Tasmania Should Stand Firm On Agritech

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Five years ago, when Victoria was preparing to review its GM crop ban, the public was told by then-premier Steve Bracks that, “the Government has not decided on whether to renew the moratorium”. Plenty of evidence gives the lie to this claim. While the public was assured of community consultation, Bracks continued opening multimillion dollar complexes geared towards GM crop commercialisation.

It was an open secret among industry insiders that the ban would be lifted. The Age got wind of this from an unnamed Labor MP, reporting:

"[Victorian] Treasurer John Brumby and Premier Steve Bracks… regard the ban as running counter to the aim of making Victoria an international hub for biotechnology. 'They wouldn't be in Boston (for Bio 2007) saying, 'We're going to extend the moratorium', would they?' asks one Labor MP.”

Multinational GM seed giants Monsanto and Bayer, had also been secretly placated, according to biotech industry magazine Australian LifeScientist. The magazine assured its readers back in 2003 that the Bracks government:

"Extracted the voluntary pause from agbiotech giants Monsanto and Bayer CropScience without an anaesthetic … [Dr Tony] Coulepis [executive director of industry body AusBiotech]says the Bracks government has quietly let it be known that it opted for the temporary pause to give the biotech industry 12 months to 'make a noise'."

The industry PR noise proved loud and persistent, but so did public resistance. There is no public (or market) demand for GM crops, so in May 2007 the Victorian government announced that an "independent" panel would "review" the bans, and offered an impression of community consultation.

The panel members' pro-GM stances were already on public record. The terms of state reviews were (like Tasmania’s) exclusively economic, and the public had no avenue to submit legal, political, scientific, ethical, health or environmental cases against the bans.

GM multinational interests had at this stage bankrolled their way into the heart of seemingly democratic bodies like farmers’ federations. In South Australia, the only state in which a farmer’s federation had carried out a ballot among members, 80 per cent of farmers voted to keep GM bans in place.

But an Age report described a subsequent Monsanto- and Bayer-sponsored Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) meeting in Mildura, which took votes on lifting the moratorium “after a full morning session addressed by speakers from industry and government” all campaigning to lift the bans. It reported accounts of the “tongue-lashing” aggression directed to farmers who supported the bans. It continued:

"[Former VFF head Don] McGauchie's anger might have had as much to do with agribusiness as it did with agriscience and agripolitics… he shares with other VFF luminaries links to a variety of organisations with financial interests in the introduction of GM crops."

Company searches, continued the report, revealed:

"That like McGauchie, [Mildura farmer Ron] Hards — who is also a representative on the federation's general council and on the Grains Council of Australia — also has directorship links to companies that could profit from GM. GrainCorp directors include McGauchie and former VFF grains president, Kerang farmer Allan McCallum. A spokesman for Monsanto, Mark Buckingham, has confirmed to The Age that GrainCorp was one of the companies his organisation was negotiating with to be the handler of segregated GM canola after a licence was granted."

By this time, CSIRO Plant Industry had developed several GM crop product patents that depended on bans being lifted for their commercialisation, and the biotech industry sought to “leverage” on CSIRO’s public trust to “confront” those (the majority) who oppose GM, according to a 2003 report in Australian LifeScientist:

"[CSIRO] has been a non-combatant in the GM canola debate … Many believe CSIRO should have leveraged [public]respect to confront and refute anti-GM activists. CSIRO's biotechnology strategy coordinator, Dr Mikael Hirsch… says senior scientists at CSIRO Plant Industry, like chief Dr Jim Peacock and deputy Dr TJ Higgins, have “done their bit” to defend agricultural gene technology, but … he admits CSIRO may not have taken a strong enough line on the issue … Hirsch concedes that perhaps the research and agricultural communities need to do more and be more proactive in the debate."

Indeed, despite CSIRO’s own policy that forbids advocacy and calls for “care … when speaking about work with commercial potential,” the body became (and remains) an aggressive GM industry campaigner.

CSIRO’s campaigning was chorused by an echo-chamber of lobbyists who claimed scientific "consensus" on the issue of GM (there is none), which included the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a free-market think-tank that campaigns against citizen-supported NGOs such as the Australian Conservation Foundation, The Australia Institute and GeneEthics.

The IPA is on record as listing Monsanto and tobacco, logging and mining giants among its funders. In addition to a flood of pro-GM publicity, the IPA organised parliamentary forums with hand-picked scientific panels. One, in the Victorian Legislative Council committee room, was attended by Labor MP Tammy Lobato, who told me afterwards in an email:

“The IPA wheeled out the usual GM promises. [The IPA’s] Jennifer Marohasy said the bans were ‘irresponsible’, and were ‘killing’ Victoria’s canola industry. The next day I opened my copy of The Weekly Times to learn that Victoria now has record high yields of canola.”

Tasmania must resist inflated claims of economic benefit. This network of GM proponents has projected increasingly inflated figures of improved crop yields and export markets. By 2008, the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics (ABARE) claimed that adopting GM crops would benefit Australia to the tune of $8.5 billion.

Crikey journalist Bernard Keane responded in a report mapping ABARE’s “consistent failures”:

"GM wheat and rice aren’t even available yet… the report was based on assuming every single farmer in the country immediately switched – right now, in 2008 – to GM crops. Including non-existent GM wheat and rice. When challenged, ABARE admitted that the report was entirely hypothetical. However, that didn’t stop Philip Glyde from declaring in a press release that 'delaying GM uptake means we are forgoing significant economic benefits for regional Australia'. [ABARE] represent, at best, consistently poor research and modelling. But they are not without real world consequences, because they form the basis of long-term government policy."

Government numbers indicate that GM canola fields are not producing higher yields than non-GM in NSW. University studies also confirm that "there is no increase in yields between genetically modified crops and conventional systems".

Improved yields and profits weren’t the only inflated claims. Despite the expenditure of US$45 billion dollars of public and private money over the past 20 years, the promises of commercial GM crop varieties (drought resistance; improved nutrition, pesticide solutions) had not eventuated. This didn’t go unnoticed in the scientific community. A New Scientist editorial asked:

“Where are the spectacular benefits of genetic modification we were promised? …the biotech crops that might really help feed the world’s hungry remain but a hazy future promise. Meanwhile, bold advances in conventional breeding mean that transgenic plants offer fewer advantages than we once thought.”

In a spectacular public relations manoeuvre, this was re-framed by proponents as the very reason to revoke the ban. That potential GMO traits took decades to develop, costing hundreds of millions of dollars with uncertain outcomes and risks, meant that Australia should end the bans to encourage investors “with deep pockets and brave hearts” into agbiotech, argued entrepreneurs such as Glenn Tong.

Tong wrote in The Age that “Ignoring GM technologies would sentence wheat farmers to at least another 40 years of frost risk” so to develop potential products such as frost-tolerant GM wheat, "it is in our best interest to minimise unnecessary barriers to investment such as state-based moratoriums against GM crops."

Indeed, Monsanto had already warned that it had “suspend[ed]our investment” and that while the bans stayed there would be too much “commercial uncertainty”.

Although this network and its campaigns failed to sway public opinion and market behaviour, lifting the bans was a fait accompli in Victoria and New South Wales (and later, Western Australia). There was no plausible public consultation, and it's likely the same underhand tactics are underway in Tasmania. We can only hope that Tasmanian politicians can hold their nerve.

New Matilda

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