SPEECH: Select Committee on moratorium of GM crops

Today, Mark noted the report of the Select Committee on Moratorium on the Cultivation of Genetically Modified Crops in South Australia and reflected on six particular observations that came out of the evidence presented to the Committee. 

Select Committee on Moratorium on the Cultivation of Genetically Modified Crops in South Australia 

I rise to support the noting of the report of the Select Committee on Moratorium on the Cultivation of Genetically Modified Crops in South Australia and to make some brief comments on the report and the evidence that was presented to the committee.

Firstly, I would like to thank the Hon. John Darley for moving to establish this inquiry, which was something the Greens had always supported. I am also pleased to have had the opportunity to be part of that Committee. I am confident that this inquiry was far more independent than the Government's so-called independent inquiry into the GM crops moratorium. I would like to thank all the individuals and organisations who made submissions and also those who gave evidence in person to the Committee.

Given the subject matter of the inquiry, the divergence of views and the strength of conviction from each side of the debate was hardly surprising, but I would like to reflect on six particular observations that came out of the evidence presented to the Committee. Firstly, the global demand for clean, natural foods is growing, and this means that the demand for non-GM and organic foods is also growing. This provides opportunities for South Australian non-GM and organic farmers and related industries. These are opportunities that we should be capitalising on.

The second observation is that it appears that as a state South Australia has not made the most of the opportunities for marketing our food products as clean, green and non-GM, and we have failed even though we have had a GM moratorium in place. While some businesses like Kangaroo Island Pure Grain have made the most of South Australia's moratorium and they have worked to secure lucrative overseas markets, which are very specific in their requirements for non-GM foods, they have done this through their own initiative. It would be fair to say that the previous State Government could have done more during its time in office to promote South Australia and to position our state as the producer of clean and green foods. This is why one of the recommendations that I put forward to the Committee was that the State Government:

…in consultation and cooperation with the farming and food industries, the Minister develop and implement an international marketing strategy to build and enhance South Australia’s international reputation as a clean and green producer of food and Australia’s only mainland GM-free State.

That recommendation did not find favour but I think it is still an important principle we should be working towards.

My third observation is that it is a clear fact that there is a price premium for non-GM canola compared to its genetically modified equivalent. According to the State Government's own data provided in evidence to the Committee by the Chief Executive of PIRSA, Scott Ashby:

…non-GM canola achieves on average $30-35 per tonne more than GM canola in those States that allow both GM and non-GM canola to be grown.

That price premium is fact, it is clear and it is consistent around the country. In those places that allow both GM and non-GM, the market speaks loudly at the silo and pays the non-GM farmer more per tonne for their canola.

The fourth observation is that we heard evidence that, after 22 years of genetically modified crop development worldwide, Roundup Ready GM canola is still the only broadacre GM crop that would be available to South Australian growers. The prospects for the availability of other GM crops in the future is purely speculative.

The fifth observation is that some of the farmers who were advocating for the lifting of the moratorium, when asked by the Committee if they would grow GM canola said that they would not. One farmer who wrote to the Committee said, and I quote:

As a farmer on Eyre Peninsula, I am appalled at the push to allow GM crops to be grown in SA. I can't understand why the push is coming from our own representative body despite most growers I speak with totally against the idea.

Other farmers who expressed a desire to grow GM canola wanted to do so not because it was a desirable crop in itself, but as a weed control measure since they can douse their fields with the poison glyphosate, commonly marketed as Roundup, that kills off the weeds without killing their crop, and that is what is meant by Roundup Ready canola. Given the growing international controversy over glyphosate and its banning in some jurisdictions, this raises an important question about whether increasing reliance on this chemical herbicide is really the smartest way forward for agriculture.

The sixth observation I would make is that we heard a lot in the Committee about choice. On one side we had calls for farmers to have the choice to grow GM crops if they wish to. We also heard the flipside of the argument that giving the few farmers who want to take up the option to grow GM crops that choice will impact on the choice and opportunities for those who want to remain GM free or organic. This is due to the very real threat of contamination.

While the Committee heard credible evidence about the ability of grain handlers to maintain the segregation of crops at their end, the Committee cannot ignore the significant evidence of incidences of contamination in places where both GM crops and non-GM crops are grown. We heard that the cost of contamination incidences are generally borne by individual farmers, by taxpayers, as well as the industry more broadly, where costs are distributed through the whole primary production and food processing system.

We do need to think about this a little bit more. We know that currently the only GM crops likely to be wanted to be grown in South Australia is GM canola. I am advised that GM safflower has also recently been approved, but it is a very minor crop and unlikely to be grown in South Australia. According to the Grain Producers SA Mecardo report, we also know that just 2 per cent of the gross value of broadacre farm commodities in South Australia is derived from canola. We know that only some of those canola growers have any interest in growing GM canola and that those who are interested want it only in order to help them manage weeds.

When we put all that together what we are talking about here is giving up our clean, green, GM-free reputation and risking the opportunities for lucrative overseas markets so that a very small number of farmers can temporarily fix their weed problems.

I would like to now turn to some of the claims that were made by the Minister for Primary Industries, Tim Whetstone, who, according to an article in The Advertiser on 4 November, claims that farmers are losing money because they were blocked from planting GM crops that were weather resistant. Perhaps the Minister needs to brush up on his facts. There are no weather-resistant GM crops that are commercially approved in Australia.

I am told that all of the work on drought-tolerant grains finished years ago and bore no useful results and that there is nothing else in the pipeline. Instead, farmers are looking at non-GM management strategies and conventional breeding to develop crops that respond to climate change and drought. So for the minister to claim that farmers are losing money because they are being blocked from planting non-existent GM crops is plain ludicrous.

I would also like to challenge the comments made by the Minister about the Select Committee's inquiry. His claim was that the evidence presented to the Committee supports his position to lift the moratorium. In fact, the evidence was divergent and there was no consensus view. And if you look at the submissions, even if you put aside the 151 submissions that were received from individuals facilitated by Friends of the Earth Australia, the number of other submissions that supported retaining the moratorium was almost double those calling for its removal. So there was a clear majority in favour of keeping the moratorium.

What is very clear from the Committee's inquiry is that there is a lot of support from South Australian farmers and South Australian food businesses, from the large Japanese consumer cooperatives who purchase our South Australian GM-free grain, from the organic food industry, from scientists, from a number of NGOs and from large numbers of South Australian individuals to retain the GM moratorium.

In addition to all of these groups and people, I have had a simple petition on my own website which has been signed by 897 South Australians. The petition reads:

We, the undersigned residents of South Australia, call on the Marshall Liberal Government to retain the current moratorium on the cultivation of GM crops in SA.

So this is an issue that inspires a lot of passion in a lot of people, not just in SA but around the world.

While there were some recommendations proposed that the Committee was not able to agree on, we were able to agree on a few recommendations. They were the following:

1. That the Minister work with primary producers and the wider food and wine industry to outline key steps and milestones to enhance marketing opportunities for primary producers and the value adding chain.

2. That the State Government work with all relevant government departments to support and provide marketing assistance to South Australian primary producers, the wider food and wine industry, relevant representative bodies, associations and industry groups which want to remain GM free.

3. That the Minister ensures that a suitable and widely recognised non-GM label is accepted and used by South Australia’s primary producers and wider food and wine industry which want to remain GM free and have that status recognised locally, nationally and internationally.

Importantly, the Committee did not recommend lifting the moratorium. The Greens agree that this is the right call. We do not think the moratorium should be lifted in any part of South Australia.

Minister Whetstone, in his comments to the media, even about these agreed recommendations, basically said that he will implement them only if he gets his way and the moratorium is lifted. In my view that just highlights his blinkered view that the government has to get its own way on this issue.

The Minister's position in relation to providing marketing assistance to non-GM growers is that he will only help them once he has killed off one of their main marketing advantages, namely, the status of South Australia as the only GM-free state in the country. That is quite remarkable. It is like saying, 'I'll only help you once I've hurt you. Once I've undermined some of your most important marketing credentials, then I'll help you to take advantage of what's left.'

The Minister would have made a good US military advisor in the Vietnam War: 'We had to destroy it in order to save it.' It is not logical and it is not necessary. The Minister should implement these recommendations, regardless of the fate of the moratorium. It is what we should have been doing for the last 20 years: helping our farmers and helping them with marketing.

Finally, I would like to thank the other members of the Committee. I have mentioned the Hon. John Darley, the Hon. John Dawkins and the Hon. Emily Bourke. Whilst there were clearly differences of opinion on the Committee, it was a very respectful engagement. I do not think voices were raised at any stage of the debate. It was a pleasure to work with my colleagues on this Committee. I would also like to thank Dr Margaret Robinson for her research assistance to the Committee.

The final thing I would say is that the issue of genetically modified crops will be back on the agenda of the Legislative Council on the next Wednesday of sitting, when my motion to disallow the government's GM regulations will be put to a vote.