THE New South Wales Government yesterday announced it will lift its ban on the use of genetically modified (GM) crops by allowing an 18-year moratorium to lapse on 1 July.
Minister for Agriculture Adam Marshall said this would allow NSW’s primary industries sector to embrace new GM technologies, and these were forecast to deliver up to $4.8 billion in total gross benefits over the next 10 years.
“The potential agronomic and health benefits of future GM crops include everything from drought and disease resistance to more efficient uptake of soil nutrients, increased yield and better weed control,” Mr Marshall said.
He said GM technology could save farmers up to 35 per cent of their overheads and boost production by almost 10pc.
“This is also great news for consumers as by lifting the ban we are empowering companies to invest in GM technology that has the potential to remove allergens such as gluten, improve taste and deliver enhanced nutrition.
The GM moratorium was enacted to manage the trade and marketing issues related to the emerging branch of agriculture, and Mr Marshall said there had been few if any implications in more than a decade.
Mr Marshall said there was already a “robust safety system in place” with all applications to grow GM crops in Australia assessed by the Federal Government’s Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR).
Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory do not have a moratorium in place, and the moratorium in South Australia now only applies to Kangaroo Island.
The OGTR in 2018 stated that around 20pc of canola grown in Australia was GM.
Need for NSW exemptions negated
GM cotton has been grown in Australia since the 1990s, and oil produced from its seed is used in kitchens as well as in animal feed.
GM canola has been grown under exemptions in NSW since 2008, and safflower since 2013.
Australia leads the world in being a major canola producer which segregates and sells both GM and non-GM canola into domestic and global markets.
NSW is traditionally Australia’s second-biggest canola producer behind Western Australia.
Table 1: Monsanto Australia and ABARES figures indicating Australian GM canola area as a percentage of total canola area. Source: Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia
Yesterday’s announcement drew a range of responses from industry bodies, researchers and lobbyists. They include:
CropLife Australia chief executive officer Matthew Cossey:
“Giving farmers access to all new innovations approved by the Federal Regulator allows them to make their own choice to grow what best fits their needs and business model.
This is crucial, especially as they continue to face periods of drought and increasingly harsher conditions in a changing climate.
This decision aligns NSW with all other mainland states in Australia and gives farmers access to all GM crops that have been approved under the strictest of assessments for commercial cultivation by the…OGTR.
The moratorium expiring will encourage stronger research and innovation and ensure easier access to current and future GM crops approved for commercialisation.”
CropLife Australia is the peak organisation for the plant-science sector. Its members include companies which develop and produce farm chemicals and herbicide-tolerant varieties of canola.
Gene Ethics executive director Bob Phelps:
“What the Minister announced… only sacrifices the State Government’s discretion to say yes or no to the commercial growing of individual GM crops that the OGTR may approve for release.
By relinquishing the state’s reserve powers to say ‘no’ to a GM crop on marketing grounds, Minister Marshall delivers much more control to Canberra. The Morrison Government is implementing the Conran report’s recommendations, to dismantle regulations and centralise federal power.
They have ended the Council of Australian Governments power-sharing arrangements, with ministerial forums on food, agrichemicals, GM and a host of other policy areas being disbanded.
Marshall says NSW will come into line with most other states on GM crops, yet all canola-growing states imposed bans on GM canola in 2003 for marketing reasons.
Some lifted their bans and gave up their discretions over the years, but Tasmania, the ACT and NT still have no commercial GM crop cultivation.
The Minister’s promises to GM crop farmers of billions of dollars of potential profit is a complete furphy.
The discount last week for GM canola throughout NSW regions was $40/tonne compared with the non-GM varieties.”
Farmers also pay more for GM crop seed, segregation and transport, affecting profits. Under seed contracts, they also bear all legal liability for any GM contamination, though seed companies permanently retain GM seed ownership.
GM crops yield no more than the best conventional varieties.”
NSW Farmers president James Jackson:
“For farmers, it’s all about the right to choose.
There are farmers who would incorporate GMOs into their farming systems and there are farmers who would choose not to.
We do have confidence in the OGTR as an independent science based regulator that will balance the risks and benefits of different GM crops or applications for those farmers choose to incorporate them.
It is true that there is huge potential with biotechnology to develop more drought-resilient crops and improve sustainable weed and pest control..but we also have to be collectively responsible in respecting a farmer’s choice not to use GM technology.
Truth in labelling is important to create trust and acceptance and to provide consumers the opportunity to make informed choices in regard to genetically modified foods.”
Sydney Institute of Agriculture’s Narrabri Plant Breeding Institute director Professor Richard Trethowan:
“The lifting of this moratorium in NSW now means that we have a national approach to GM.
While this will give oilseed farmers a greater range of options, I don’t see any radical change in our main export crops, such as wheat and barley, on the horizon.
International market constraints, the importance of these crops for food security and the lack of any real ‘game-changing’ transgenes simply makes this a step too far.
Nevertheless, it is great to see that plant breeders will at least have another tool in the genetic toolbox to tackle adaptation in our increasingly variable environment.”
Australian Seed Federation (ASF) CEO Osman Mewett:
“Allowing the moratorium to expire sends a clear signal to technology developers and seed companies that NSW is ‘open for business’ and encourages investment to bring agricultural innovations to the state.
Since 2003, multiple independent reports have demonstrated there are no trade or marketing benefits to maintaining state moratoria on cultivation of GM crops.
The ASF supports choice in relation to crop biotechnology provided that the choice is based on sound science and respects the rights of others to also choose.”
Lachstock Consulting canola specialist Lachlan Herbert:
“I think canola has shown segregation is achievable with GM and non-GM existing for the past 12 years.
Certainly I’ve seen greater agronomic advances with GM canola traits which ultimately is more efficient on the production side of things.
The exciting part of GM – health benefits – is yet to play out, but could be a step-change event in terms of genetic trait advances.
I think it is positive that the market now has its choice, and GM labelling laws ensures the consumer is made aware of food they are consuming.”
Sydney Institute of Agriculture director Professor Alex McBratney:
“There are pros and cons to this decision to lift the ban on GM crops in NSW, which will align policy with the rest of the country.
If we use genetic technology to improve the nutritional profile of crops, such as vitamin levels in rice, or by making crops more water-efficient that will be a definite positive.
We’ve already seen a dramatic drop in insecticide use in GM cotton grown in Australia.
However, crops modified to be ‘Round-Up ready’ can encourage overuse of herbicides when we should be looking at alternatives, such as camera spraying and other precision agriculture methods.
It’s important to remember we’ve only seen commercialisation of GM crops for canola and cotton.
Genetically modified wheat hasn’t been commercialised anywhere in the world so far, so that offers a big challenge for our researchers.
It’s worth remembering there are some markets largely in Europe that don’t want GM products, so it will be important to label GM products appropriately.”
Sydney Institute of Agriculture Plant Breeding and Production research leader Professor Brent Kaiser:
“The lifting of the moratorium will provide growers new opportunities to diversify crop rotations to take advantage of GM enhanced traits such as herbicide tolerance or the building of novel products such as oils with elevated omega-3 (canola oil) or high oleic-acid levels (safflower).
The lifting of the moratorium will not see a landslide of new GM crops grown in NSW tomorrow as the approval process for any GM food is extensive in light of the safety expectations required by the OGTR.
Although the introduction of new GM Foods may take some time, a significant benefit in lifting the moratorium will be our ability to explore novel genetic editing tools to help crop plants more reliably manage increased threats of drought, heat and salinity as well as respond to select disease and pest pressures.”
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