In an astonishing piece of kite flying, the Greens leader Richard Di Natale has said he “did not believe eating foods produced from genetically modified crops posed a risk to human health”, a view he has since made known to several media outlets.
A virtual ban on GM foods is among the multitude of burdens the meddlesome political class has imposed on its bete noir, commercial farming. Genetic modifications of plant structure allow a short-circuiting, often of many decades, of the genetic changes that have been traditionally engineered by breeding. Almost without exception all cultivated plant and animal food we consume has been improved for our purposes from its natural state.
Genetic engineering arrived 25 years ago and allowed plants to become more resistant to parasites, use water more economically and grow faster. In countries where technology is welcomed – especially the US and Canada, virtually all the crop of corn, cotton, soy is now GM. In the case of soya beans, Monsanto’s seeds improve yields by 5 per cent and reduce production costs by 20 per cent. Other GM crops have comparable savings.
Fifteen years ago, in a knee-jerk opposition to all things new, green groups stopped the use of GM technology in its tracks in the EU and Australia. Greenpeace led the charge, maintaining that GM crops were harmful to human health and would not work effectively (they would create new “superbugs”, release toxic chemicals into the environment and so on). They amassed a million signatures favouring an indefinite “moratorium” on the technology’s use in the EU.
In Australia, governments prevaricated about the introduction of the technology (except in the case of cotton which gained approval before the bogeyman could be created). The IPA was one of the few voices unabashedly calling the opposition for the sham that it was in a series of articles including by me in the AFR, (and here) and Herald Sun. But, succumbing to the familiar noisy green alarmism, bans were introdcued, first by the weak-kneed Bracks Government in 2003 at the same time as that government launched an amply funded biotechnology program. Mike Nahan, now the Treasurer in Western Australia, excoriated the Victorian government’s decision which overturned the Gene Technology regulator’s approval of Bayer’s GM canola.
The companies researching and developing GM strains were demonised and the “frankenfood” epithet was adopted. In Australia the cudgels were taken up by the Greens. Bob Brown set the policy which has been holy writ for 15 years and, as the Victorian decision shows, the Greens dragged other political parties along the same route.
The policy is absurd with respect to human health – for 15 years the majority of corn, canola and many other foods consumed globally are GM products. Ironically, Australians eat the produce every day since the nature of the world agricultural trade is such that GM food is imported –and it is identical to non GM sources.
The opponents also attempted falsely to claim that Australia’s “clean green image” from the ban led to our exports commanding a premium price.
The ban on the technology meant Australian farmers were saddled with a policy framework, which like those on land clearing and water buy-backs, seriously reduced productivity.
Di Natale says he arrived at his present position because as a medical doctor he could see no risk in GM foods generally. Fair enough, but what took him so long to come round to this view, and what have his colleagues got to say? If the Greens change tack, the ALP and Liberals will also miraculously see the light, further demonstrating that political parties are ethically deficient in responding to trumped up scares.
If the whole sad policy is now unravelled and Australian farmers become free to take advantage of the same technology their competitors use the nation too will benefit. It is however doubtful that anyone will pay the penalty for imposing on farmers and the nation generally almost two decades of lost output.