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A bountiful harvest of debate over GM crops go-ahead

Opinion

A law change means SA farmers can now grow GM crops, but opponents are still trying to limit their use across the state, argues Caroline Rhodes.

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For the past 16 years, our farmers and our world-leading scientists at the Waite Campus have been told by legislators that they had access to just the right amount of technology in plant breeding: not too little, not too much.

But that changed last week, following the passage of the Genetically Modified Crops Management (Designated Area) Amendment Bill in state Parliament.

Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County in the United States is home to the Amish community. With picture-perfect rolling hills scattered with quaint wooden barns and covered bridges, the farming landscape appears to have been frozen in time.

The Amish quietly go about their agrarian lifestyle and have learned to adjust to the outside world, despite the temptations of modern technology at their doorstep. During a recent visit, I watched with great fascination as a team of horses helped men till the soil for winter sowing, remaining faithful to their beliefs.

Closer to home, more than four million hectares of cropping land is now being sown across South Australia after promising opening rains. Most grain producers have adopted minimum tillage farming systems, with cutting-edge machinery using GPS technology, but with access to canola varieties akin to the horse-and-buggy.

Despite significant technological advances in broadacre farming, South Australia has been frozen in time in our approach to plant breeding. Not through a freedom of religion enjoyed by our Amish brethren, but through a political doctrine imposed by prophets on North Terrace since 2004.

Genetically modified crops proven safe by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator – and grown commercially in every other mainland state – were banned in South Australia due to a belief system that shuns technology.

A memorable episode of Family Guy came to mind listening to the Parliamentary debate last week:

“Dear Amish Lord, thou looketh sternly down upon us thine flock, even though we did not do anything wrong and have been doing chores like (bleep) crazy, please make us humble, and deliver us more hardship, that we may get thick, calloused hands, much larger than other people’s. And grant that we become dull, like Eric Bana, who we have never seen, but are just going by reputation because it is your will. We solemnly believe that although humans have been around for a million years, you feel strongly that they had just the right amount of technology between 1835 and 1850; not too little, not too much. Please deliver us from Thomas Edison, the worst human being who ever lived. And protect us from those who laugh at our buggies or our hats and deliver us from moustaches. Amen.”

Greens Mark Parnell MLC argued that SA’s grain producers must turn their back on modern agriculture and simply make do with conventional crop varieties, a belief founded in his opposition to GM.

Not to be outdone, former Agriculture Minister Leon Bignell last year argued that the same broadacre farmers should instead look to worms and dung beetles for their salvation.

Imagine if we had taken a similar approach to the COVID-19 pandemic – that somehow scientists and frontline health workers were not to be trusted with modern medicine, or that our science-based regulators were not capable of undertaking a risk assessment. Thankfully, this has not been the case and our community trusts advice from experts, such as our Chief Public Health Officer Prof Nicola Spurrier.

So why has our Parliament entrenched its ban on using GM technology in agriculture until now?

At times, our farmers have been told the reason for these dictates is to deliver us from the corporate personification of the devil, Monsanto.

Anti-GM ideology is then selectively applied to trade and marketing of South Australian produce and, that somehow a state-based moratorium delivers a price premium by reputation alone, because it is Parliament’s will.

This is despite the myth of a premium being debunked by last year’s Independent Review, except for a small number of canola growers on Kangaroo Island.

Not to be deterred by facts or the weight of evidence, Mark Parnell insists that South Australia should better market its GM ban. After 16 years of the moratorium, apparently more time is needed to realise the mythical premium that cannot be quantified.

Even within the boundaries of a strict religious doctrine, there is a happy coexistence of the Amish with the modern world. Ironically, this junction relies on the free market and consumer choice, as they capitalise on the passing tourist trade. There is a burgeoning trade in consumer goods, as I discovered.

And so too, the booming organic industry interstate proves that GM, non-GM and organics can and do co-exist in Australia. We are the last mainland state refusing to allow producers to make that choice for themselves.

Current GM canola varieties offer improved weed management options, improving yield and quality. But on the horizon, a new GM canola jointly developed by CSIRO will be an alternative source of Omega-3 for humans.

Likewise, GM safflower varieties that produce high oleic acid are now being grown for the industrial oil market interstate. All have been approved by the OGTR,yet banned in South Australia.

Following the passage of the GM Bill last week, this situation looks set to change from next season. But not without one last hurdle for the state’s grain producers – amendments brokered with the Opposition mean that local councils will now be able to request to keep the moratorium in their area.

The political compromise relies on local councils to make the case to the Minister for Primary Industries Tim Whetstone to remain GM-free. This theoretically could see a patchwork of GM-canola across the state next year, much like my handstitched Amish quilt souvenired during my travels.

But as explained in Parliament by shadow minister Eddie Hughes, even policy purists must learn to accept the political reality of this debate. In the 54th Parliament, this approach was the best shot for growers to access GM technology on-farm and break the political deadlock.

Parnell and his anti-GM flock are due to run the same tired arguments against GM technology in a local council chamber near you. Bignell has already started his letter writing campaign from the backbench, describing the move to lift the moratorium as “…devastating and dumb” and one which he will fight.

Let us pray that technology rather than ideology finally prevails. Amen.

Caroline Rhodes is chief executive officer, Grain Producers SA

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