By Boyd Champness

WHILE British supermarkets bow to consumer demand and remove genetically modified foods from their shelves, Australian farmers are calling on their leaders to allow them to grow more GM crops.

British public opinion, which swayed the large retailers to remove GM products from their shelves, has been paid scant attention by Australian farmers.

Frightened of being out-produced by rival nations, Australian farmers are supporting calls by chemical company chiefs to allow more GM crops to be grown in Australia.

At present, permission has been granted for only two GM crops to be grown – Bt cotton and a carnation – whereas in the USA there are currently 22 crops under commercial production.

There are currently 112 crops undergoing trials in Australia.

The executive director of Australias peak agricultural body has told farmers that gene technology has the potential to do for agriculture what the computer has done for communications.

Avcare executive director Claude Gauchat told the Stock and Land newspaper that Australia runs the risk of falling behind in the GM race unless government and the research sector can come together and successfully sell the technology to Australians.

He said while governments grapple with the issue of how to regulate the commercial production of GM foods, our competitors – namely North America – embrace the technology and reap the rewards.

“Its becoming a matter of some urgency because, if we dont soon get up to speed, the available export markets will have gone,” he said.

Federal Agriculture Minister Mark Vaile agrees. “Our ability to compete on price and quality in the global commodity markets will become more and more difficult if we do not adopt biotechnology,” he told The Weekly Times.

The Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics (ABARE) estimates that of the 28.2 million hectares of land planted to GM crops worldwide last year, 80% were in North America.

A further 15% of world plantings were in South America, 4% were in Asia, with Europe – the one region opposed to GM crops – making up only 1%.

ABARE predicts that 60 million hectares will be planted to GM crops next year.

The Australian and New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) decided last year that all GM foods had to undergo rigorous ANZFA safety assessments by 30 April this year otherwise they would not be permitted in the Australasian marketplace.

But the tardiness of international food companies in submitting their products for testing is the main reason why GM foods are not widely available in this country.

As the deadline drew closer, the ANZFA relented by giving food companies a nine-month reprieve, as long as they had their submissions in before the deadline and an overseas regulatory body had approved their products.

As expected, a flood of submissions landed on the ANZFAs doorstep the week before the deadline.

The reprieve was criticised by GeneEthics Network, which predicted a spate of new GMO-applications and even more unlabelled GMO product on Australian supermarket shelves.

In further moves to allay consumer fears, the Federal Government will announce a multi-million dollar Gene Technology Office in this months budget.

The independent office will provide a new regulatory framework for genetically modified food products, and will take over the regulation of the health, environment and agricultural aspects of gene technology.