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Labor needs "open mind" on GM ban, says shadow minister

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Labor’s primary industries spokesman says the party “needs to have an open mind” on lifting the moratorium it imposed on genetically modified crops, conceding he “accepts the science” behind the push to lift the ban.

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The Opposition yesterday voted against Primary Industries Minister Tim Whetstone’s legislative bid to scrap the GM ban passed by the former Labor government, after his attempt to do so via regulation was quashed by the Upper House last week.

But the Bill passed the Lower House on the Government’s numbers and its fate will be decided in the Upper House, likely next week.

Labor has again opted to oppose the legislation on procedural grounds – citing the lack of notice before the hastily-drafted Bill was tabled – but the party is strongly split on the policy itself.

Shadow Minister Eddie Hughes – the party’s spokesman on the issue and only rural MP – told InDaily today: “I think, longer term, Labor needs to have an open mind when it comes to GM.”

Asked if it was correct that he was personally pro-GM – as party insiders have asserted – he said: “In terms of general principle, I accept the science – so that would be a fair summation.”

He added that “there are people within the state and farm producers in this state that do believe GM the moratorium does provide a market advantage”.

“It’s been a vexed issue… my personal position is we need to keep an open mind,” he said.

However, he insisted: “I support the Labor Party’s position on GM”, having voted along party lines to oppose the Bill on procedural grounds.

“I’m on board with the position,” he said.

“The Government have handled this very, very badly, bowling up a Bill without any notice and not allowing it to sit on the table.”

However, Hughes flagged a very different approach if similar legislation was tabled in future.

“As more GM attributes become available, we’ll have to seriously look at what the costs and benefits are,” he said.

“There’s clearly a lot of work going on in GM crops that might well have an advantage for SA farmers.

“I fully support the position that the shadow cabinet and caucus have taken… what I’m flagging is that in the future there will be other GM debates, and we should have an open mind about those debates and arrive at a position then.”

However, his frontbench predecessor and Left-faction colleague – former Agriculture Leon Bignell, who extended the GM ban as minister – is firmly against ending the moratorium, insisting Labor’s position remains “the same position we took to the election”.

“The value proposition is in keeping the moratorium for SA,” he said.

“You need to stand out by being different to the rest of the world… the growth is all in organic and non-GM – why would we give up that advantage?”

He denied a caucus rift, saying: “There isn’t a big blue.”

“At the moment we’re sticking with what we took to the election… shadow cabinet and caucus made a decision, and that’s what we’re doing.”

However, in a media release in September last year Hughes had already flagged a new approach, saying Labor “supports a decision to review South Australia’s genetically modified crop moratorium”.

“I want to ensure that South Australia’s agriculture industry continues to grow and it is therefore wise to consider all options that will help the bottom line in the industry,” he said at the time.

Whetstone today joined SA grain growers on the steps of parliament to urge Labor and the Legislative Council crossbench to  “support our farmers [and] give our farmers more choice”.

“The Leader of the Opposition [Peter Malinauskas] has once again used the excuse of process – he is not the farmers’ friend,” he said.

He said lifting the ban would help overcome the effects of drought and climate change, and would “reduce inputs and increase productivity”.

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