February 12, 2004

Australian Farmers may be allowed to sell GM crops

Genetically modified canola grown in NSW for research could end up being sold despite a state moratorium on the commercial growth of GM food crops. Two chemical companies have applied to run joint tests on GM canola over 5000 hectares in the state but have asked that the participating farmers be allowed to sell the crops.

The NSW Agricultural Advisory Council on Gene Technology will decide on the Monsanto/Bayer application next week, but two of the council's nine members claim they have been "bullied" by several colleagues pushing for "commercialisation by stealth". Jo Immig, who represents the NSW Nature Conservation Council, and Juliet McFarlane, of the Network of Concerned Farmers, said they had been pushed into making decisions and not given adequate time to consider research given to the council. Both feared approval for the canola sale would be given.

The moratorium on GM foods, brought in last year, allows companies to grow GM crops for research purposes. Ms Immig said the council was "effectively bringing an end to the moratorium". "The public has been conned into thinking there would be a moratorium when there isn't," she said. The council's chairman, Professor Tim Reeves, said he was "very happy with all the members of the council".

While no decision has been made on the Monsanto/Bayer application, Professor Reeves said he was concerned that any farmers participating in the trial were "not doing it for charity". "The council has recommended to the minister [Ian Macdonald) that we need to have a very transparent process about costs and returns and how funds are generally used," he said. He believed that so long as the chemical companies were not making a direct profit from the sales, farmers could sell the GM crops without breaking the moratorium.

In their application to the advisory council, Monsanto and Bayer say the purpose of their trial is to test whether GM and non-GM crops can coexist without contamination. But the companies are also interested in testing the economic benefits and marketing opportunities for GM canola.

The Federal Gene Technology Regulator last year ruled GM canola presented no risk to human health or the environment. Monsanto and Bayer argue that stopping trial farmers from testing the commercial potential of the canola is unfair. A spokesman for Monsanto, Mark Buckingham, said the trials would be incomplete unless the farmers could sell the GM canola. "We've already had the determination that GM canola poses no threat to human health or the environment so we need to test the economic potential as well," he said.

The move was criticised by the NSW Greens MP Ian Cohen, who described the proposal as "a blatant attempt to sell GM canola overseas". "Unless the Government uses the mechanisms within the legislation to guard against contamination by GM crops, the broad scale release of GM crops will be a disaster for farmers, for the NSW economy and the environment," he said.

The Minister for Agriculture, Mr Macdonald, said he was confident that next week the council would "thoroughly debate this contentious area and provide independent advice".

by Stephanie Peatling, Environment Reporter -