A growing appetite for GM in a changing climate

Oct 04, 2019

This is an opinion piece written by GPSA CEO Caroline Rhodes which first appeared in The Advertiser on Friday 4 October

As parts of South Australia rest in the grip of drought following the driest first nine months of the year on record for the state, it is timely to consider the impact of a changing climate on the future of food production.

Current forecasts suggest a difficult end to an already challenging year for our grain producers, with predictions of extreme heat and increased frost risk threatening crop yields.

Many joined in the recent global protest movement in the streets of Adelaide demanding action from politicians on climate change.

Meanwhile, our Australian farming community is already experiencing first-hand the impact of our changing climate.

Every single day, grain producers are making decisions in response to the environment, adapting their farming systems to the best available climate data and agronomic advice, helping to put food on our tables.

Longer term, producers are investing in grains research and development, underpinning government investment in cutting-edge agricultural science and working with our world leading scientific community in applying the latest technology for the benefit of agriculture.

This has helped put Adelaide’s own Waite Research Precinct on the world map, where the largest concentration of agriculture, food and wine research expertise in the Southern Hemisphere exists on our doorstep.

Demand for plant-based protein in the form of pulses – a key part in the mix of crops SA growers produce – is being driven by changing consumer preferences, including the growing penchant for vegetarianism and veganism in response to concerns about climate change.

The state’s grain industry is uniquely positioned to meet the needs of a growing world population and changing consumer preferences.

And so, it seems incredulous that the South Australian Parliament would seek to intervene in this industry, by placing a moratorium on the commercial cultivation of certain crops derived from plant breeding techniques regulated by the federal Office of the Gene Technology Regulator.

Since 2004, South Australia has placed a ban on these crops approved by the OGTR as being safe for human health and the environment, for trading purposes.

The rest of mainland Australia has moved on, yet here in SA we remain stalled in an outdated political agenda of the anti-GM movement.

It is a national embarrassment.

The moratorium has denied SA growers choice of genetically modified canola varieties that are commercially grown in all other mainland states, demonstrating a distinct lack of trust in the expertise of our state’s farmers, export value chain and international customers to manage any market risk. 

To grow GM canola without approval in SA, risks a whopping $200,000 fine.   

The perverse impact of the moratorium has been to stall the development of new GM crops for South Australian growers that are now being trialled interstate.

Exciting developments in Australian research are taking place, specifically targeting new traits for drought and frost tolerance in future GM crops.

The very production constraints that climate change heightens are being overcome through the application of gene technology, but it will only be beneficial if our grains sector has the freedom of choice to adopt this technology and incorporate it into our South Australian farming systems.

A recent survey by the University of Adelaide found the majority of Australians are supportive of GM technology in order to make plants drought resistant, or to improve the health and welfare of animals used in food production. 

The same people who marched on Adelaide demanding action on climate change should be demanding an end to the anti-GM rhetoric that still resides among some of our politicians and instead support our world leading researchers in developing the crops of the future.

There are other opportunities resulting from GM technology that have the potential to benefit not only our farming community, but society more generally.

This includes omega-3 canola, the world's first plant-based source of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.

This has been developed right here in Australia by the CSIRO to help reduce reliance on fish stocks as a source of omega-3, which is vital for human health.

It is time to take politics out of agronomy and release our industry from the shackles of the GM moratorium, providing an incentive for investment in new plant breeding techniques and look to the future with confidence. 

Let our state’s grain industry get on with the task of feeding the world.

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