One of South Australia’s most senior agricultural scientists says the state’s continued moratorium on genetically modified crops is damaging the status of science.
In the first of an InDaily series on important policies being ignored in the election campaign, the University of Adelaide’s Professor Peter Langridge says that there is no scientific basis for South Australia’s ongoing ban on GM crops.
The moratorium, introduced by the Rann Government and confirmed by the Weatherill administration until 2019, is supported by all sides of politics – Labor, Liberal, Family First and the Greens.
However, scientists and academics say there is no credible evidence that GM crops pose any threat to health and safety or the environment. There is also little evidence that the moratorium gives the state a marketing boost.
There are ironic shades of the climate change debate – with many of those politicians who accept the scientific consensus that humans are causing the earth to warm refusing to accept the majority scientific view about the safety of GM foods.
The Government’s statements about the moratorium are carefully worded, focusing on the perceived marketing advantage the state receives from projecting a “clean, green” image to the world.
However, Langridge, head of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics, said he knew of only one study into the economic impact of the moratorium on the state, and that estimated it to be a loss of $50 million a year.
“I don’t think anyone’s found any evidence that it’s an advantage, even from a marketing perspective,” he told InDaily.
He said the scientific consensus – including a large European study based on nearly 20 years of evidence – was that GM crops were safe, “certainly from the perspective of human and environmental safety”.
“From our knowledge of the science, there’s no reason to suppose there are any problems with it,” he said.
“If we talk to the politicians they say this is a debate in which they see no advantage in getting involved.
“For me, the big issue here is not what’s specifically out there (in terms of GM crop options) – the economic loss of the moratorium is probably small.
“What I see as the really big problem here is that politicians are making an essentially anti-science decision – they’re saying ‘we can ignore the science and make a decision based on only politics’.”
There was an “inherent contradiction” between this stance and politicians’ wishes to encourage the development of an economy based on innovation.
“They’re undermining science, and respect for the scientific process.
“That’s doing far more damage than if we’re growing GM canola or not.
“I find it quite curious that you find, essentially, the climate change sceptics behaving in the same way as the anti-GM people.”
He said he believed most South Australian politicians accepted the science but did not want to open themselves to an electoral scare campaign about GM crops.
University of Adelaide economics professor Kym Anderson, who specialises in agricultural economics, agrees with Langridge that there’s no scientific evidence that GM crops pose particular risks.
In relation to a marketing benefit to South Australia from pushing a non-GM status, Anderson says the evidence is “pretty skimpy”.
“In the Japanese market you could identify a premium (for non-GM products), but it was so skimpy as to not be worth worrying about,” he said.
In the United States, where the debate on GM crops is much more sophisticated than in Australia, one of the more potent anti-GM arguments is that they essentially freeze out other forms of agriculture from the mix – such as organics, biodynamics, permaculture, and the move towards preserving heirloom seeds.
Langridge say he has some sympathy with this argument, but argues it is a separate debate from the science of GM foods. Rather, he says, it’s more about the industrialisation of agriculture, and modern consumers’ resultant expectations of being able to purchase very cheap foods.
“People spend more time deciding on which TV to buy than the food they are going to consume,” he said.
“If people were willing to pay more for their food, other options (to industrialised agriculture) would open up.”
The GM debate, he argues, is evidence of the growing distance between the cities – where political power is situated – and the regional areas of Australia, where people grow our food.
“The people who are making decisions about what can or cannot be done on farms really have no concept of where food comes from.
“Farmers are now being constrained on what they can do by people who essentially have no concept about what happens on farms.”
South Australian Agriculture Minister Gail Gago was unrepentant about the Government’s stance and insisted it was a marketing benefit to the state.
“Non-GM crops can attract greater market prices and uphold the exceptional quality of South Australia’s food sector,” she told InDaily.
“Also, regulating GM food crops positively impacts on the marketing of the State’s premium food and wine products in export destinations around the world.
“For example, there is strong demand in Japan to buy from suppliers and businesses which grow and source non-GM products, and consumers there are prepared to pay for natural products which they are certain have been produced in a clean and sustainable environment.
“The South Australian Government is aware that concerns continue to be voiced within the community about the long-term impacts of genetically modified crops and foods and is listening to these concerns.
“The health and environmental impacts of GM food crops are matters for the Commonwealth Government’s Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR).”
The key players’ positions
Its “Premium Food and Wine” policy released last year says: “The State Government will continue to support the moratorium on genetically modified foods in South Australia until 2019 and increase promotion of South Australia’s non-GM status.”
Liberal agriculture spokesman David Ridgway says his party supports the continuing moratorium.
“I don’t get a lot of people beating a path to my door saying the moratorium should be lifted,” he said.
“There’s never been any hard data (on its impact).”
The Greens strongly support the moratorium, and have been pushing tougher rules to protect organic and non-GM farmers from the economic loss that could be caused by contamination from GM crops.
Family First’s Rob Brokenshire says: “There is disagreement within the South Australian farming community about the potential gains or detriments from allowing GM crops in South Australia. In the absence of a settled or united view, we support the moratorium.”
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