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Australian farmers fear future without GM food ban

(Friday, June 20, 2003 -- CropChoice news) --David Fickling, The Guardian, 06/19/03:

From the middle of Julie Newman's canola fields, the yellow flowers stretch across the Western Australian countryside for miles in every direction.

The canola - known as oilseed rape in Britain - is sold as GM-free. Last month the Australian government granted licences to genetically modified food crops, which means it could now lose that automatic status forever.

The Network of Concerned Farmers says GM-free status can only now be regained through grain segregation, which would add 10% to their costs.

Australia is a crucial market for biotech companies, being the world's second-biggest canola producer after Canada. Grown over 2.5m hectares (6.25m acres), it is equivalent to a third of the world's arable land planted with the GM crop. With Australia losing its GM-free status, the balance has tilted to the biotech giants.

"For the companies it was do or die time," says Bob Phelps of the Gene Ethics Network. "Australia was probably the last major grain-exporting country to still keep its crop GM-free, and by removing that status they removed a major impediment to the global industry."

Efforts to crack the Australian market have been vigorous, and often dubious. One crucial paper on GM crop contamination published in the Science journal did not mention it had been funded by Monsanto and Bayer CropScience. The journal has launched an inquiry.

Ms Newman, whose farm lies 300 miles south-east of Perth, says her major worry is how it will affect profits.

"We're not radical greenie Luddites at all," she says. "We don't rotate our crops and we used to have a big crop-spraying programme. But the day this stuff is commercially released, we'll be forced to market as GM."

Opposition extends to conservative bodies such as the Australian Wheat Board. "Our concern is the integrity of the export product," says spokesman Peter McBride. "Australia has a very good reputation for producing clean, high-quality grain, and a number of our key overseas markets have indicated that they want that to continue."

Growers have found support from the governments of Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales, which have pledged a moratorium on the growing of GM crops. Victoria is expected to follow suit soon.

The major international trade barrier to GM foods is also under attack. Last month US officials took the EU to the World Trade Organisation to protest against its refusal to import new GM products. Australia was one of 11 states backing the US move.

A US victory would not only force the EU to accept new GM products, but also sway Australia's Middle Eastern and Asian markets.

Ms Newman is more worried about how she will segregate the GM canola if it infiltrates her crop. "Canola is a bit hardier than most other crops," she says. "It grows like a weed. We're going to have a bit of trouble controlling that."