SOUTH Australian Labor’s ban on genetically modified (GM) crops is “confusing and paradoxical” compared to its proactive stance on nuclear energy, says federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.
Mr Joyce toured SA agricultural regions recently with Liberal Senator Sean Edwards, including a meeting with a large contingent of growers in Adelaide.
There, the Nationals deputy leader was told SA’s grain producing industry was suffering a competitive disadvantage due to the government’s stubborn moratorium on GM crops.
Western Australia, Victoria and New South Wales have followed scientific reasoning to allow GM canola to be produced commercially since 2008.
The cotton industry in Queensland and NSW has also made significant environmental and economic advancements since adopting GM technology two decades ago.
But the SA Agriculture Minister Leon Bignell’s negative and outspoken stance on GM has angered many of his State’s growers.
Those feelings were vented to Mr Joyce when he also visited the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG), at Urrbrae in Adelaide, meeting new CEO David Mitchell and SA Shadow Agriculture Minister David Ridgway.
Mr Joyce told Fairfax Media he would be discussing the issue of GM again with Mr Bignell when State and Territory Agriculture Ministers meet this meet.
But he expressed bewilderment at the SA Labor government’s ongoing ban on GM technology, despite its proven agronomic record globally, especially in the Australian cotton industry.
“To be honest I find it a little bit confusing that the South Australian Labor government has done what I think is the appropriate thing, and in fact I’m jealous of them, to get themselves at the forefront of nuclear research and nuclear energy,” he said.
“They’re having an inquiry... into nuclear energy and I congratulate them for it.
“But what I find paradoxical on the other hand is that South Australia says they don’t believe in genetic plant modification.
“I think that’s kind of odd because if are going to feed the world, we’re going to have to be smart about how we do it and the smart people will get the premium, they will win, and they will have the intellectual property and we want to make sure that it’s us.”
No fence sitting on GM
Mr Joyce said he’d spoken to South Australian farm groups and grain growers about their frustrations at being unable to plant GM crops and supported lifting the ban.
“You’re either for genetic modification or against it - you can’t sit on the fence,” he said.
“But the world is roaring down the path of genetic modification and we’ve got to make sure that we don’t have to get the intellectual property (IP) off someone else later on.
“The good thing about South Australia is that it’s got a world-class facility (at the ACPFG).
“You want to try and encourage as much development in South Australia as possible, which means you should be trying to give that facility as much work as possible and so you shouldn’t be having a policy that says you don’t believe in GM.
“South Australia is a great agricultural centre and I’m trying to just politely say we want to be at the forefront of the industry in all aspects of it,” he said.
“I think South Australians themselves would be pretty disappointed if down the track people in the Eyre Peninsula are buying the IP from somewhere else, which they could have built themselves.”
Mr Joyce said the genetic makeup of wheat is more complicated than humans because crossbreeding of different varieties had actually been occurring over thousands of years.
“That’s why it’s more complicated than deciphering the human genome.
“When you say: ‘I don’t believe in genetic modification,’ you say ‘well look, you better go back to the Tigris and Euphrates and find the raw initial form of wheat’, but then I don’t know how you’ll go feeding the world.
“We’re only getting the yields we’re getting now because man has tried to inspire the genetic modification of wheat.
“If you don’t believe in genetic modification you don’t believe in cotton, because 99 per cent of our cotton industry is genetically modified and if it wasn’t we’d have to spray the crop to death with Endosulfan to kill the (insects).”
Mr Bignell was appointed Agricultural Minister in March last year shortly after the SA election.
But he soon angered grains industry members and GM scientists when he compared the health impacts of GM to asbestos and tobacco, when saying he didn’t want to repeat the attitude of politicians from the 1950s and 1970s.
“I don't think we know what the long-term health consequences are of GM crops,” he said.
That stance also raised major concerns about the future of multi-million dollar GM crop research trials at the ACPFG being banished to another State, which was roundly criticised by Senator Edwards.
However, it seems not all SA Labor politicians share the same anti-GM beliefs around health impacts.
Last week, South Australia’s Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health Leesa Vlahos re-tweeted a message from CropLife Australia which highlighted an interview from CEO Matthew Cossey about the future of GM, and the research and development of resistant starch in wheat that “will halve bowel cancer”.