In early June a bill was introduced in the New South Wales parliament to extend the moratorium on genetically modified crops for a further ten years. It passed quickly, facing no opposition in either house.
The bill retains the power of the NSW government to block the cultivation of genetically modified crops after they have been approved by the Commonwealth government. In fact, there is a blanket prohibition on the cultivation of all GM food crops unless they have been specifically approved by the minister for primary industries.
The legislation is said to be consistent with a 2001 agreement between the Commonwealth and states which means the Commonwealth ensures genetically modified organisms are safe for people and the environment while the NSW government oversees “market or trade issues”. If that makes no sense to you, you’re not the only one.
Despite the lack of opposition, quite a few members had something to say about the bill. There were speakers from the government, opposition and minor parties.
Government speakers implied the bill was needed to pacify still-fearful stakeholders, while arguing it provided a “clear path to market”, as recommended by an expert review in 2007. They also claimed it was consistent with the NSW Farmers Association’s desire to provide choice for growers to produce whichever crop they wish and its suggestion that the legislation may be unnecessary in ten years’ time.
The opposition acknowledged the aim was to “preserve the identity of genetically modified and non-genetically modified crops for marketing purposes”, but then recited a long list of supposed health and environment risks of GM crops, none of which had anything to do with markets.
One opposition spokesman said that as a former consulting agronomist, he thought the objectives of the GM industry could be achieved “by improving the science in agriculture”, particularly by rectifying mineral deficiencies in the soil. He saw this as an alternative to genetic modification. Another said caution was justified to avoid a similar situation to cane toads.
The Greens said the bill should restrict GM crop cultivation even further. Their concern, among others, was the potential for “contamination” by GM canola of non-GM crops, particularly organic crops. They supported the idea of farmers having a choice as long as it did not include genetically modified crops.
GM crops have been grown in Australia since 1996. In 2010 they were grown in twenty-nine countries by 15.4 million farmers on 148 million hectares. Yet somehow, none of that seemed to be relevant. The NSW parliament has decided to operate in a parallel universe.
Several speakers stated that canola was the only GM food crop grown in NSW, apparently unaware that cottonseed oil from GM cotton is used for cooking. Nobody seemed to understand that GM food and ingredients are imported, competing with local produce.
Despite airy statements about support for agriculture, nobody gave any thought to the impact of the bill on international competitiveness. Several mentioned that only eight per cent of canola grown in NSW is genetically modified, while 70 per cent of the canola traded worldwide is genetically modified, but nobody saw any problem with that.
A couple of people mentioned the potential of gene technology in positive terms, including the possibilities of wheat with more nutritional starch content, salt-tolerant wheat, sugarcane with altered sugar content, pineapples resistant to blackheart and virus-resistant papaya. But nobody drew any connection between these and the bill.
This article first appeared on Business Spectator on 30 June 2011.
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