One need only look through the conference overview for the Victorian Government funded Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference (ABIC 2006), which kicked off last week in Melbourne, to get a sense of the true agenda driving the Pro-GE lobby talk-fest.
Aside from the predictable workshops on the commercialisation of GE (genetic engineering or modification) technologies and the translation of scientific advances into commercial application and using genes to “improve” food crops - one of the last workshops was titled “Communications in Ag Bio - How do we get the right message out?”
The workshop covered the fraught territory of how to positively spin GE food to an increasingly sceptical public. The irony being that at over $500 a ticket to gain entry to the conference, ordinary members of the public were denied the opportunity to have any input.
Public attitudes to genetically engineered food are now universally negative, reflected in the fact that key markets in the EU, Japan and China are now removing GE products from consumer products, meaning organic and non-GE products are attracting increasing premiums. For example, the Weekly Times last week reported that Australian canola is seeling at a premium of $65 a tonne because of its GE-free status. Simultaneously, in countries that have embraced GE crops such as the US, Canada and Argentina, existing markets have been seriously damaged.
Currently non-GE farmers are forced to bear the majority of costs and risks associated with the introduction of GE crops. The Australian Bureau of Resource Economics (ABARE) has estimated that segregation costs associated with the introduction of GE canola would cost non-GE farmers 5-15 per cent of the farm gate value of their crop. That’s why the farming community is increasingly speaking out against embracing GE.
In a scenario of GE being accepted by Australia’s agricultural sector; non-GE farmers would also be forced to bear the inevitable contamination costs. A recent West Australian Standing Committee on Environment and Public Affairs inquiry into GE formed the view that “contamination of non-GM crops by GM crops is inevitable, segregation is not practical and that identity preservation can be achieved, but at a significant cost”.
The GE industry has argued that contamination at levels of up to 1 per cent should be considered an appropriate standard for Australia. This level of contamination may be acceptable to the GE industry but it remains unacceptable to the vast majority of Australian consumers who don’t trust GE food for consumption.
The WA Standing Committee further recommended, “The non-GM market should not be sacrificed at the expense of the GM market”. Subsequently, the WA wheat board has noted: “the introduction of GM wheat in Australia could jeopardise many of our existing export markets.”
In North America, there is a strong movement against GE crop expansion due to concerns about its negative economic impacts. Referring to an incident when a GE maize crop engineered to produce a pharmaceutical product contaminated soybean crops the following year, a spokesperson for Grocery Manufacturers of America said, “Incidents like these can have ripple effects. We don’t want to lose international markets because we can’t assure the safety and integrity of food supply.”
Even putting the dangers and costs associated with cross-contamination aside, the economics of embracing GE in Australia still don’t add up. The WA Standing Committee acknowledged the “unpredictable nature of world commodity markets” thus concluding that, “there exists no certainty in the market acceptability of GM foods, with consumer attitudes being both varied and unstable on the issue.” And that was putting it mildly.
A plethora of other Australian public attitude surveys have reached similar conclusions. A recent Australian study, from the Australian Centre for Emerging Technologies and Society at Swinburne University in Melbourne found that “Australians are very uncomfortable with genetically modified plants for food”. And a 2002 Taylor Nelson Sofres poll found that the majority of Australians (68 per cent) are less likely to buy or will actively seek to avoid GE food.
Indeed, consumer resistance to GE crops remains the strongest argument against its introduction. To date, Japan, China and the EU have instituted strict rules regarding the import and labelling of GE products, reflecting strong resistance to GE in those regions. Canada has already paid dearly for embracing GE in its canola industry. Canada currently produces 97 per cent of the world’s canola, yet in 1998 (two years after it switched to GE crops) Canada lost its US$300-400 million annual canola sales to Europe because of European consumer resistance to GE.
If Australian farmers were to embrace GE canola, they would risk losing their export markets to Japan, China and the EU. Between 2001 and 2004 these markets collectively accounted for 65 per cent of our canola exports with a combined market value of A$829 million.
It is little wonder then that the focus of the ABIC Conference is on looking at ways to convince a sceptical public to embrace GE in Australia. But the question that taxpayers might be asking is why is the Victorian Government funded a pro-GE conference when the economics and risks associated with GE just don’t add up.
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