By Boyd Champness

AUSTRALIA should follow the lead of Great Britain and form a body to oversee open and responsible introduction of genetically modified crops on farms, according to a visiting British agricultural executive.

Mr Daniel Pearshall, secretary to the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops (SCIMAC), recently addressed a conference of Australian farmers on the GM crop debate in the United Kingdom.

The SCIMAC was officially set up in June 1998 and last year reached agreement with the British Government to conduct large-scale government-led and government-funded GM crop trails.

Mr Pearshall said A$10 million had been allotted for trials of five GM crops – spring and winter oilseed rape, forage maize, sugar beet and fodder beet – modified for tolerance to herbicides.

He said the SCIMACs members include the National Farmers Union, plant breeders, agrichemical companies, the UK Agricultural Supply Trade Association and the British Sugar Beet Seed Producers Association.

Mr Pearshall said an independent scientific committee rather than the government would in future approve the release of GM crops for commercial purposes in a bid to take the politics out of the debate.

Once a GM crop was approved, the SCIMAC program would allow a phased and carefully monitored uptake of the technology, he said.

One of the main aims of the program is to counter debate from alarmist consumer groups opposed to GMOs.

“There is great scope for industry to be proactive in addressing these GM issues,” Mr Pearshall was reported in The Weekly Times as saying.

“At some point in the future, the debate on GM crops will be a pimple on the face of scientific improvement.”

He said some of the factors influencing the GM debate in the UK were a public that was sceptical of science in the wake of BSE, some of the worlds major lobby groups – such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth – being based in London and a sensationalist print media focused on reader loyalty.