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GM crops decision a hard genie to put back into bottle

Opinion

SA’s decision to overturn a ban on GM crops will benefit multinational agrichemical firms more than local farmers, and communities and councils must act quickly to stop them taking root, argues Mark Parnell.

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When it comes to the debate over genetically-modified crops, it’s no surprise that Grain Producers SA CEO Caroline Rhodes chooses to attack the Greens. (A bountiful harvest of debate over GM crops go-ahead, InDaily, May 19)

After all, it will play well with her Liberal Party colleagues and is far safer than directly attacking the many iconic South Australian food producers who urged the State Government not to scrap the moratorium.

It’s far safer to verbal the Greens with confected arguments of straw, than criticise San Remo Pasta, Tucker’s Natural, Paris Creek Farms, Johnny’s Popcorn or the venerable Maggie Beer.

All these successful SA food businesses understand that the brightest future for global food marketing is one that capitalises on our state’s clean, green and natural food reputation. Food that is GM-free.

Rhodes paints all those who don’t agree with her as inevitably driven by ideology or political doctrine. She can’t seem to get her head around the fact that you don’t have to be anti-science to see GM crops as the wrong direction for agriculture. It’s a bit like fracking for gas. You can accept the science but still think it’s a really bad idea.

That was the position taken by the Greens in leading the campaign to support farmers and to protect our agricultural lands from the fossil fuel industry. The Greens and farmers opposed that industry despite all the assurances of safety from Government departments.

In the ideological stakes, the pro-GM lobby are well-trained in hyperbole and in spruiking the non-existent benefits of GM. They want their technology to be successful regardless of the evidence.

For starters, genetically-modified crops do not have higher yields. They are no more drought or salt-tolerant than other crops. Instead, the GM canola that a few South Australian farmers might choose to plant next season has only one distinguishing trait – it isn’t killed by glyphosate (Roundup). Eventually, the weeds too will become tolerant, as is happening elsewhere, but in the short term, you can spray without killing your crop.

However, the Bill that passed through Parliament doesn’t just deal with canola; it opens up our State to any GM crops that are approved by the Federal Regulator.

When that happens, the State Government will not undertake any analysis of local suitability or impact. It will be one size fits all. The Government will have no idea which GM crops are being planted or where. The State will keep no records and there will be no notification of GM crops to neighbours or anyone else.

When the moratorium is lifted in 6 months time, the only GM crop likely to be grown in South Australia is “Roundup-ready canola” and the only thing that we can be certain of is that it will not remain confined to the paddocks where it is planted.

It is inevitable that escape and contamination will occur and that GM crops and seeds will emerge where they are not wanted  – whether on neighbouring properties, on roadsides or in non-GM seed stock.

It is remarkable that Grain Producers SA were so completely hostile to any law reform that protected farmers. Instead, they sided with the multi-national agrochemical companies to ensure that these behemoths were protected from legal liability.

Is Monsanto (now Bayer) really the preferred Colossus of Rhodes? It’s incomprehensible to me that Grain Producers SA think farmers should just sue each other in court to resolve liability for losses resulting from GM contamination, rather than forcing the multi-nationals to stand behind their products.

The other thing that is close to certain is that when the farmers take their harvested GM canola to the silo (if they can find one that will take it), they will be paid less than for non-GM canola. That has been the experience interstate where both crops are grown. There is a clear price premium paid for non-GM canola and this fact is reported weekly in the rural media. This partly explains the low take-up rate for GM canola in those States where it is already legal.

One of the main reasons to keep the SA GM crops moratorium is its economic impact, both now and into the future. That’s because the Federal GM laws allow States to decide whether or not to permit GM crops based on economics and perceived marketing advantage.

But these arguments were distorted and twisted to suit the ideology of the GM lobby. Rather than talk about the price paid at the silo, where GM and non-GM products can be directly compared, they used dodgy comparisons of unrelated agricultural products such as wine or pork to “prove” there was no benefit in remaining GM-free.

What will now be difficult to quantify will be the potential that could have been realised across the agricultural sector if the State chose to actively market our GM-free status to overseas markets.

The growing international trend and preference for natural non-GM foods was identified by a University of Adelaide study three years ago. The Tasmanians have taken that path and are no doubt cheering that their status as the only GM-free State in Australia is now assured.

Rhodes also bemoans the fact that local communities (through local councils) will now have a say about whether they want their region to remain GM-free.

Where I come from, this is called democracy, but for Rhodes, it’s a “hurdle”.

However, this opportunity is only short-lived. Councils have just a few months to consult their residents and apply to the Minister.

My guess is that a number of councils won’t be taken in by the hype and will want to keep their communities GM-free, because they know that once the genie is out of the bottle, there’s no putting it back in.

Mark Parnell is a Greens MLC in the South Australian parliament.

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