GMO, some can’t live with it, others can’t live without it
Last year I watched the Australian Story episodes about a fight between two farmers in Western Australia, Stephen and Michael.
Stephen was running an organic farm. His neighbour Michael began the growing genetically modified (GM) crop, Round-up Ready Canola, in the paddock just over the road. The canola is modified so the herbicide Round-Up can be sprayed to kill weeds without killing the crop.
Canola crop. Credit: Pete via Flickr
Michael’s harvesting technique, recommended by his agronomist, was to form piles of the loose seed-heads in the open paddock and leave them there for some time after the crop was harvested. It’s a method called swathing, a common way to improve oil content in canola.
GM seed heads from the open paddock blew onto the organic farm.
The organic accreditation company NASAA de-certified 70% of Stephen’s farm because of GM “contamination” in the organic paddocks. Stephen tried to sue the GM farmer, saying Michael’s negligence had caused lost income because of de-certification. It was the first case of its kind in Australia. In a six-year battle, the hearing and two appeals all agreed that the GM farmer had not been negligent. It’s a sad story because every farmer has the right to farm in their own way, GM, organic or conventional without being restricted or penalised by their neighbours.
In 2010, when the crop went in, it was the first year that Western Australia had allowed GM canola to be farmed by the public. Since this case, the WA government has put together framework for managing GM farms that neighbour organic properties. Too late for Stephen, but helpful for others. The case bought up criticism of the standards for organic accreditation have been for their zero tolerance approach to GM contamination. NASAA’s standards are stricter than our main export markets which allow a small percentage of contamination. This puts organic growers from Australia at a disadvantage if they’re near GM farmers. Perhaps these standards need to be to be more realistic.
Where is GM in the rest of Australia?
Genetic modification is when a foreign gene is inserted into, in this case, plant DNA. In this sense, foreign may mean a different species of canola or a different plant/animal altogether. Before genetic modification commercial crops came from plant breeding. It takes about 10 years to breed traits (e.g. drought tolerance) into plants. GM is quicker and has more abilities.
All Australian states except South Australia and Tasmania allow GM farming. At the moment, the only crops which can be commercially farmed are GM cotton (resistant to the pest bollworm) and Round-Up Ready Canola.
There are lots of GM trials around Australia. It’s not just the big agricultural companies in these trials; universities, state government departments and the CSIRO all have projects. Different crops are being grown to improve yield, disease/ pest/herbicide resistance, nutrition and tolerance to drought.
Food Standards Australia and New Zealand assess GM food safety on a case-by-case basis. They have scientifically assessed and approved specific GM varieties of canola, corn, cottonseed, lucerne, potato, rice, soybean and sugar beet. All are now available as food in Australia.
This is supposed to be the biotech century. But science and technology are moving faster than community acceptance and regulations.
Not everyone is happy with GM. Photo credit: Antoine Couturier via Flickr
Golden rice was developed in 2000, it’s a rice crop with extra vitamin A. The crop was developed to stop blindness from vitamin A deficiency. The World Health Organisation has said this is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children. Golden rice isn’t farmed yet because it hasn’t been approved anywhere.
Biotechnology has taken a step further into the food chain, there’s also GM livestock and salmon. How do you feel about less pollution from pig farms? Growing more meat from less feed? If this was done by efficiencies in farming we would love it. But it’s from GM, are we still happy with that? Personally, I have come around to plants but I feel uneasy about GM in animals.
When I read more about GM, I found a writer who spoke directly to me:
A good reminder that if we say no to GM, we need to acknowledge there can be devastating consequences for others.
It seems like it will take more than advances in science alone to bring widespread acceptance of GM. Afterall, the science is already there. I’ve been thinking about what it must have been like to get the public on-board when vaccinations were developed. Injecting virus’s or bacteria into your body as a new scientific break-through would have been hard to sell. But then there was a smallpox crisis so the choices were more serious. Not liking the idea of a vaccination had a higher price.
I get the feeling that we will need to feel a crisis before GM gets wide acceptance.