By Boyd Champness
THE genetically-modified food debate reached new heights in Australia last week when the CSIRO – the Federal Governments agricultural research and development body – announced it would not market any GM grain crops for at least five years.
The head of the CSIROs division of plant industry, Dr Jim Peacock, told The Age that the public wasnt ready for genetically-modified bread and the organisation would not release any commercial crops until it was.
Mr Peacock told the newspaper he believed GM foods to be safe, he supported the use of gene technology in agriculture, and the knowledge gained should be used in research to further agricultural developments.
Through gene technology, the CSIRO is developing wheat, canola, barley and other crops capable of returning good yields in low rainfall areas or regions afflicted by salt.
It is also developing a rust-resistant and herbicide resistant-wheat, the newspaper said.
While this research will be unaffected, its commercial development and release of such crops will be put on hold.
The CSIRO decision comes only a week after Britains Guardian newspaper reported that Europes largest financial institution, the Deutsche Bank, has warned institutional investors to steer clear of companies investing in biotechnology “because of growing negative sentiment”.
Companies named in the banks report, such as Novartis and Monsanto, have seen their share prices fall lately against a global rise in stock markets.
“The message is a scary one. Increasingly, GM organisms are, in our opinion, becoming a liability to farmers,” the report said.
Meanwhile, prominent agribusinessman Doug Shears has failed to receive major industry or political support following his call for a five-year moratorium on the release of GM foods in Australia.
Mr Shears, chairman of ICM Agribusiness, believes the Federal Government should impose a five-year ban on the release of GM foods “until the risks associated with the technology are properly assessed”.
With Australia at the forefront of gene technology, Mr Shears this week reiterated that he was not advocating a halt on research, just a moratorium on the commercial release of GM crops.
Mr Shears wrote to all state premiers following his public call but received just two replies, neither of them supportive, according to the Stock and Land.
Industry bodies such as the Australian Food and Grocery Council and the National Farmers Federation were also united in their opposition to a moratorium, claiming it would leave Australia in an uncompetitive position.
Avcare, the body that represents chemical and biochemical companies, was – not surprisingly – also against a moratorium.
So far Bt Cotton is the only GM crop that has been approved for commercial use in Australia.
Several GM crops are being trialled, but have yet to gain approval for release. In contrast, the United States has approved 35 GM crops to date.
NFF executive director Wendy Craik told the Stock and Land there was no doubt more information was needed on GM technology, but in order for Australia to remain competitive it needed to work through its GM problems now and not in five years time.
“The technology is already being used extensively by our major competitors, the US, Canada and Argentina. Even the EU has approved nine crops,” she told the Stock and Land.
“But Cotton has certainly led to a reduction in pesticide use. In the US farmers have reduced their insecticide application to cotton by four million litres in the first three years. Now 45% of farmers use no insecticide at all.
“A US Department of Agriculture study showed an overall 17% drop in herbicide use in herbicide tolerant corn, cotton, soybeans and a 6% increase in yield.”
But while Mr Shears received minimal support from industry, which was to be expected, a number of food processors have sided with the businessman.
Last month, Australian food manufacturers including the Sanitarium Health Food Company, Cadbury-Schweppes, Master Foods Australia, Mars Confectionery of Australia, Wyeth Australia and Heinz Watties Australasia confirmed that they either had changed to GM-free sources or were in the process of doing so.