will be the answer. Let’s go to the independent umpire and see how well the varieties go.
Should the results be compelling, the case for commercialised GM wheat will become stronger; should it not, then it will be a case of focusing on gains from conventional breeding.
We’ve seen the different impact GM varieties can have in different crops.
GM cotton has made a big impact on the Australian industry with its range of insecticide tolerant varieties, while GM canola, while increasing in tonnage each year, certainly has not had the mass take-up GM cotton lines did.
A combination of the higher costs compared to conventional lines and the pricing discounts have meant for some growers, it has been a case of the cons of the lower margins outweighing the pros of the improved herbicide flexibility. It’s been useful for many growers, but it would be stretch to say it has revolutionised canola production in Australia.
This question faced by prospective GM canola growers will be similar to the one faced by authorities when weighing up GM wheat, should it perform well enough to push for commercialisation.
Will the productivity gains outweigh the very real negatives, especially in terms of marketing.
Bluster as it might, the pro-GM lobby has to face the fact GM food crops have an image problem in Middle Australia.
Shrewd marketing by anti-GM groups such as Greenpeace, which is now riding the culinary wave sweeping post-Masterchef Australia and enlisting the help of celebrity chefs to denounce GM crops, has meant metropolitan Australians are distrustful about GM foods.
There’s been countless debate on whether or not this mistrust is justified, and this is not a dissection of the merits of either argument, it’s a simple statement that those pushing for GM wheat will have to do some serious public relations work in order for the Aussie public as a whole, as opposed to the farming sector, to embrace GM.
Drought and heat tolerance would be like gold for farmers in low rainfall zones, but there are two crucial questions.
First and most importantly: Will the breeders have any success in developing GM lines with solid improvements in areas such as dealing with moisture stress or frost tolerance? And the second, authorities and the industry need to work out whether anybody will buy the stuff should it be commercialised.
Currently, its very much a case of crossing the marketing bridge when we come to it. The focus needs to be firmly on the trials. If the varieties deliver, then the industry proceeds to the next stage. If, as anti-GM campaigners suggest, there’s no discernable advantages in the GM lines, then we’ll know that for sure, and that will be that.
For now, its time for stakeholders to stop bickering and let the trial data do the talking.