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Stories

GM Crops in Australia – will the moratoria end?


The cultivation of GM crops is banned in all Australian states except Queensland. However, moratoria will expire in New South Wales and Victoria next year. A report written on behalf of the Australian government now supports the commercial use of GM plants to promote competitive agricultural production. This has raised debate on the future role of GM plants in Australia.

Cotton harvest. In 1996, insect-resistant GM cotton was grown commercially for the first time in Australia

Controversy
The federal states in Australia have control over whether and where GM organisms may be used. Therefore, despite approvals for GM plants given by the national Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR), various bans on the commercial cultivation of GM crops have been implemented by most governments of states and territories in Australia. Genetically modified cotton and carnations remain the only commercial GM plants grown of Australia at this time, and furthermore are confined to specific regions. The moratoria partially are founded upon opposition from some environmental NGOs, such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Australian GenEthics Network and the Network of Concerned Farmers. They claim that GM crops are unpredictable and unsustainable and could have long-term adverse effects on human health and the environment.

GM rape seed. Approved, but not grown due to federal moratoria

In 2005, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics estimated that Australian agriculture stands to lose between $1.8 and $7 billion in higher costs and foregone profits if the states maintain their moratoria on GM crops. A recent report from the Ministry of Agriculture arrived at similar results and concluded: “Australia is at serious risk of being left behind as a competitive agricultural exporter, if it does not take full advantage of this powerful technology.“

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Peter McGauran, said the adoption of gene technology could provide consumers with significant health benefits: "Research is underway into the development of GM oilseed crops that produce healthier oils with better ratios of unsaturated fats, high levels of omega-3 oils which is normally sourced from fish, and increased levels of essential amino acids and vitamins … GM oilseeds also have the potential to cut production costs, increase product value and diversify the range of goods produced by the oilseed industry. With the acceptance of such GM oilseed varieties, Australia would successfully compete with GM canola and soybean varieties currently produced overseas."

The National Farmers Federation (NFF) also argues for an end to the moratoria, pronouncing that “the state governments must seize the opportunities gene technology poses for Australia’s agricultural production”. It declares that farmers have been left behind by an international marketplace that already is using genetically modified plants. “Farmers must have the opportunity to adopt the method of production best suited to their customers’ needs – be that GM, conventional, organic or any combination of these methods.”

Peter McGauran, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Last week, Minister McGauran published a report confirming the feasibility of cultivation and marketing of GM crops in Australia in parallel to conventional crops. The report, titled “A National Market Access Framework for GM Canola and Future GM Crops”, also identifies and outlines key issues and measures relevant to the coexistence of GM and conventional crops in an Australian context.

The issue continues to provoke local debate. The prospect of additional costs associated with crop segregation is viewed with suspicion by the Network of Concerned Farmers, who also perceive a creeping retrenchment of non-GM farmers. While the United Dairy Farmers of Victoria already voted in June to withdraw support for the state-wide ban on commercial GM canola, consumer groups have threatened with purchasing boycotts in the case of ban lifting.

At the end of August West Australia’s Agriculture and Food Minister Kim Chance introduced legislation to the Parliament designed to protect the state's moratorium on the growing of GM crops. "The GM-free status is providing benefits to West Australia’s farmers in terms of price premiums for food grade non-GM canola and continued market access to discerning markets in Europe, India, China and Japan," said Mr Chance. He further stated that the risks to the state's GM-free canola cropping and grain handling systems could be increased further if other states lift their moratorium in 2008. West Australia has a moratorium in place until 2009.

Increased public support?

Despite debate on genetically engineered foods in general, and on the Australian moratoria in particular, public support for GM food crops seems to be on the rise. This was the result of a recent study that has been conducted by the governmental agency “Biotechnology Australia”. Due to perceptions of the role GM crops might play in countering drought and pollution, acceptance has grown from 46 percent in 2005 to 73 percent in 2007. Commenting upon these survey results, the Australian Minister of Industry stated that “…this marks a significant change in public attitudes and coincides with an increased confidence in science across society.” Upon the release of the report, anti-biotechnology activists groups accused Biotechnology Australia of push-polling. ‘Push-polling’ is a term used to describe an ostensible survey which, rather than collecting opinions, actually is conducted with a hidden objective to disseminate information.

Craig Cormick, public awareness manager for Biotechnology Australia, rebuffed such accusations by pointing to the long-term consistency of poll questions used in 2007 and in the past. Cormick also stated that "the [activists’] groups were involved in the round table with industry groups and researchers that workshopped the questions for the survey, and they were happy with the questions when they were developed."

Increased public support seems crucial for the large-scale introduction of genetically engineered crops currently under moratoria in the Australian states. Such support will depend highly on the outcome of the current public debate in the months to come, which focuses on if, and when, moratoria are concluded or prolonged.

Background information: GMO approvals in Australia

The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) has approved several field trials with canola, sugarcane, cotton and carnations. The most recent approvals in June 2007 apply to field trials of GM wheat that will take place in the state of Victoria. Aimed at increased drought tolerance, as many as 30 GM wheat lines will be tested. To date, Australia has licensed several GM plants for commercial use:

  • five varieties of blue/purple carnations with extended vase life (including FLORIGENE Moondust™ and Moonshadow™).

  • three varieties of GM cotton: insect-resistant cotton (INGARD®, Bollgard® II), herbicide-tolerant cotton (Roundup Ready®), and combined insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant cottons (INGARD®/Roundup Ready® and Bollgard® II/Roundup Ready®).

  • two types of GM herbicide-tolerant canola — Invigor® canola and RoundUp Ready® canola. These are the most recent GM crops to have been licensed for general release.

 

 


An EU Research Project

What are the risks of growing GM crops?

What are the benefits?

Numerous studies have addressed the potential impacts of genetically modified (GM) plants. Yet the existing evidence on the effects of GM plants is often contradictory and the quality of scientific research varies widely.

Therefore, the GRACE project will establish new tools for assessing the quality of existing studies and will conduct comprehensive reviews to identify health, environmental and socio-economic impacts of GM plants.

More information

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GM Crops in Australia – will the moratoria end?
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Plants for the Future
Consumer Survey in Australia
Community attitudes to biotechnology (2007)
Approvals and releases of GM plants in Australia
GMO Field Trials: Locations
Assessed and approved GM plant varieties
August 31, 2007 [nach oben springen]

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