In January, 2010, an article appeared in The West Australian newspaper written by former state ALP agriculture minister Kim Chance. In it he outlined his opposition to the growing of genetically modified (GM) foods in WA, but the article was more significant for the issues he failed to raise rather than for his stated concerns.
For the last 20 years, foremost in any ALP strategist’s mind is Labor’s reliance on preferences from the WA Greens at election time. This has controlled many of the state ALP’s policy decisions in recent years, including relaxation of drug usage laws and opposition to uranium mining and to the use of GM crops in WA.
In my eight years as a state MP, I came to the surprising conclusion that the most conservative party in the WA political scene is the WA Greens. Analysis of many of their policies shows that they are opposed to change in many aspects of the modern world, usually (but not always) implying a preference for a return to the simple, low technology life of the past. This conservativeness appeals to a certain class of voters who fear for the future and don’t trust scientists or technical experts, in spite of their high uptake of computer-based technologies, for example.
While the Greens are progressive on many social reform issues, their conservative attitude towards the modern world sees them opposing the use of GM in both food and non-food organisms such as cotton. While this article isn’t the appropriate place to analyse and debunk their many concerns, the reality of their opposition to GM and of the dependence of Labor at both state and federal level to their preferences are the main reason why former Minister Chance and the ALP are also so opposed to GM.
Another major omission from Mr Chance’s article was any detail about the markets and sale price premiums that would be supposedly lost as a consequence of the WA government’s decision to allow GM canola to be grown more widely. Australia’s canola oil production ranges up to one and a half million tonnes per year, depending on seasonal conditions. In spite of the loud protests of GM opponents who claim that we’ll be losing valuable non-GM markets in Japan and Europe, there is an almost total lack of information on the size of these markets and how important they might be to Australian farmers.
The internet reveals that Tasmania is hoping to grow its non-GM canola exports to 10,000 tonnes per year (less than 1 per cent of total Australian production), while dire predictions made in 2006 about the collapse of South Australia’s canola export market has proved groundless. No data is available on the claimed price premium paid for non-GM canola. The only conclusion that a rational person can make is that, if such markets really do exist, they are so small that they can provide virtually no benefit to Australia as a whole.
Mr Chance’s personal opposition to GM food is well reflected in his now famous 2005 statement “We might grow a tail if we eat GM crops”. It’s possible he may have been joking but, in the absence of a clear withdrawal of this claim, it’s best to assume he was serious, despite his claim being false.
In response to some of the claims made by Mr Chance, it is worth pointing out that:
- Farmers are currently the primary beneficiaries of GM technology, with higher yields and lower pesticide usage keeping their costs down. In turn, these cost savings help to keep consumer prices down. An October 2009 report for the UK government warned that the cost of sourcing non-GM food ingredients is increasing so that they now cost 10 to 20 per cent more than their GM equivalents. While comparisons between UK and Australia are sometimes difficult, nonetheless some non-GM foods now cost substantially more to grow than their GM counterparts.
- The primary reason why the major supermarket chains don’t stock GM foods is because none of them wish to be threatened by politically motivated campaigns run by green groups. Look at the anti-wool campaign run by the animal rights group PETA who also want to stop the keeping of pets and ban the recreational catching of fish. The term “greenmail” has been invented to describe the unacceptable practice of blackmailing certain parties to further the ambitions of some environmental zealots.
- WA’s recent GM canola trials were not designed to evaluate the economics of GM versus non-GM canola, as implied in Mr Chance’s article. It will be WA’s farmers who make the economic decisions about whether to grow GM crops or not, rather than the scientists who are more interested in oil yields or pesticide usage or the people who assess crop segregation issues.
- Analysis of GM product performance is not a task for government. Instead, it will be (and should be) carried out by the hundreds of WA farmers who will almost certainly choose to use GM canola to gain the economic and environmental benefits that this product provides. If the promised benefits fail to materialise Monsanto will quickly lose customers, not gain them.
Interestingly, Mr Chance’s article hardly touched on the issue of GM product labeling, a requirement which would give consumers the ultimate choice in resolving the debate over GM foods. If all foods derived from GM crops were appropriately labeled and farmers given an unfettered choice of whether to grow GM or non-GM foods, the debate would be resolved within a few years as consumers either accepted or rejected the products placed on supermarket shelves.
Because of scaremongering over the use of GM technology, this choice is currently being denied to consumers, so one has to ask what do the greens and their supporters (such as the ALP) really fear? My belief is that they fear the ordinary person in the street making a decision that is contrary to the green’s emotionally-based and politically-driven opposition to GM technology.
The world didn’t implode when the Y2K bug struck and some of the excessively pessimistic claims about global climate change are now being reviewed and modified. GM foods have been eaten by hundreds of millions of people for more than 15 years without harm while farmers in many countries are rapidly taking up GM crops so as to enjoy the resulting economic and environmental benefits. Whether they are Luddites or political activists, people like Kim Chance should put aside their ulterior motives and come out in support of a technology whose time has come.
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