CO-OPERATIVE Bulk Handling (CBH) has conceded that growing GM crops in WA would pose significant costs and handling difficulties for the bulk handler.
Speaking at a forum on GM crops in Perth last week, Grain Pool technical market services manager Peter Portmann gave a realistic outlook of what would happen if GM crops were grown in WA.
Mr Portmann said the current perception of GMs was that they were unclean and not green, and their distribution controlled by multinational corporations.
"We are dealing with a belief system," he said.
"Scientific rational debate does not work - not with consumers, and not with our customers.
"We need to trade grain against the background fact that much of the business is emotional, such as feed barley and its colour."
Mr Portmann said markets could not be categorised as accepting GMs or not accepting GMs.
"You must consider each country's customers and politics," he said.
"For example, Japan is both GM and non-GM."
Mr Portmann said the Japanese situation showed there was a good chance some markets would be lost if the pro-GM lobby succeeded, such as certain customers in Japan.
That could be a concern given that WA's two major canola markets were Japan and China.
To highlight the apparent diversity of the Japanese canola market, Mr Portmann said canola exported to Japan from WA was sometimes blended with Canadian GM canola once it was there.
He did not expect WA would have problems selling GM crops to other main export countries but said some buyer countries, such as in the Indian subcontinent, could be unpredictable.
Mr Portmann said he did not predict that there would be any problems with Europe because it was increasing its biodiesel production. Predictions were that Canada would be exporting GM canola there by next year.
"You would expect that the same rules would apply for Australian GM's if that were the case," Mr Portmann said.
"But there is a risk that trade barriers would increase, as a lot of countries look for any opportunity to put up trade barriers."
Mr Portmann said segregation would assist in maintaining sales with current markets - something CBH has done for a long time with malting barley. CBH has also done GM segregation trials in WA.
"GM segregation raises the stakes for failure to a higher level," Mr Portmann said.
"Convincing non-GM customers of our integrity is more difficult and more expensive but we are now required to test for GMs for a number of markets anyway.
"The risk is that segregation is done for political rather than commercial reasons."
Mr Portmann said there would be costs involved with the infrastructure required to enable large-volume segregation.
He said there would be more costs involved with handling mixed GM/non-GM loads.
There was always the possibility that segregation costs could be passed on to growers.
If WA remained non-GM, Mr Portmann said it would make handling and marketing easier and more cost-effective.
"We would have total market access, as there would be no segregation issues," he said.
"The market benefits of non-GM are likely to match the production benefits of GM."
He said the expected long-term average prices of GM and non-GM crops would not be significantly different.
Looking specifically at the canola crop; Mr Portmann said remaining non-GM left WA exposed to major environmental risks due to the reliance on Atrazine.
He said the risk of Atrazine being banned in Australia was unlikely, but the risk of the chemical being banned in Europe was more probable.
Mr Portmann said if world opinion changed and customers and consumers decided to accept GMs, there could be a serious loss of competitiveness in the Australian grain industry.
"There would be a long lead time for Australia to get back into GM varieties if that happened," he said.
"There is no material available specifically adapted to our environment, and owners of the technology may be reluctant to invest given our history."
Recent reports out of Canada suggested GM canola was more drought-tolerant than conventional canola, Mr Portmann said. That could put Australia at a disadvantage to pro-GM countries.
Mr Portmann said ultimately, the GM debate was not CBH's decision.
"The growers are the key stakeholders to be affected and they should decide," he said.