Three years after extending its moratorium on the commercial growing of genetically modified (GM) crops, the Victorian ALP government appears poised to remove the ban when it expires in February 2008.
State agriculture minister Joe Helper believes that Victoria is now "open-minded" about GM crops and a "careful and considered approach" will be used to determine the impact of GM crops on the market before a decision is made.
Farmers' groups are split. The National Farmers Federation (NFF) has been lured by promises of increased yields for less expense, but the Network of Concerned Farmers sees an erosion of choice for non-GM farmers, with up to 10% additional costs to cover segregation bills alone. The United Dairy Farmers of Victoria voted on June 19 to reverse their support for Victoria's ban on commercial GM canola. In response, consumer groups say that they will vote with their feet and choose non-GM soy or organic alternatives if the ban is lifted.
Federal agriculture minister Peter McGuaran, a supporter of GM crops, was quoted by the May 13 Age as saying: "Farmers have much to gain, particularly in times of drought, from growing GM crops, such as wheat and canola that use less water and herbicides than conventional crops." The same points have been reiterated by NFF chief executive Ben Fargher.
These are emotive words, especially in times of drought, but they are hard to substantiate. There is no GM drought-resistant wheat or canola and development could be 10 years away. Non-GM varieties will be available far sooner. Seventy per cent of GM crops are herbicide resistant, and farmers spray more often and at higher doses, resulting in "super weeds" that demand an increasing amount of chemicals to control them.
Federal minister for trade Warren Truss has repeatedly said that Australian farmers are being "left behind". Yet, according to a 2006 industry-backed report from the International Service for Acquisition of Agro-biotechnology Applications ten years after the introduction of GM crops, just 0.7% of all farmers grew them, and 85% of all GM crops were grown in North and South America.
With Australian GM-free canola enjoying a premium of up to $120 per tonne more than the Winnipeg price it is difficult to see how our farmers are being left behind.
The Victorian government has appointed a three-member GM review panel to examine the economic impact of commercial GM canola on trade. However, the panel appears flawed from the start. The chairperson, Gus Nossal, is a retired medical researcher and a long-time supporter of GM crops and food. Panel member Merna Curnow was an officer of the Victorian Farmers Federation. She also worked for the Grains Research Development Council, which invests in GM promotion. Neither appear to have skills to review the issue.
As Bob Phelps from Gene Ethics said, "The Bracks government has set up a panel to recommend fast tracking GM crops into our environment and onto our plates". On May 22, he called for a review of "new evidence on health and environmental impacts of GM crops and foods since the licences were issued".
There have been few independent GM studies carried out, partly due to a lack of funding, but also because of the difficulty in accessing GM material. Hence the majority of data comes from the GM companies themselves. It is then the responsibility of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) to review the data.
WA agriculture minister Kim Chance has said that FSANZ does not adequately assess health impacts of genetically modified crops, and FSANZ spokesperson Lydia Buchtmann agreed it did not conduct trials involving feeding animals or people GM foods. As the May 13 Age editorial stated, "To ask Big Agribusiness about GM is a little like consulting Big Tobacco about the risks of smoking".
One independent study was conducted by Dr Irina Ermakova of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Female rats were fed GM soy, non-GM soy or non-soy diets prior to conception. Two weeks after birth, 36% of the GM pups weighed less than 20g compared to 6% of the others. Within three weeks, 25 of the 45 (55.6%) rats from the GM soy group died compared to only three of 33 (9%) from the non-GM soy group, and three of 44 (6.8%) from the non-soy controls. These results are consistent with other independent studies.
If Victoria does remove its ban, the pressure will be on other states to follow. In WA, there is a push to make GM cotton exempt from the moratorium. Opponents see it as a Trojan Horse that will serve to pave the way for GM canola and other crops.
In WA, the Say No to GMO campaign has brought together the Conservation Council of WA, the Organic Growers Association and the Network of Concerned Consumers. A petition asking that the GM moratorium be extended 10 years beyond 2008 has gathered almost 4000 signatures and was recently tabled in parliament.
This type of consumer-led resistance is evident across the country. As Phelps explained, "The citizen campaign to keep Victoria GM-free is even stronger since the turnaround as their foolish decision is based on empty promises about the profit potential of GM canola".
With outstanding issues to consider such as segregation, contamination, liability, labeling, consumer rejection, health, environment and economics, one has to wonder why we are even having this debate.
[To get involved in Say No to GMO email Janet on firstname.lastname@example.org or phone Maggie on (08) 9420 7260.]