Aussie hesitation on GM canola a costly mistake

Researchers say Australia’s decision to delay seeding GM canola had negative economic and environmental implications

Australia’s decision to delay the adoption of genetically modified canola cost farmers money but more significantly cost the environment, found a study by Canadian and Australian researchers released earlier this year.

Stuart Smyth and Scott Biden from the University of Saskatchewan and David Hudson from SGA Solutions in Melbourne, Australia, used Canadian GM canola data to model what the delay in innovation cost Australian farmers between 2004 and 2014.

They found a net economic loss in foregone canola production of about 1.1 million tonnes and a cost of AU$485.6 million.

“The thing that surprised me more than the economics was just how substantial the environmental impacts were,” said Smyth. “It was seven million in additional field passes and 8.7 million litres of fuel.”

An additional 6.5 million kilograms of inputs were applied, and an additional 24.2 million kg of greenhouse gas emissions released, the study found.

Although GM canola cultivation was approved in Australia in 2003, the federal government allowed individual states to implement moratoria.

The Australian Oilseeds Federation said New South Wales and Victoria lifted their moratoria in 2007, and Western Australia lifted its ban a year later.

These three states account for about 80 percent of total canola production, said Nick Goddard by e-mail.

However, South Australia and Tasmania, which produce less than 20 percent of the country’s canola, still have their bans in place.

Two government reviews are underway in South Australia and results are expected in the first quarter of 2019.

Smyth said Australia is starting to recognize what it’s losing through bans that are based on emotion rather than science.

“It’s quite ridiculous,” he said. “They’re not even allowed to rail canola through (South Australia). All the canola either has to go by boat from say Sydney or Melbourne areas around to Perth or the other way, or they have to rail it all the way through northern Australia.”

He said political interference in regulatory approvals costs money and Australian canola growers now know this.

Environmental groups that push for bans often say there is no cost but he said Australia is a good example of what really happens.

Smyth was recently in Egypt for a global meeting on biodiversity where GM adoption was one of the topics. Two years ago at the same conference he met with Sudanese officials shortly after that country approved Bt cotton. The insect damage had become so bad that many farmers had to stop growing the crop.

They have launched a survey of more than 500 cotton growers who are now growing the GM crop.

“The survey was done just after seeding in June and we’ll follow up just after their harvest in January and get a sense as to what’s changed in terms of their input costs regarding chemicals and what’s changed in terms of yield just simply from this meeting two years ago,” Smyth said.

Weed control is a big issue in Australia. Although GM canola wasn’t allowed everywhere, Australian growers have access to more herbicide-tolerant varieties developed through mutagenesis than do Canadian growers.

“It’s not that they haven’t had the technology at all but there would be the ability to have the improved weed control just simply due to the efficiencies that Roundup Ready canola was able to offer to farmers,” Smyth said.

In Western Australia, where about 50 percent of all the country’s canola is grown, GM canola production is 34 percent of the crop. That’s higher than the national average of 24 percent because farmers are using it to manage resistant rye grass.

Poor weed control is a huge problem in crops around the world, and the researchers said GM traits can control the weeds and therefore increase yield.

Smyth said the next logical step is to gather data from Europe, probably France, Germany and the United Kingdom, to see if similar comparisons can be made.

He said the Australia study provides good evidence to push back on environmental groups who ignore the science.

“Here we’ve quantified something that has caused more damage to the environment so I think the question (that) now needs to be put to the environmental groups is ‘We’ve documented a technology that reduces the environmental impact, why won’t you come on board and support these technologies?’” Smyth said.

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