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.”