FEDERAL Senators have backed a motion supporting genetically modified (GM) crops for being an environmentally friendly farming technology supported by scientific rigor.
The motion was passed on Monday this week as the Crawford Fund met for its annual conference in Canberra addressing a key theme of meeting future global food and nutrition demand sustainably, while facing the earth’s limited natural resource base.
Farming technologies like GM crops - to produce food with greater nutritional value - were highlighted as tools that can help resolve what the Crawford Fund described as humankind’s “existential challenge”.
Gerda Verburg, chair of the UN Committee on World Food Security and of the World Economic Forum Council on Food Security and Nutrition, told the conference the challenge of addressing food security and nutrition had at times been a minefield of polarising debates.
But she said the best solutions were often found when ideas can be combined and built upon from across the spectrum.
“Not shying away from addressing contentious issues in a multi stakeholder dialogue, like the role of genetic engineering, how to optimise land use, or how we can combine traditional knowledge with innovation and technology, is the only way to build consensus and truly create food systems where sustainability and profitability are inextricably linked,” she said.
The federal Senate motion was raised by influential crossbench Senators David Leyonhjelm, Bob Day and Dio Wang.
Despite the Greens having a long-held anti-GM policy position, the motion was passed without needing a division or debate over the potentially controversial topic.
The motion urged the Senate to recognise that GM crops have higher yields per hectare than conventional crops and therefore reduce the need for further land clearing.
It said GM crops generally require fewer pesticide applications and therefore reduce farming costs and the environmental impact of farming practices.
The motion also said further adoption of the technology would increase productivity for farmers and provide superior environmental benefits.
“There is a need to maintain an independent, scientific-based and evidence-based regulatory regime for genetically-modified crops,” the motion said.
Senator Leyonhjelm said GM crops had an important role to play in feeding a growing global population by producing crops that provide foods of greater nutritional value; especially in Asia.
“We won’t be able to feed the world and allow everyone in poor countries to enjoy the same standards of living that we enjoy if we don’t develop and adopt new technologies like GM crops,” he said.
“I think opposition to GM crops amounts to telling poor people in developing countries ‘you can’t live as well as we do’.”
Speaking to Fairfax Media, Crawford Fund board member John Anderson expressed concerns about “irrational” and “indefensibly selfish debates” that ignored science and evidenced based decision-making, while “stymying” the progress and adoption globally, of technologies like GMs.
The former deputy prime minister and Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia co-patron said public debates about the use of technologies like GM’s and energy resources must be explored and dealt with “much more honestly if we’re to meet the challenge in front of us”.
“I remember it was only a little while ago that green activists wanted to tell us that GM cotton was going to destroy every food producing area in the country and everyone was dying of cancer and this was a great blot on the horizon,” he said.
“But now we hear nothing about the evils of cotton and we don’t even hear people complaining about the fact that Australian cotton is virtually all GM.
“The savings in chemicals, and therefore I’d argue the environmental benefits as well as economic benefits are huge, just huge.
“Now if those benefits are there for GM cotton, dare I suggest, and it’s fairly obvious, they’re going to be there too when it comes to feeding people in the future and doing it in a more sustainable way with other GM crops.”
Mr Anderson said Omega-3 was an example of GM crops that can assist with lifting living standards and delivering benefits for developing countries.
“We know that relatively minor areas, sewn to crops that are genetically modified to contain omega, can supplant staggering numbers of fish in peoples’ diets,” he said.
“That’s one avenue but it is being shut down all around the world and Scotland is the latest.
“There’s also Golden Rice and GM bananas but what about drought resistant wheat in Australia?
“Drought resistant wheat would make a significant difference for farmers’ production capabilities in some of our fertile but more marginal rainfall areas.
“There is no silver bullet when it comes to meeting the need to feed people in the coming decades; there are many parts to the jigsaw and GM is plainly one of those parts.
“But consistently we are told that we’re all cuckolds if we don’t accept the majority scientific view on climate warming so how on earth then does that fit with the need to accept the majority view on GM and the majority view from the scientific world is quite overwhelming indeed.
“I’ve heard two of the country’s most eminent scientists make a simple but staggering claim that we have many reported deaths from people choosing to buy organic food stuffs that are supposedly clean and healthy but yet there hasn’t even been a stomach upset reported from the trillions of meals consumed containing GM materials.”