Photo by Matt Thompson, for the mercury, 13/10/13
On Saturday 12th October around two hundred Tasmanians descended on Hobart for the March Against Monsanto to urge the State Government to extend its moratorium on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The Government is currently reviewing the legislation, with a decision expected before Christmas as to whether Tasmania will remain GM free. The public submission period closed the day before without fanfare. In fact, many Tasmanians are probably unaware that the review is even happening. The subdued nature of the public debate is surprising, given the seriousness of the issue. Tasmanian agriculture is currently at a crossroads and if the GM crop ban is lifted the decision will be irreversible.
Tasmania is currently in the enviable position of being the only Australian state that can claim to be genuinely GM free. Although South Australia recently elected to extend its GM moratorium because of the market benefits of being GM free, GM trials are still taking place in the state. South Australia also shares a land border with Victoria, making the risk of GM contamination a very real one.
Tasmanian producers are already benefitting from the state’s GM free status, both in terms of access to markets and premium prices for GM free products. In light of these demonstrated benefits, the idea of becoming a GM state and losing existing market advantages for undemonstrated benefits is seems downright perverse.
Large beef exporters such as Greenhams and Tasmania Feedlot enjoy market access in countries such as Japan and Korea because of Tasmania’s GM free status. Greenhams’ managing director Peter Greenham has warned that lifting the GM ban would risk jeopardising the strong position of Tasmanian beef in international markets.
Tasmanian fruit growers also enjoy access to premium markets throughout Asia because of Tasmania’s GM free status. Andrew Scott, the president of Fruit Growers Tasmania, has similarly warned that any changes to the moratorium will be detrimental.
Tasmanian honey producers are another of the key beneficiaries of Tasmania’s GM crop moratorium. Tasmanian honey attracts premiums of at least 40 per cent over mainland honey because of Tasmania’s clean green reputation. The Tasmanian Beekeepers Association president Lindsay Burke has warned that international honey markets will be lost if the moratorium is lifted. Under European labelling laws, any honey containing GM pollen needs to be labelled and polling consistently shows that European consumers don’t want to eat GM food.
Similar consumer attitudes exist in Australia and in other key export markets such as Japan. Even in the US, which grows around 41 per cent of the GM crops in the world, there is still strong community opposition to GM crops. In the absence of labelling laws, non-GMO labelled products are now among the fastest growing markets in the US food industry.
The two main industries calling for Tasmania’s GM moratorium to be lifted are the poppy industry and dairy industry. Both industries argue that they may want to introduce GM crops to increase productivity. However, there are currently no commercially available GM poppies or pasture crops and little evidence of productivity increases associated with GM. There are currently field trials of GM grasses in Victoria, but the dairy industry admits that these are likely to be at least five years away from commercial release.
Tasmania’s current GM moratorium has an exemption for GM pharmaceutical crops – so GM poppies could currently be grown – except there are no commercially available varieties. There are also currently no field trials of GM poppies in Australia – so even if the poppy industry did decide it wanted to put Tasmania’s other primary producers at risk by introducing GM poppies they would be unlikely to reach the market for at least six years.
The only GM crop that could currently be grown in Tasmania if the GM moratorium is lifted is GM canola, the economics of which simply don’t stack up. A study released last year by the Birchip Cropping Group found that farmers growing GM canola are losing $150/hectare compared with those growing non-GM varieties. This is due to the technology user fee; the increased cost of seeds and herbicides; and lower market prices for GM canola. GM canola typically sells for $30 to $50 a tonne less than non-GM canola.
Tasmanian Agricultural Producers, which handles the majority of Tasmanian-grown grain, is currently selling non-GM canola to Japan for a premium. The buyers originally bought non-GM canola from Western Australia, but switched their supply chain to Tasmania due to contamination concerns once the GM canola ban in WA was lifted. If Tasmania introduces GM canola it also risks losing this market.
Arguments that Tasmania’s GM moratorium should be reviewed on a case by case basis are disingenuous. The introduction of any GM crops to Tasmania will irreparably damage Tasmania’s clean green reputation. Furthermore, the introduction of any GM crop – be it ryegrass, poppies or canola – risks contaminating other crops and jeopardising markets.
Against the demonstrated benefits of remaining GM free, calls from the poppy and dairy industry to lift the moratorium for the sake of GM products that may or may not exist in 5-6 years time seems reckless at best.
With larger freight costs and without economies of scale, Tasmanian producers are unable to compete with the mainland when it comes to bulk commodity production. The real opportunities for Tasmania lie in market differentiation and value adding – and in selling premium products to discerning markets. Tasmania’s GM moratorium has already proven invaluable in accessing these markets, although clearly much more can be done to promote Tasmania’s clean green image, both domestically and internationally.
Safe Food Campaigner based in Tasmania
This article is an edited version of one that originally appeared in The Mercury on 12th October.