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Council backing for GM-free wine region puts squeeze on new minister

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South Australia’s largest council has voted to ban genetically modified crops from its district following a push from McLaren Vale’s wine industry, which says the lifting of a moratorium will cost the region millions.

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Onkaparinga Council will now ask for state government permission to have its entire district to be given non-GM crop designation following last night’s vote.

It joins Mt Barker, Yankalilla and Barossa councils, which voted this month to keep their regions GM-free.

But it will be up to new Primary Industries Minister David Basham to give final approval to the requests.

Onkaparinga Mayor Erin Thompson said the decision came after a rigorous process, paving the way to protecting organic and biodynamic vineyards from a potential annual loss of $20.8 million.

“We listened carefully to our industry and community, and believe the evidence clearly shows it’s in our city’s best interest to make this application,” she said.

“Industry knows its business best, and the McLaren Vale wine industry has told us they want the region to be GM-free. Marketing is about many things, including perception. Why change how this region is perceived and put valuable export markets at risk in the process?

“Being designated a non-GM crop area would mean our region could keep doing what it does best – producing world-renowned wine that comes with a clean, green and sustainable reputation, and bringing in millions of export dollars to the state.”

Onkaparinga Council, on the southern outskirts of Adelaide, is the state’s most populous local government area with about 173,000 residents and several semi-rural areas including the entire McLaren Vale wine region.

In its draft application to Basham, the council says evidence provided by four McLaren Vale wineries shows $5.1 million of export value per year is at risk. Further modelling indicates this could be at least $20.8 million per annum across the region.

McLaren Vale is known for its premium Shiraz and Grenache and is Australia’s fifth-largest wine region by value. However, it is the largest when it comes to the area of certified organic or biodynamic vineyards.

About 37 per cent of the region’s 7324ha of vines are certified, which compares to a national average of about 5 per cent.

All other mainland states allow genetically modified crops to be grown with canola and cotton the first to be approved for growth in Australia.

Legislation lifting a 16-year-old ban on genetically modified crops in SA was passed by state parliament in May.

This sparked a process allowing councils until September 30 to apply to be GM-free if they consulted with their local community and demonstrate an economic benefit.

The application will now be assessed by the GM Crop Advisory Committee before Basham makes a final decision, which is expected mid-November in time for potential GM planning ahead of the 2021 canola season.

Kangaroo Island was designated GM-free following recommendations from a high-level independent review undertaken by Emeritus Professor Kym Anderson last year.

It found that the lifting of the ban would severely damage the island’s grain industry, as all of its canola is exported to Japan to be sold as ethically produced, single-origin and GM-free canola.

Thompson said the council would now write to Basham and asking that he accept the will of industry, business and community.

“We support the government in saying that one size does not fit all, as it has demonstrated by maintaining the moratorium on GM for Kangaroo Island,” she said.

“We trust he will now use his legislative power to protect McLaren Vale’s international reputation and its vital economic contribution to the state.”

Onkaparinga Council received 314 survey responses and 46 submissions through its consultation period, including a good representation from primary producers and food manufacturers.

Seventy per cent of key stakeholders supported the bid to write to request a designation. The consensus was even stronger among the general community, with 80 per cent saying yes and 20 per cent saying no to the GM-free bid. Critically, 73 per cent of key stakeholders supporting designation cited ‘trade and marketing’ reasons for their choice.

The McLaren Vale Grape Wine & Tourism Association represents all 460 grape growers, 180 wine producers and dozens of tourism operators within the McLaren Vale wine region and has led the push for Onkaparinga to maintain its GM-free status.

In a submission to the council, MVGWTA said the businesses it represented generated $500 million a year in gross regional product.

According to the association, grapes from the below-average yielding 2020 vintage had a value of $56.4 million, which was more than half of the council area’s regional product for agriculture.

This compared with commercial grain crops of $900,000, or less than 1 per cent of local agriculture production.

MVGWTA general manager Jennifer Lynch said while it was pleasing gain local government support for its bid to remain GM-free, she acknowledged that the final approval would now rest with the minister and the GM Crop Advisory Committee.

“On behalf of our region’s growers, producers, tourism businesses and broader community, we are buoyed by council’s vote of support to seek GM Crop free designation for the City of Onkaparinga, which encompasses the internationally recognised boundaries of the McLaren Vale Wine Region,” she said.

“Although last night’s decision by council is not the final hurdle, it is a critical step in a positive direction to preserve our region’s international reputation and accelerate existing and future international trade opportunities.”

The state government is yet to receive any formal applications on the issue but it is understood several other councils are considering the matter.

Mount Barker District Council voted to write Basham requesting it be declared a non-GM crop area at its September 7 meeting after 87 per cent of 143 submissions it received on the matter supported non-GM crop designation.

Mount Barker takes in about a third of the Adelaide Hills wine region but also has areas near Callington where canola is grown.

Neighbouring Adelaide Hills Council has completed its consultation on the issue and will decide if it will also petition the state government to remain GM-free when it next meets on September 22.

Barossa Council also voted this month to request its region remain GM-free after 85 per cent of the 112 submissions it received supported the ban being maintained.

However, Light Regional Council, which takes in a third of the Barossa wine region on its western flank has decided not to pursue the matter.

The Onkaparinga, Barossa and Mt Barker votes put Basham under pressure for one of the first times since he replaced Tim Whetstone as Primary Industries Minister last month.

Whetstone, who resigned during July’s country members’ allowance scandal, had been a strong advocate for removing South Australia’s GMO moratorium and it is believed Basham has similar views on the issue.

In a statement to InDaily last week, Basham said the lifting of the statewide moratorium in time for the 2021 growing season had been a “significant win for grain growers across South Australia”.

“Councils now have a once-off six-month ability to apply to be GM-free but they have to consult with their local community and demonstrate an economic benefit.

“These applications will be due by 30 September to ensure they can be considered by the GM Crop Advisory Committee as required by law before the State Government makes the final decision.”

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