Australia embraces GM technology: farmer

Manitoba Ag Days | Although one farmer says Australia supports GM, Greenpeace says consumers will never accept GM wheat

Australian grain producer Bill Crabtree is convinced that the vast majority of farmers in his country support the concept of genetically modified wheat.

Crabtree, who spoke at Manitoba Ag Days in Brandon last week, said it’s likely Australian farmers are more supportive of GM technology than Canadian farmers.

“It would be 90 percent of (Australian) farmers now that would be very supportive of the technology,” said Crabtree, who is also known as No-Till Bill for his advocacy of zero tillage practices in Australia.

“Australian farmers are keen on GM wheat now. Possibly more so than (Canadians).”

Only 30 percent of farmers in his country backed GM crops as little as eight years ago, said Crabtree, who started farming four years ago after working many years as an agricultural researcher and consultant in his home state of Western Australia.

GM crops have made inroads across Australia since then, but regulations vary from state to state. Queensland never restricted growing GM crops while Tasmania and South Australia still prohibit their cultivation.

New South Wales and Victoria have permitted GM canola since 2008 and Western Australia since 2010.

GM cotton is grown throughout the country.

Paula Fitzgerald, general manager of industry development for Grain Growers, Australia’s largest grain industry organization, said the country’s farmers do want GM wheat.

“I’m not aware of growers being formally polled on this topic, but certainly, as you engage with farmers across the country you see strong support,” she said.

“This support is partially due to the significant GM wheat R & D underway in Australia. Farmers are keen to see the outcomes of this research.”

The research made headlines in Australia and throughout the globe last summer when Greenpeace activists destroyed GM wheat plots near Canberra on a farm owned and managed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency.

Fitzgerald said the destruction may have backfired because the public and scientific community expressed sympathy for CSIRO and antipathy towards Greenpeace.

In addition, a growing number of Australians are starting to comprehend the positive aspects of GM technology.

“Consumers have shown strong support, in surveys, for GM crops modified to be more water efficient/drought tolerant,” Fitzgerald said.

“I’m not suggesting all consumers are in favour of GM crops … but I think there is a growing recognition of the outcomes/benefits these new plant varieties can deliver.”

Jim Peacock, Australia’s former chief scientist and former president of the Australian Academy of Science, concurred that public support for GM crops is increasing.

However, he cautioned that consumers in Australia remain divided on the issue and there are a “few vociferous activist groups that oppose” the technology.

A spokesperson for one of those groups questions whether most Australian farmers do want to grow GM wheat.

Eric Darier, a Canadian who is assisting his Australian Greenpeace colleagues in their fight against GM crops, also doubts Australian consumers will ever accept GM wheat.

As far as he knows, Australian farmers have never been polled about GM wheat, which means claims of 90 percent support is merely anecdotal.

As well, a 2011 report from Grain Growers that evaluated market interest in GM wheat concluded that it “is still widely regarded as not acceptable for the foreseeable future,” but didn’t identify a percentage of buyers that reject GM technology.

Greenpeace calculated that 80 percent of Australia’s wheat buyers, both domestic and foreign, aren’t ready to buy GM wheat.

“These buyers account for $3.3 billion worth of Australia’s wheat market value in 2010,” said Darier.

The Grain Growers report said global consumers may not be ready for GM wheat immediately, but regions such as the Middle East and Southeast Asia may be willing to accept GM wheat in a few years.

For Crabtree, the perception that consumers don’t want GM wheat is a false notion.

“That’s not true. The marketplace doesn’t want it? Well, you don’t know that. No one knows that. It’s never been tried.”

He said part of the problem is that Canadian farmers are too passive when it comes to GM technology. Canadian producers tend to lay back and groan that misinformed consumers don’t want GM food.

Instead, Canadians should become vocal champions of the technology, he said.

“I think Canadian farmers are often too polite…. ,” he said.

“They need to be talking at the kindergarten and at the school…. They need to be saying, ‘look, this is our livelihood.’ ”

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