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GM: debate the science not the values

04, June 2007

By Max Rheese

The recent claim that southern Australia is in the grip of a lobbying war over the impending expiry of the moratoria on genetically modified crops is a manifestation of the silliness that impedes progress on many science-based issues in society today.

If indeed there is a lobbying war over whether to allow the expiry of the moratorium on growing GM crops on February 29, 2008, imposed by the Victorian Government in 2004 - or to extend it to 2013 - then it is a war based on imposition of values, not science.

Moratoria on GM crops will expire in most states in 2008.

Anti GM groups have argued that the introduction of GM technology will have adverse effects on the environment without providing any evidence to substantiate their claims. Conversely, GM proponents have presented detailed, documented studies of very large reductions of pesticide use - up to 80 per cent in the Namoi valley in New South Wales where 90 per cent of the cotton grown is GM.

Further to this, anti GM groups have been presented with the results of the Brooks Barfoot ten-year study released earlier this year, into the socio-economic and environmental effects of GM crops grown overseas that show they have been wildly successful for individual farmers who have been able to choose whether they grow GM or conventional crops.

No such choice is available in Australia except for cotton and 90 per cent of farmers choose GM cotton.

The accumulated area of biotech crops planted globally over eleven years, 1996 to 2006, has reached 577 million hectares, grown by about 10.3 million farmers, 90 per cent of whom are in developing countries. This massive practical experience on millions of farms generating our food, feed, fibre and fuel is solid confirmation that biotech crops do not pose any substantiated risk beyond those posed by conventional crops, without harming the planet.

Clearly the evidence in many studies shows that biotech crops leave a smaller ecological footprint on the landscape than conventional crops.

Those opposed to GM crops grasp at any argument to deny our farmers the freedom to choose and in doing so deny the environment and the economy the advantages of technological innovation that our major trading partners overseas already enjoy.

These arguments, which science show to be baseless, along with the myths about premiums for non GM status are disingenuous and all about imposing their values on the rest of society.

The UN predicts the world population will rise to 9.3 billion people by 2050 - a 42 per cent increase on the present - and nobody is predicting that the world will get any bigger to accommodate an extra three billion people.

Short of cutting down all the world’s forests for more arable land - an environmental disaster of huge proportions - the only way we will produce enough food for an increase in population of this size is through technological innovation such as biotech crops.

These are simple facts. Most people in the developed world have already shown they are not willing to allow further widespread clearing of forests for agriculture. So we must be able to produce at least 42 per cent more food in 40 years time than we do now, from about the same amount of arable land.

Those opposed to the use of biotech crops could do society a favour and outline how this will be achieved. If they are so confident of the claims they make against GM technology - that our markets and our consumers do not want the benefits of GM crops - let them choose.

Australian farmers and consumers have shown themselves to be very discerning when it comes to making choices that affect their livelihoods and their quality of life. Farmers will not invest their time, effort and money in technology they do not have faith in or a market for.

Earlier this month at a forum on GM, Victorian parliamentarians heard from Professor Rick Roush, the dean of Land and Food Resources at Melbourne University about the science of GM crops. They also heard from Dr Jennifer Marohasy, who heads the Environment Unit at the Institute of Public Affairs and is a board member of the Australian Environment Foundation, that GM technology is good for the environment.

And Chris Kelly, convenor of the Producers Forum in Victoria and a grain grower, told them about the choices farmers want to make to be able to remain competitive in world markets - a choice currently denied them. This was a forum based on facts and science.

The Victorian Government will now start the review process that will decide whether the current moratorium should expire or be extended. If this decision is to be based on science, on what is good for the environment, about farmers being able to make informed choices about what crops they will grow on their land - this will favour biotechnology.

This should be a decision on how the benefits science delivers can best be utilised - not how values based on ideology can deny choice.

Max Rheese is the Executive Director of the Australian Environment Foundation.

Published in On Line Opinion

Published in On Line Opinion

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