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.