31 August 1999
GMs threaten clean image, say Australians
By Boyd Champness
A LEADING Australian agribusinessman has called on the federal government to impose a moratorium on the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops.
At the same time one, of the countrys leading quarantine officers has urged to the Australian grains industry to segregate non-GM crops from GM varieties.
Doug Shears, chairman of ICM Agribusiness group, told The Age newspaper that the benefits of GM foods were unproven.
Australia was running the risk of “embracing a technology too early in an area where the costs to the industry and the community may outweigh the benefits”.
Mr Shears rose to prominence in the 1970s by building a stable of agriculture and food companies centred on the Uncle Tobys brand, which he has since sold.
His comments come on the eve of the release by the Federal Government of a discussion paper about the implications of the introduction of GMs in Australia.
Protests by environmental demonstrators uprooting GM crops have not hit the headlines in Australia as they have in the UK.
But red tape and Government indecision on how best to approach the GM issue has meant the introduction of GM crops and food in Australia has been slow.
Mr Shears said consumers around the world were concerned about GM foods, and looking for countries that could supply them with conventional produce.
“We should be listening to them,” he told the The Age.
“The advent of genetically engineered farming has the potential of wiping out an economic advantage.”
Mr Shears said that Australian farmers could shoot themselves in the foot and destroy the positive image of their agricultural products “in an instant”.
According to the The Age, agricultural producers are already reporting higher international sales on the back of concerns about GM food.
Concerns in Europe about GM food are considered a major factor in a sharp increase in Australias share of European food imports.
Canola shipments from Australia formed 32.8% of all European canola imports during 1997-98 compared with just 0.1% of imports 1994-95.
“I do not know what the long-term effects of this technology will be on our agriculture, on our farms, on our ecosystems,” Mr Shears said.
“Nor does it seem, does anyone else. Different opinions emerge almost daily, some in support, some in doubt.
“The point is, while the doubt persists, we should take a strategic pause and think about our future and our immediate opportunities.”
Meanwhile, an Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) officer called on the Australian grains industry to segregate non-GM crops.
Tony Delbridge, of the plant quarantine policy section, made the call at the Agriculture Australia 99 conference in Sydney recently.
A Japanese food industry delegation was currently in the United States seeking to source non-GM soybeans, he said.
“Growers and handlers in the US are looking at identity preservation to protect their Japanese market,” said Mr Delbridge.
The comments were reported in the newspaper Stock and Land.
Mr Delbridge also said his organisation was receiving an increasing number of requests to guarantee that exported grain was not from GM crops.
Wheat and soyabean exports to South Africa require a statement saying they are from non-GM material, said the paper, as does wheat to Italy and grass seed to Malaysia.
Mr Delbridge said he had also received inquiries about the GM status of some processed foods from Australia.
A number of Japanese companies had also asked whether Australian pigs were being fed GM feed and whether canola, beef and dairy exports were GM free.
There are no GM grains or oilseeds in commercial production in Australia, but GM herbicide-resistant canolas, cotton and sub-clovers are due for release.
“Once we accept GMOs, we will need identity preservation in place,” Mr Delbridge told the conference.
That would require some sort of quality assurance system and an AQIS-industry agreement allowing AQIS to carry out audits, he added.