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GE or not GE?
Julian Cribb
Line Opinion,
12 June 2008

The Australian Government has sprung a genetically-engineered cat among the organic pigeons with a recent report claiming that Australia is dipping out on billions of dollars of income by not farming genetically modified (GM, or genetically engineered - GE) grain crops.

The study by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) argues that Australia would be about $7 billion better off over 10 years, if five types of GM crops were introduced as soon as possible.

The report triggered predictable criticism from anti-GM campaigners, greenies and organic farmers, who branded it an effort to coerce Western Australia and South Australia - the two states which still have moratoria on the growing of GM crops - into toeing the pro-GM line.

The ABARE report overlooks the fact that resistance to GM in Australia has emanated mainly from consumers who have concerns about the technology - in particular with the notion of big foreign companies dictating what they eat. This has communicated itself both to politicians and to farmers, who have taken a cautious view.

The broader issue here is how new science and technology is delivered to society, and the complete shemozzle which the pro-GM lobby appears to have made of it in Australia for two decades. By failing to consult with consumers and citizens - many of whom have reasonable concerns or questions they want answered - the GM sector has given itself a much thornier path to adoption than, say, stem cell science which braved the public debate and achieved, eventually, a degree of consensus on the way forward. It has, in other words, been largely the author of its own misfortunes.

In claiming big economic benefits from GM crops the ABARE study cites a range of Australian and overseas research, but fails to clarify which was carried out by independent scientific institutions and which by agrichemical companies or the scientists they fund. It acknowledges much of the data is corporate in origin. Such a failure can only sow further doubt in the public mind about the objectivity of the claims.

It is also unacceptable in another way: imagine, for example, if new medical drugs were to be tested on the public without independent clinical trial, but merely on the manufacturers’ claims of economic benefit! Before agreeing to be part of a colossal experiment with their food supply, Australians have a right to know what is being done and to give their informed consent to the risks.

ABARE also claims GM crops will yield more - through better control of weeds and insect pests. However, it downplays the countervailing view that herbicide-resistant GM crops, if they cause excessive use of particular herbicides, will contribute to the global pandemic of herbicide resistance in weeds: the US now has more than 120 resistant weed biotypes and Australia and Canada around 50 each. ABARE offers no estimate for the loss farmers may suffer if use of GM crops accelerates the spread of herbicide resistance in weeds. Weeds cost farmers about $40 billion every 10 years, so the damage could easily outrun the envisaged $7 billion in benefits.

The debate over whether or not GM crops have higher yields has significance for all humans. The world is entering a period of food shortages and soaring prices, having eaten more grain than it has actually grown in each of the last eight years, sending stocks to their lowest recorded level. The need to grow more food, both to prevent starvation and to limit price hikes to the consumer, is paramount.

There is room for doubt about claims that GM crops increase yield. They may reduce chemical use and they may be more profitable, but there is a paucity of objective evidence that they put more actual food on the table than do other farming systems. There is also little or no evidence they reduce food prices - in fact many are designed with the express aim of "value adding", which is technospeak for increasing the cost of food to the consumer.

Recently 400 of the world's top agricultural scientists produced a report for the World Bank on the way forward for global agriculture, to address the problems of malnutrition, poverty, environmental destruction and fouling of water. They expressed reservations about the impact of GM and the intellectual property restrictions which accompany it on world agriculture, especially in poor countries. They warned that over-emphasis on GM diverts money and scientists from other urgently-needed research.

While 57 countries have endorsed this report, Australia, Canada and the US have refused to do so saying, in our case, "Australia cannot agree with all assertions and options". The difference, though unstated, is mainly over GM crops.

Australia has thus taken the morally-indefensible position of failing to support a global approach to the growing problems of hunger, poverty and environmental collapse - in order to further the interests of a few international agrichemical giants and their clients.

GM crops offer many and genuine benefits, not least their potential to reduce the toll of diseases such as cancer and heart disease as well as the use of toxic chemicals in the environment. But seeking to impose them on citizens without listening to their concerns or obtaining their consent is the wrong way to go about it. It gives science a bad name.

It sets a precedent for technology rejection, which other technologies may soon face. The mistrust it engenders means that technology uptake in Australia may now be slower and harder than elsewhere, and the economic benefits longer delayed. It did not have to be this way.

[Professor Julian Cribb is a science communicator and Adjunct Professor of Science Communication at the University of Technology Sydney]