GM crops back in the spotlight

23 Mar, 2015 12:40 PM
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GM canola seed.
More than 20pc of the WA canola crop is GM canola and this statistic is growing
GM canola seed.

A NEW report reinforces the benefits of farmers choosing to use genetically modified (GM) crops to reduce pesticide use while increasing yields and profitability.

The report by university researchers from Switzerland was published last month in a peer-reviewed open access journal Agriculture & Food Security.

It provided meta-analysis of articles on GM crops over more than 20 years and found that, on average, production of GM crops reduced chemical pesticide input by 37 per cent, increased crop yields by 22pc and increased farmers’ profits by 68pc.

“These numbers are significant and compelling considering that the accumulated land area planted with GM crops during the last 18 years represents an agricultural production area of more than 150pc of the size of countries such as the USA or China,” it said.

“The positive impact of GM crop adoption on yield is especially encouraging because this means that GM crops can produce more on less land.

“In summary, the aggregate literature reveals conclusively that there are considerable benefits of GM crop adoption for both the environment and for the economic well-being of farmers - facts that are often misrepresented in the public debate.”

Marsh, Baxter back in court

The report arrives as hearings begin this week in the Court of Appeal for the Western Australian Supreme Court, into the high profile Marsh v Baxter case.

The judgment handed down in May last year rejected Kojonup organic farmer Steve Marsh and his wife’s Sue claim against their GM-producing neighbour Mike Baxter, for $85,000 in alleged financial damages caused from losing their organic certification.

Justice Ken Martin’s 150-page judgment awarded in Mr Baxter’s favour, rejecting assertions GM canola was unsafe and dismissing both the Marshes' causes of action in common law negligence and private nuisance.

The Marshes have appealed against the main decision which will be heard today and tomorrow (March 23 and 24).

Another hearing on Wednesday, March 25, will hear an appeal against the cost orders made in September last year by Justice Martin which awarded costs totalling $804,000 in Mr Baxter’s favour.

The decision said: “The plaintiffs do pay the defendant's costs of the action, including reserved costs, to be taxed if not agreed”.

But as debate continues over GM crop safety, Dairy Australia Biotechnology and Strategic Initiatives Manager Paula Fitzgerald pointed to the meta-analysis as an example of work that’s capable of advancing public awareness.

She said the report focused on herbicide tolerant and insect resistant soy, corn and cotton – but its authors suggest that the results they identified are likely to apply to other GM crops such as canola and sugar beet.

“This is perhaps the first time that both peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed articles have both been considered in one study,” she said.

“The results of the analysis are compelling; significant reductions in pesticide, increased yield - producing more from less - and importantly, financial returns for farmers.

“These results reinforce, particularly in developed countries, that farmers are running sophisticated businesses and will choose to utilise farming systems/grow crops that deliver benefits.

“GM opponents need to examine such studies carefully, rather than ignore them, as the results align with some of their demands and ideals – for example, a 37pc reduction in pesticide use is significant.

“The challenge for researchers and those communicating about GM crops, is to talk about these study results and engage with consumers to explain why agriculture is utilising gene technology in plant science and the benefits it brings to crop and food production.”

Push for more GM bans

Despite the court decision and reports into GM efficacy, anti-GM groups continue pushing for the retention of legislation in WA that could potentially be used to restrict the technology’s uptake.

Shirley Collins from FOODwatch said WA Agriculture and Food Minister Ken Baston had “completely thrown caution to the wind” by announcing his intention to repeal the GM Crops Free Areas Act 2003.

But she welcomed a recent move by WA Greens Senator Rachel Siewert to pursue a federal Bill for a “GM contamination insurance scheme funded by GM crop levies”.

However, the grains council leaders of WA’s two key farm lobby groups agree the Act should be repealed for fear it could be used to stifle farmer choice, in the event of a future change of government.

WAFarmers Duncan Young and WA Pastoralists and Graziers Association’s (PGA) John Snooke believe the Act is an example of excess red tape, given the Office of Gene Technology Regulator already approves the safety of GM crops.

PGA president Tony Seabrook believes opposition to GM technology is based on emotion, not science.

“It's absolutely critical that we move beyond the hysteria that seems to be attached to this debate and start to look at the massive benefits that it will bring to mankind this century,” he said last week to ABC radio.

The Marshes will be represented in their appeal by former WA governor Malcolm McCusker, after being previously represented by Slater & Gordon Lawyers who were acting pro bono.

Mr McCusker has told other media the case has nothing to do with whether GM canola is harmful to humans or animals.

The original judgement was highly critical of processes used by Mr Marsh’s organic certifier, the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia, and its zero tolerance for the presence of GM crops.

Checking the science

The appeal also coincides with the annual “Science meets Parliament” event in Canberra this week, where about 200 scientists will gather and have traditionally urged political policy-makers to respect science, in guiding their decisions on issues like GM technology or climate change.

In a recent report into the industry’s future increased profitability, the Grains Industry Association of WA (GIWA) identified repealing the GM Crops Free Areas as an example of reducing red tape and regulation which currently inhibits the sector’s competitiveness and profitability.

“To date, under the exemptions of the WA Genetically Modified Crop Free Areas Act 2003 which allow GM cotton and GM canola to be grown in WA, industry has convincingly demonstrated its ability to manage co-existing technologies through its supply chains, in a self-regulated manner,” a GIWA statement said last week.

“More than 20pc of the WA canola crop is GM canola and this statistic is growing.

“The benefits of GM crops such as GM canola provide WA growers with access to: the world’s best production technology; proven lower chemical and pesticide usage; proven management strategies for crop rotation; demonstrably higher yields and improved profits for farmers.

“GIWA believes the future productive gains from GM crops will outweigh any premium for traditional non-GM crops.

“Without access to such technology for any future GM crops, the downside is that WA, which produces 40pc of Australia’s grain crop and exports almost everything it produces, would be less competitive with the rest of the world’s grain producers.”

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READER COMMENTS

Tiger
23/03/2015 5:35:26 PM

"More than 20pc of the WA canola crop is GM canola and this statistic is growing". Of course its growing, in fact its out of control. Just like rabbits and prickly pear once were. Now its been released sooner or later everyone will be growing it whether they want to or not and whether they know they are growing it or not.
themule
24/03/2015 5:50:27 AM

The whole GM debate is flawed due to very big vested interests. To claim a 22pc increase in yield and a 68pc increase in farm profit is about as ridiculous as the those that believe this crap. The only increase in profit has been the seed suppliers. The issues now arising from the overuse and incorrect use of Glyphosate in GM and Non-GM Croping programs, far outway any so called benefits. Get the researchers for the article to have a look at the dramatic increase in chemical resistant weed burdens over the same 20 odd years. Every article is biased for either side but look long term not short.
onthefence
24/03/2015 6:21:24 AM

Agree those figures sound a tad inflated! So you couldn't see it being used as a strategic tool as part of an integrated weed management program/rotation? R&D companies need to recoup research costs,and public breeding is pretty much dead unfortunately. Lets not forgot what Logran was worth 20 years ago. Maybe a bit more competition with new genes would bring the cost down?
wtf
24/03/2015 7:11:10 AM

the top 3 comments are obviously shills for the organic industry. I guess u take issue with - a political writer delivering the message "the science is clear"?, or that u object to the oil/banker/eugenics NGOs funding the miracle "golden rice" cure to save the world? or that pattern of use (ie in crop application) and toxicity of the relevant chemical is important rather than total chemical used? or that innocent chemical corporations test their own products safety and that there is a conflict of interest? go back to your e coli vegeburgers and keep reading your conspiracy junk science.
morrgo
24/03/2015 7:36:15 AM

For all those commenters who declare the study "crap", here it is, open access: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/ article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0 111629 . Just provide a scientifically robust critique, rather than dismissing it unread because it doesn't fit with your prejudices.
Ranger
24/03/2015 8:08:32 AM

No one is going to win this fight unless we all come together. The National Farmers Federation should set up a committee to select a political candidate from each and every district to represent farming, in all state and federal Parliaments. Then we would have Professional farmers looking after our industry.
seethelight
24/03/2015 11:12:25 AM

How wrong could you be' Ranger'. There is only one reason why the barriers to access to gm technology have been broken down in WA and thats the PGA of WA.They didn't wait for the approval of the collective or to negotiate a consensus with less than convinced equivocal nervous nellies.What they did was saw the right thing to do and did it and the devil take the hindmost.
HiddenAgendasAbound
24/03/2015 1:14:12 PM

Having grown up in the country, compelled to empathise with both points of view...awful that community overall suffering. Very concerned that those 'on the land' are being scape-goated for undeclared 'faceless' interests. Why is nobody even mentioning the rather large elephant looming in the corner?
what elephant?
24/03/2015 1:42:45 PM

Please explain.
Why
24/03/2015 3:10:06 PM

The reduction in herbicides for RR systems is not using atriazine and a pre-emergent. So if RR system is so fantastic WHY is there the need for RT (Roundup-Triazine). That's because a Single herbicide system is a fast track to resistance. NB Swathing a RR crop and spraying under the bar to kill the surviving ryegrass plants with a third application of Roundup doesn't make good agronomic sense, so what do you use, Paraquat!
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