GM politics stifling good policy: Edwards

16 Sep, 2014 02:00 AM
Minister Bignell's policies disregard science for scare campaigns

SOUTH Australian Liberal Senator Sean Edwards says an outbreak of beet western yellow virus has “blindsided” croppers in his home State this season.

But he believes the potential solution – strengthened plant biotechnology research – is being stifled by SA Agriculture Minister Leon Bignell’s penchant for putting politics ahead of science based policy-making.

Senator Edwards said SA was currently suffering from one of the worst outbreaks of beet western yellow virus “that our farmers have ever seen”.

“Across 10,000 hectares in the lower north, mid-north and the lower Mallee the green paddocks are now brown because there are no longer plants in those areas,” he said last week in a Senate speech.

“It's the magnitude of what we're dealing with that is totally un-expected. This has blindsided South Australian cereal croppers.”

Senator Edwards said some growers have lost between 10 and 15 per cent of their canola crops, with a significant reduction anticipated next year if the virus continues.

But he said the situation has been worsened because aphids spreading the crop disease are resistant to the three major chemical groups used to control them.

“This is an incredibly concerning prospect, as canola accounts for 40 to 50 per cent of the cropping rotation in the Lower Eyre Peninsula,” he said.

“Should the aphids develop further resistance to (the chemical pesticide) Transform, the outcome would be devastating as yields would reduce, affecting South Australia's nearly 415,000 tonnes of canola for export.”

Senator Edwards said the key question was how to solve this problem.

“I suggest the solution lies with the further development of plant science in Australia, particularly in the area of genetically modified (GM) organisms,” he said.

“According to the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, 12 of 36 active trial sites are seeking to develop GM canola with desirable traits.

“These include herbicide tolerance, altered oil content, drought resistance and other characteristics that will help yield numbers into the future. Other trial crops include wheat, maize, sugarcane, cotton and even fruits.

“It is there that we may find a solution to this debilitating problem caused by aphids that carry this disease that is causing so much crop loss.”

Senator Edwards said GM was “once a dirty word” but “we no longer have anything to be afraid of when trialling new GM products on our shores”.

“In its infancy, an environmentalist by the name of Mark Lynas spent a considerable amount of time and energy developing the powerful anti-GM movement,” he said.

“What he did not spend time on though was the actual science and he acknowledged this some 20 years later. At a conference of academics at Oxford last year, he accepted that he: ‘assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment’.

“Dr Cathleen Enright, executive director of the Council for Biotechnology Information in Washington, DC, said: ‘We hope that the tremendous reaction to the speech by Mark Lynas serves as evidence that honest consideration of the science will change minds about agricultural biotechnology’.”

Senator Edwards said Mr Bignell – who also holds the tourism portfolio – was one person who “has not heeded Lynas' words”.

He said when “reimposing” SA’s moratorium on GM products, Mr Bignell had asserted that non-GM crops attract greater market prices for primary producers and food and wine manufacturers.

“You would think that such assertions would proudly display the supporting evidence that they are based on,” he said.

“However, when you speak with the department responsible for publishing these words, no-one is able to tell you how these claims are substantiated.”

Senator Edwards said he was a big supporter of South Australia's premium food and wine industry but he fears his State will fall behind if the GM moratorium continues.

He said Western Australia grows about 40pc of Australia's canola and lifted its moratorium on GM production in 2010.

Since then production has grown 46pc, with an enormous increase in GM canola and little decrease in non-GM, he said.

“Minister Bignell's policies disregard science for scare campaigns,” he said.

“I worry that this cavalier attitude will lead to the destruction of more crops.

"I know that South Australia, with its crippling debt, is somewhat challenged. But the one thing that we do and we do well is food and food technology - and yet Minister Bignell isolates us from taking on those advantages.

“It is my hope one day that South Australia can embrace the genetic modification phenomena.”

Mr Bignell’s office was contacted by Fairfax Agricultural Media but did not provide a response to Senator Edward’s speech.

The SA minister ignited criticism from rival politicians and farm groups when he spoke out against GM crops immediately after his ministerial appointment in March.

He said he didn’t want to be like politicians in the 1950s who ignored warnings about tobacco or those in the 1970s who listened to James Hardie which said ‘there are no dangers with asbestos’.

“I don't think we know what the long-term health consequences are of GM crops,” he said at the time.

Mr Bignell was also slammed by Senator Edwards and other critics for appearing alongside the Greens at a rally against GM crops and multinational biotechnology provider Monsanto, at Parliament House in Adelaide in May.

GM crops have bipartisan support in Canberra with GM canola declared safe by federal food safety and gene technology regulators.

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


Jock Munro
16/09/2014 5:14:17 AM

Upon being told at a Senate Inquiry that Australia had no arrangements in place to deal with low grain supplies in drought, Senator Edwards said that wheat moves freely around the world and that there was no issue! Obviously the good senator is unaware of the diseases that we might import.
John Newton
16/09/2014 6:37:21 AM

Firdtly there is no gm seed resistant to these aphids. and second if there was, sooner or later, it wouldn't be for long. GM is a quick fix. Look what's happen ing with superweeds.
16/09/2014 7:02:40 AM

Senator Edwards get out more. If you were to fly to Nth & Sth America you would see that early adoption of GM crops hasn't been so kind to farmers over there.The resistance issues that over use of chemicals cause is undeniable even for those so ill-informed like Senator Edwards. The chemical companies have caused the problem and they are now trying to sell you a new GM Crop to fix the issue that will make them money and continue to send growers broke. It's not working farms are losing value daily because of resistance issues and farmers are struggling to sell farms on the back of that. Why?
16/09/2014 7:08:38 AM

Can someone explain to these people that GM breeding does not take place over night and become some sort of immediate magic fix. It can take years of breeding and then trials and plenty of failures along the way before any plant being breed for human consumption can be safely released. Then you have to get market acceptance of that GM trait that is breed into the plant. This has been proven time and time again. Politicians are looking for a magic bullet to promote to get themselves re-elected don't forget. We have to face the fact that there is a huge anti GM lobby out there Regardless.
16/09/2014 7:18:58 AM

Senator Edwards is more concerned with politics [ self ] than solving the problem. We have ample clever plant pathologists who are well able to turn their skills to plant diseases etc. Stop grandstanding Senator. Minister Bignell has it just right. By the way I usually vote Conservative. Tread carefully.
Jeremy Lomman
16/09/2014 8:05:48 AM

Farmers, consumers and the illusion of choice (GM grain Part 2).
16/09/2014 7:05:55 PM

The first GM technology released in general agriculture was for virus resistance in pawpaws in Hawaii over 25 years ago and this has remained effective ever since. CSIRO had also developed this antiviral technology but could not deploy it because of GM opponents. If the grains industry chooses, GM virus resistance could be up an running in canola to rapidly combat the current aphid carried virus disease. But it would be un available in poor old SA because of Bignell. All the previous comments to this story are uninformed trolls' wallop.
17/09/2014 6:12:14 AM

Jeffito, for such an articulated GM educated proponent , your comment conclusion indicates a misplaced bogan gene causing a disconnect between your passion for GM and social reality. I have no major issue if you want GM but keep it on your side of the fence, and allow others to inform you of their view on your so called " troll's wallop"
17/09/2014 6:36:19 AM

Jeffito, And therein lies the difference. Our own CSIRO to do the job. However the product still has to be marketed.
17/09/2014 8:05:08 AM

Pepper, you can call it a "bogan gene" if you want. I call it a "BS detector" gene and it was working overtime on the 6 comments above mine that completely misrepresent the senators speech. Canola is a great crop to introduce this virus resistance technology for marketing because first a large percentage of the crop is already GM and second, the product that is consumed by humans is oil that contains no genes and eating genes is the trolls' worry. People should not raise the "marketing" concern when their true position is simply a misguided anti GM stance.
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