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GM crops and foods: promises, profits and politics

By Bob Phelps - posted Monday, 1 August 2011

High profile law firm Slater & Gordon will take up the case of decertified organic farmer Steve Marsh, who grows wheat and barley near Kojonup in Western Australia. Marsh confirmed this week that he will sue the neighbour who grew genetically manipulated (GM) canola which blew over his fence and contaminated 60% of his farm in November, 2010. Going to court is the only way to recover his losses, extra costs and damage which may continue for up to ten years. In an act of supreme indifference, the neighbour is again growing GM canola this year.

Marsh lost his National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA) organic certification and his premium grain markets because of the GM contamination. GM giant Monsanto, which owns the patented GM canola seed, will back the GM grower and the WA Pastoralists and Graziers Association has set up a GM support fund.

GM canola was just 8% of the Australian canola crop in 2010 but contamination has already imposed many extra costs and risks on all farmers. Yet governments refuse to pass farmer protection laws that would make the owners and licensees of GM crops strictly liable for GM contamination and damage. Farmer protection would ensure that growers like Marsh were automatically compensated from a pool of funds levied on the sale of GM seed, instead of having to go to court.


GM segregation has consistently failed everywhere, yet WA Agriculture Minister Terry Redman said, when ending the state's GM canola ban in March 2010: "Trials proved GM and non-GM canola can be segregated and marketed separately. The report on the trials indicated there were 11 minor events (on 18 sites) and all were managed appropriately and segregation from paddock to port was achieved."

Now that GM contamination is a reality, many communities are demanding to be protected through the declaration of GM-free Zones, but Redman backflips and says: "... zero per cent thresholds (of GM in organics) are unrealistic in biological systems" and he wants the organic industry to allow GM contamination in its supply chains. He ignores the domestic organic standard AS6000, agreed by all governments and the organic industry, which sets zero tolerance for any GM contact with organic food.

He also ignores the aspirations of a majority of Australians who want to remain GM-free. For example, the Swinburne National Science and Technology Monitor found in 2010 that over half of the 1000 people questioned were uncomfortable with GM plants and about two-thirds expressed similar unease about GM animals being used for food.

GM-free competitive advantage lost

By allowing commercial GM crops, state governments are shirking their legal responsibility to protect farm produce markets for all growers. The demand for Australia's GM-free canola is now so strong in Europe that Co-operative Bulk Handlers marketing manager, Peter Elliott, says Europeans will buy 90% of WA's non-GM canola production at a 5% premium over GM canola this year. "When you're growing GM, at the moment you need to compete against Canada, but when you've got non-GM you get a free kick into Europe and some markets in Japan. There's a massive advantage to be growing non-GM this year, because Europe has been so aggressively buying up all the non-GM tonnage."

The GM market is so weak that several grain buyers will not buy GM canola at all while others will accept it only at a discount of up to $50/tonne compared with non-GM canola prices. CBH says the discount created by lack of demand for GM canola is likely to persist for at least five years. The 49,000 tonnes of GM canola produced in WA in 2010 remains in silos, unsold.

In stark contrast, in GM-free South Australia Kangaroo Island Pure Grain is just one company benefiting from strong local and international demand for its non-GM canola and non-GM canola honey for which its growers are also earning premiums.


Australia is fast losing its unique competitive advantage as the only large-scale seller of GM-free canola into world markets and Australian governments are complicit. They are under the direct influence of our GM competitors, the USA, Canada and their corporations.

Of the 20 countries that grew canola in 2006, 18 required GM-free local production and preferred GM-free imports. Australian canola exports accelerated in 1999, when Canada lost its European market as a result of growing GM canola. Explaining our favoured position as a GM-free exporter, Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation says: "In 1990, Australia hit the global stage as an exporter of canola seed, and rapid growth led to our exports exceeding two million tonnes in 1999/2000. Our annual exports have now stabilised at around one to 1.5 million tonnes, and our main export markets are Japan, China, Pakistan, Europe and Bangladesh."

Instead of serving the needs of our local, Asian and European customers, our governments generally align with US policy on biosafety, food labelling, GM crop assessments and other key policies. Neither Australia nor the USA has signed or ratified the Biosafety Protocol, the first and only protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which attempts to ensure the safe international transfer, handling and use of GM organisms.

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This is an updated extract from a paper that first appeared in the Farm Policy Journal, March 2011. The full referenced article is at:

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About the Author

Bob Phelps is Executive Director of Gene Ethics.

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