The opportunity, science and politics of Genetically Modified crops

15 Jan, 2016 10:00 AM
WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith
WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith

IN the 1940s, an American biologist by the name of Norman Borlaug developed a strain of wheat that could resist diseases, was short (thereby reducing damage by the wind) and produced both large seed heads and high yields.

This new variety of wheat was first introduced in Mexico and within twenty years that nation’s production of wheat had tripled.

This increased production allowed for more food to be available for people in Mexico and also made it possible for them to export wheat.

The plant’s development has been credited with saving more than one billion people from starvation, particularly in India and Pakistan.

For this work, Norman Borlaug was called the father of the Green Revolution and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

As a result of the Green Revolution and the introduction of chemical fertilizers, synthetic herbicides and pesticides, high-yield crops, and multiple cropping methods, today’s agricultural industry is able to produce larger quantities of high-quality food than ever previously imagined.

This increased productivity has made it possible to feed the burgeoning human population while at the same time growing more crops on roughly the same amount of land with similar or lower levels of effort.

The result has been remarkable - reduced production costs, resulting in cheaper prices for food and the realisation of economic benefits to both farmers and consumers.

Importantly, the environment itself has also benefited, as less forest or natural land has been converted to farmland to secure greater levels of production needed by growing populations.

With such obvious benefits, it would be hoped that such innovation in agriculture would be universally embraced.

Regrettably, however, such hope is misplaced.

Despite the numerous advances made through modern farming, agricultural innovation continues to have more than its fair share of critics, mostly from outside the farming sector.

Agriculture touches on almost every aspect of our lives and is impacted by decisions and events in almost every sector - from energy, to water, to health, infrastructure, technology, and transport to name but a few.

Every issue affecting farmers – from the use of GM crops, to live exports, to climate change is now subject to polarising debates from numerous “stakeholders”.

While futurists predict that agriculture in the coming decades will depend on farmers’ ability to use new technologies, there is simultaneously a growing demand from some consumers in first world markets for ‘old style farming’ and ‘food with a story’.

This creates a huge divergence of opinion about what the future path should be for agriculture in the political arena.

Nowhere is this more evident than with the recent events that have occurred within the Greens, with leader Senator Di Natale publically stating (much to the chagrin of his party’s hard-liners) that he is not "philosophically opposed" to GM crops and that there is no scientific evidence they pose a significant risk to human health.

Should Senator Di Natale succeed in changing his party’s approach to agricultural policy from anecdotal to science-based, he will have done more for Australian farmers than any of his predecessors.

Even more interestingly, if successful, then in Western Australia the State Labor party would be alone in its call for a moratorium on GM crops.

We know the success of companies like Apple or Google has been their ability to look outwards, to develop new ideas, and embrace new technology.

Now, more than ever, this same approach is needed in Australian agriculture.

Naval gazing on single issues or sectors, equating national interests to domestically focussed policies, and failing to address economic issues like industrial relations reform are preventing Australian farmers from launching the next Green Revolution.

However, this potential will only be realised if policy-makers respect the voices of our farmers and pastoralists, who together account for more than 95 per cent of agricultural holdings.

We cannot expect to obtain a competitive advantage by reverting to a by-gone protectionist mindset, where politicians regulate what farmers grow, deny growers access to genetically modified crops or restrict access to international markets by shutting down trade at the stroke of a Ministerial pen.

Our ability to succeed will rely on the agricultural sector’s ability to keep its collective eyes on the road ahead, rather than seek the false comfort of the rear view mirror.

Date: Newest first | Oldest first


18/01/2016 11:30:07 AM

Senator Smith's article contains a major falsehood. Norman Borlaug was a remarkable scientist who increased grain production - the Green Revolution - in poorer countries, by selective breeding, intensive use of modern fertilisers, and intensive use of water - not by Genetic Modification. This profit-driven technique involves the transfer of genetic material from exterior sources eg Bacillus thurengiensis, present in soil, to the gene of the potato. The results are patented and sold, not distributed as was Borlaug's research. Why is Smith muddying the waters?
21/01/2016 6:14:15 AM

Have a look at your timeline? inflation adjusted prices for wheat rose considerably around late 30's. The money changers had crashed commodity prices, turned the credit spigots off and sent everyone to war to create the need for more finance. When the war ended the spigots were turned on, all the war machinery was scrapped and prices boomed for wheat. Now one may argue we are in the same cycle, however any farmer that thinks he needs technology to make a dramatic increase in prodn to feed people who have no money (or dubious popn predictions) has probably listened to too many fear mongers.
25/01/2016 6:43:48 AM

A resounding silence from Senator Smith. Re-reading his puffery, I noticed several other issues which he ignores or glosses over: "burgeoning population" for example, now recognised as simply unsustainable; the whole Green Revolution idea is also now seen as non-viable for the future as global water supplies diminish; climate change, which Smith simply dismisses - perhaps not surprisingly, as an anti-science WA Lib - which will have profound effects on farming. If Smith really supports WA farmers, let him support funding for Australian agricultural research.
John Carpenter
26/01/2016 7:31:38 AM

Nico makes the same mistake as many before him including Malthus,Marx,the Club of Rome,and Paul Erlichmann .They completely missed the ability of free, market based societies to use science and technology to continually increase output and yields.In other words they all missed the science based productivity revolution.The satantic mills are now run by robots and are owned by the workers' super funds.Limits to growth makes good reading in the scaremongering populist press but it is a absolute red herring.
27/01/2016 6:50:01 AM

John, the "science based productivity revolution" which you advocate allows half the world's wealth to be owned by just 1% of the people. Is this sustainabIe? Is this just? I prefer the view of systems scientist Kenneth Boulding: "Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist."


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