During a 10-day tour of NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia in early February, Terry Boehm, vice-president of Canada's National Farmers Union, and Arnold Taylor, president of the Canadian Organic Growers association, warned Australian farmers against adopting genetically modified (GM) crops.
"The GM horse has well and truly bolted in Canada", said Boehm on February 13 during a breakfast attended by 60 people at City Farm, East Perth. "This is an opportunity for Australian farmers to learn from our experience."
Boehm sees GM crops as introducing a crippling new form of "feudalism", where farmers are tied to biotech companies such as Monsanto through expensive licence fees, royalties for seeds and commitment to buying the company's seeds. "This puts farmers at the mercy of the very industries that should be working for them", he said.
By patenting both naturally occurring and GM crops, these companies can use aggressive lawsuits to ward off any potential rival. At the same time, insidious forms of surveillance and barely concealed threats are whittling away any options farmers have for getting seeds from other suppliers.
"As a farmer, I have to wonder why any Australian farmer would be willing to jeopardise their GM-free markets. Farmers might see some short-term benefits in production practices, but very quickly contamination [of non-GM crops] will become evident, and market losses will follow", Boehm warned.
He said South Australia's February 8 decision to maintain its GM moratorium was based on sound economics because consumers are overwhelmingly demanding GM-free products. Paradoxically, pro-GM lobbyists claim that markets will not be affected should GM crops be introduced into Australia.
"I can't believe how they can say this is true", said Boehm. "The Canadian government has been lodging actions to force the EU to open up its markets, but the EU is showing no signs of caving in. These markets are lost to Canada", he lamented.
When asked if there was any research data on GM canola contamination, Boehm replied: "Yes, there is a working experiment, and it is called Canada."
Taylor told the gathering that Canada introduced GM canola in 1995. Within two years it became apparent that segregation of GM and non-GM canola was failing. Now it is impossible to segregate the two, and farmers have no choice but to market all canola as GM. This has led the Saskatchewan organic farmers to appeal to the Supreme Court to halt the cultivation of GM canola on the grounds that they cannot grow organic canola due to the high risks of contamination.
"Our appeals to lower courts have failed, but we are pinning our hopes on a recent US Federal Court injunction on the growing of GM alfalfa on the grounds that it had not undergone a proper environmental assessment, and that it would cause harm to organic farmers by contaminating their alfalfa", Taylor explained.
Annie Kavanagh, president of the WA Organic Growers Association, agreed. "All the issues we have been warning about have already been experienced by farmers like Terry and Arnold. We need to listen to them and take action to keep the GM moratorium in place indefinitely.
"Speaking to Arnold was particularly frightening as he painted a bleak picture for Canadian organic growers. The organic canola industry has been wiped out because it has been impossible to segregate. Segregation has never been achieved anywhere in the world."
Julie Newman of the Network of Concerned Farmers added: "We should be listening to industry leaders, such as Boehm and Taylor, who are saying what is really happening, rather than biotech-funded people delivering a biotech message."
With NSW and Victoria having given permission to their canola farmers to start growing GM crops this year, one of Newman's concerns is that non-GM farmers will have no legal recourse if their crops get contaminated. "At the moment it is up to the non-GM farmer to keep GM seed out. The non-GM farmer will not be able to sue the GM farmer if the GM farmer followed the coexistence plans, which only require a five-metre buffer zone and actually do nothing at all to allow for coexistence", she said.
As GM canola pollen has been found up to 26 kilometres from its source, a five-metre buffer zone appears tokenistic. "The bottom line is there is no coexistence plan, there never has been", said Newman. "All our canola will be sold as GM because it is too difficult and too expensive to sell as non-GM."
Peter Portman, manager of technical market services for Cooperative Bulk Handing, traditionally Australia's largest canola exporter, has said in September 2006 that CBH would segregate GM and non-GM canola for only a couple of years, and only then for political reasons.
Newman is also concerned that patent laws would demand fees on seeds grown through contamination. "It is 100% our responsibility as non-GM farmers to control contamination and if we don't control it properly the biotech companies will have the right to demand their user fee, so it is just appalling", she said.
Both Kavanagh and Newman are grateful for having a continued GM moratorium in WA, which expires at the end of 2008, although both see the need for the introduction of a strict liability regime.
"We don't want to get into a situation in WA where farmers, be they organic or not, are being sued for an end point royalty for infringement of patents when the seed wasn't even planted by these farmers. It is up to the suppliers and users of GM technology to bear any costs associated with it, not those of us who wish to remain GM free", Kavanagh said.
[Janet Grogan is a member of Say No to GMO campaign group. For more information visit <www.http://no-gmo.asn.au>.]