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Council demands evidence for GM-free knockback

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The state’s biggest council is pushing back against the Marshall Government’s rejecting its application to keep the McLaren Vale wine region free of genetically modified crops, calling for the GM Advisory Committee to justify the decision in a bid to have Primary Industries Minister David Basham review the finding.

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Basham announced last Monday that Onkaparinga and 10 other SA councils had failed in their bids, saying that there was not enough evidence to justify any council area remaining GM-free outside of Kangaroo Island, which had its moratorium preserved under a separate deal last year.

“The GM Crop Advisory Committee assessed the 11 applications and deemed there wasn’t sufficient evidence to recommend designation as an area where no GM food crops can be grown. The committee said individual businesses can maintain non-GM markets as occurs in other mainland states,” he said in the statement last week.

McLaren Vale Grape Wine & Tourism Association, which sits entirely in the state’s most populous council Onkaparinga, led the push to remain GM-free.

In its submission to the council, MGWTA said McLaren Vale risked losing up to $20.1 million annually in crop value and an additional $5.1 million each year in export value should GM crops be grown in the area.

Onkaparinga Council last week labelled Basham’s decision as “a kick in the guts” and has this morning gone on the attack again, requesting detailed minutes of the recent GM Advisory Committee meeting where the matter was discussed.

Mayor Erin Thompson said she was also surprised to discover correspondence and media statements from Basham referring to ‘segregation protocols’ and ‘thresholds’, even though these were not included in section 5A of the Act, nor in any advice from PIRSA or the minister’s office prior to applications being lodged.

“It needs to be made clear – the minister hasn’t said no to councils, he’s said no to the hardworking, successful winemakers and grape growers of our world-class wine region, who know their business and markets better than anyone,” she said.

“Councils were simply tasked with gathering industry evidence, which we did, exactly as prescribed.

“This is a lost opportunity to use the legislation to its best effect, and a failure to recognise that McLaren Vale has unique attributes that deserve protection.”

The council says it has also requested that the GM Advisory Committee provide:

McLaren Vale is Australia’s fifth-largest wine region by value and 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.

Thompson refuted Basham’s assertion that no rigorous evidence-based arguments were provided regarding potential changes in costs for non-GM businesses if the region was not designated GM free.

“Our application provided direct and tangible evidence from four wineries in McLaren Vale, including trade testimonies from importers citing the necessity for GM-free produce in order for trade to continue occurring,” she said.

“The immediate risk is $5.1 million per annum in existing import markets.

“Further, our application expressly points to feedback received from our wine industry that lifting the moratorium will result in a ‘reverse onus of proof.

“This means that grape growers and wine producers who are Certified Organic or Biodynamic and who have not previously needed to prove their produce is free from GM material, will now be forced to do so, at great cost and inconvenience.”

Adelaide Hills, Alexandrina, Barossa, Berri Barmera Council, Playford, Yankalilla, Mount Barker, Tea Tree Gully, Gawler and City of Victor Harbor councils – all in or near major wine regions – also applied to have local GM moratoriums extended but were all rejected last week.

GM Crops Advisory Committee presiding member Anne Levy wrote to Basham on October 16 to inform of the committee’s decision.

In the letter, Levy said the committee ruled out seven council applications at its October 9 meeting. It dealt with the three remaining council applications – Onkaparinga, Adelaide Hills and Barossa on October 16.

“The committee noted that while these three applications were stronger than those previously assessed, the evidence provided still does not meet the trade and marketing impact threshold requirement for designation as a no GM food crop area,” the letter said.

“While the Committee acknowledges the perceived concerns regarding potential threats to trade and marketing, individual business’ non- GM markets can be maintained as occurs in other mainland states where GM food crops are permitted without designation as a no GM food crop area.

“Although some anecdotal information and perceptions were provided in most applications, no rigorous evidence-based arguments were provided regarding potential changes in costs (increases or decreases) for non-GM businesses within their respective local council areas if they are not declared a non-GM area.

“Further feedback on individual applications can be provided upon request.”

About 50 protestors gathered outside Basham’s Victor Harbor office on Saturday to rally against the state government decision to reject the council applications to keep a swathe of SA free of genetically modified crops.

Saturday’s ‘Vigil for Democracy’ protest was organised by the ‘Keep SA GM-free Coalition’ and was attended by former Labor Primary Industries Minister Leon Bignell.

Bignell is also the MP for the McLaren Vale wine region and was a strong supporter of retaining a GM-free moratorium in SA when he was the minister.

GeneEthics Network’s Bob Phelps told Saturday’s rally that the 11 councils acted in good faith and the state government should have respected their applications, which included months of community consultation.

“Many fruit, vegetable and grape growers want their regions to remain GM-free but the Minister listened only to the GM Crops Advisory Committee, whose report denigrated the Councils’ evidence that GM-free grains, wine grapes, and the food industry would continue to be big marketing winners,” he said.

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

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

It found that the lifting of the ban would 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.

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.

Basham said this morning that the GM Crops Advisory Committee unanimously recommended not approving any of the 11 councils and the state government had accepted this advice.

“The committee found markets for non-GM products can be maintained as occurs in other mainland states where GM crops are permitted,” he said.

“Primary producers across mainland South Australia now have the choice on whether or not they wish to grow GM crops not only for next season but into the future as well.

“As we have seen around the rest of the country where GM products have been allowed for at least a decade, individual businesses can still market themselves as being GM-free.”

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