Julie Newman of the Network of Concerned Farmers looks at 2004 from the perspective of an Australian farmer.
excerpts: "The misleading propaganda involved with promoting GM is nothing short of appalling. Australian farmers are told GM has far superior yields when there is no evidence and no reason to presume this. We are told that there will be a reduction in costs when the little information available reveals a significant increase in costs to all farmers. We are told there is no market risk when there is evidence that there is significant market risk for a range of our products. Again, the GM industry has been launching a concerted effort to discredit any alternative voice and quashing any adverse reports while refusing to submit the data required to support their claims."
"Trust must be earned, not demanded and this PR disaster is of the GM industry's own making as consumers will not be forced to consume food they do not trust. Consumers wishing to avoid being guinea pigs in a massive unmonitored, unrecallable experiment has caused increasing demand for foods that are guaranteed not to be GM."
2004 summary of the GM debate
2004 in Australia has been a rewarding year for those with concerns regarding GM crops as despite gaining Federal approval, GM canola has not been grown commercially (except for trials) in any Australian state due to State moratoriums and bans.
It is interesting to note that those opposing GM crops make a concerted effort to look at the documentation for both sides of the GM debate, while those pushing GM crops refuse to listen to, or acknowledge any opposing issues, much less address the problems. With time, the pro-GM industry antics of attacking the debater rather than the debate have become more obvious and although fair and public debate has been avoided by the GM industry, debate has been fairly active in the media.
Consumers are still being told that GM foods are rigorously tested and regulated but more and more consumers are realising that these foods are not tested by the regulatory authorities but tested by the companies themselves for the implications of feeding GM foods to stock. The focus of these studies is not designed for identifying problems to human health, but for identifying economic problems for stock fed GM crops. Even some of these short term tests reveal increased liver weights which is consistent with the adverse findings of Arpad Puztai.
However, consumers do not want tests for the impact on milk production, digestibility, feeding value, finished weight performance and carcass characteristics, consumers want tests to check for human health. In some cases, only Monsanto's summaries rather than the full data is analysed by the regulatory authorities(eg. corn) and the food consumers consume (eg. canola oil) is not tested at all.
The latest antic of the GM industry is promoting GM foods as "novel" and with "potential" to be healthier for consumers and the environment.
The GM industry has been launching a concerted effort to discredit any alternative voice and quashing any adverse reports. Is it little wonder the GM industry are not trusted when reputable scientists with sound debate are silenced, sacked, have funding withdawn or are publicly humiliated?
Why doesn't the GM industry employ scientists that consumers trust (eg. Arpad Puztai) to undergo the testing that consumers want? What are they scared of? Why be in such a rush to permanently contaminate the worlds food supply with a product that is unrecallable and has had adverse health reports?
Trust must be earned, not demanded and this PR disaster is of the GM industries own making as consumers will not be forced to consume food they do not trust. Consumers wishing to avoid being guinea pigs in a massive unmonitored, unrecallable experiment has caused increasing demand for foods that are guaranteed not to be GM.
Coexistence a myth:
As farmers are supplying food for a consumer driven market, there is a requirement to market as non-GM. Allowing self regulation by the GM industry has led to plans where all the responsibility for keeping contamination out of their products is left to the non-GM grower which will mean the cost and liability involved would be economically prohibitive. The legal definition of "non-GM" is nil detectable contamination which is scientifically proven to be impossible to comply with so coexistence to these levels is impossible. Ignoring the legal and market requirements, the GM industry is misleadingly claiming that some contamination will be accepted and are actively trying to discredit any opposition.
There is a concerted effort by the GM industry to not only remove the ability for farmers to market as GM-free or Non-GM but to remove the compulsory label requirement for GM products. Under the guise of the WTO and Free Trade Agreements, there is also an intention to remove the rights of countries to deny access to GM foods and crops. There is a clear intention of the GM industry to remove the ability for consumers to avoid GM foods.
The future promise is supposedly in pharmaceuticals and industrial products integrated in to food crops. As it will not be possible to segregate to the zero contamination required, it will not be possible to grow food crops in the same areas that these crops will be grown. If we are to believe the requirement for maintaining the worlds capacity to feed itself, it is not a wise direction to replace food crops in this way.
The misleading propaganda involved with promoting GM is nothing short of appalling. Australian farmers are told GM has far superior yields when there is no evidence and no reason to presume this. We are told that there will be a reduction in costs when the little information available reveals a significant increase in costs to all farmers. We are told there is no market risk when there is evidence that there is significant market risk for a range of our products. Again, the GM industry has been launching a concerted effort to discredit any alternative voice and quashing any adverse reports while refusing to submit the data required to support their claims.
2004 saw both Monsanto and Bayer Cropscience pull out of independent trials in Australia which indicates an unwillingness to pit their varieties against conventional varieties in a fair competition. Bayer Cropscience has continued to pursue their own trials through State exemptions and the Network of Concerned Farmers have been exposing the locations of these trials to ensure farmers are aware of the implications of contamination. Since Federal approval of GM canola included removing the Federal guarantee of a GM-free status, farmers now sign guarantees that our produce does not contain any GM products. Unless challenged, liability for economic loss (eg. market loss, declining land values etc ) falls to farmers for any contamination caused by trials. Accordingly, the Network of Concerned Farmers has commenced preparing a class action against those that cause economic loss.
Farm lobby groups:
More disappointingly, there is promotion of GM products by people in positions of trust that have a vested interest. Australian farmers join the GM industry (through Avcare) in funding "Agrifood Awareness". $100,000 year of our compulsory research and development levies are used to fund this group with the listed mandate "GMO's - guiding meaningful opinions". What this pro-GM organisation considers "meaningful" has certainly no relevence to the practical economics of farming, yet is the main organisation that feeds information to the farm lobby groups charged with making decisions.
Despite decisions and policies derived from the grassroots up that clearly indicate the concerns and need for risk management, industry leaders are promoting GM crops with little concern for those farmers that do not want to be impacted negatively by its introduction.
Even the Federal government recognises the need to protect existing markets and not impose on existing farm systems and yet our Federal Minister for Agriculture is vehemently opposing risk management.
Remove the GM patent and you will remove the drive to force GM on a reluctant population. We have the GM industry wanting to profit by patenting and controlling the source that all food is derived from, the scientists and research industry wanting to profit from the advantage of encouraging corporate investment to plant breeding, the governments wanting to back out of funding research and development (one of Australia's only subsidies) and supply chain participants wanting to profit by developing closed loop marketing systems and contractual agreements to lock farmers in to specific products, production methods and supply chains.
It seems to be ignored that farmers can not afford any increase in input costs or decrease in market access.
GM Experience to date:
In all fairness, we need to look at why the area of GM has increased globally.
Countries with primitive farming practices have been targetted by the GM industry to adopt modern production machinery and methods accompanied with the "package" of GM crops. This rapid transitional stage has been funded by corporate investment and government backing and has resulted in huge acreages being planted to GM crops causing a glut of production and subsequent dropping of worldwide prices. For advanced farmers with good management practices there is little benefit in adopting GM crops rather than convenience as GM crops alone will not improve yields or reduce input costs but for primitive farmers a coordinated approach of integrating modern practises has resulted in a quantum leap in returns.
Worldwide there has been a massive increase in plantings of GM Bt cotton due to GM cotton being adapted to produce a Bt pesticide to control the destructive and expensive to control bollworm but supply has increased without the accompanying demand. Australian farmers have adopted GM cotton but have seen yields remain constant (7-8/ha) and the average operating profit plummet from around $155 in 1995 to $60 in 2001. This is mainly due to the cotton price plummetting from 90 US cents per pound in 1995 to 52 cents per pound in 2001. Subsidies have been a major factor in influencing prices with the major production countries being paid around 20 US cents per pound in subsidies resulting in direct assistance between '99-2000 of $US 2,065 million to US farmers and $US 1,534 million to Chinese farmers. ICAC 2000 identified "The fact that in some major producing countries, one third to a half of the returns to cotton farmers are from government subsidies".
There has been a huge demand for soybean products due to the increased consumer requirement for meat and oils in historically less affluent countries. Soy offers a cheap, high protein alternative, particularly for stock feed. There is also an increased demand for soy in more developed countries in order to bulk up processed food with a cheap high protein filler (eg. chicken nuggets).
There has been over a 100% increase in soy production since 1990 which has met and exceeded this demand. In Argentina there has been massive land clearing projects and radical upheavals in the conventional farming areas resulting in GM soy becoming a monoculture. This overproduction of GM soy in underdeveloped countries such as Argentina and Brazil has caused the price to drop.
Subsequently, US taxpayers paid $1.6b in subsidies to soy growers last year as there is a government agreement to compensate farmers if the price falls below $5.80 per bushel.
Worldwide, farmers have seen the reduction in canola prices due to canola being hedged on the soy market which despite increased demand has caused a production glut and a decline in prices for both soy and canola. One of our major export markets, China is importing huge amounts of soybeans as a cheaper oil alternative to the more expensive canola.
Canada has widely adopted GM canola as it allows farmers to crop an easy to manage quick growing crop which is essential as their growing season is 3 months shorter. Despite this and the fact that Monsanto is buying up the main seed companies and there are now over 70 GM varieties offered, PG economics showed 32% of canola grown is still grown to non-GM varieties.
Russia is in the process of adopting modern technology and for the first time are proposing to grow massive areas of GM canola on their extremely rich topsoils. The short-season canola varieties produced in Canada will be ideal for Russian farmers to avoid the frost that is affecting their longer season grain crops and will certainly create a massive canola surplus when canola is harvested.
Australian farmers have convenient non-GM alternatives and have kept abreast with the advances in farming technology but we will have difficulty competing with heavily subsidised countries as the commodity price continues to fall. Differentiating our product to cater to consumer non-GM demands will allow greater market access and possibly premium prices.
"Everybody else is growing it" should be a reason to avoid GM crops, not embrace it.
Unlike our competitors, Australian growers do not receive subsidies for commodity price fluctuations. Unless reform is instigated globally to eliminate subsidies and level the playing field, the canola price will continue to fall with overproduction of both soy and canola and Australian farmers will need a market edge to sell our products with premiums in order to maintain viability.
As Australian farmers currently do not grow GM canola commercially, Australian farmers can market unhindered on the guaranteed GM-free market and are currently not faced with the expensive segregation systems required to segregate a non-GM food crop product. Unlike cotton, there is a consumer preference for non-GM food crops. To maintain viability, Australian farmers need to maintain the ability to market "Non-GM" without the additional costs incurred by those countries where consumer rejection occurred after it was too late to implement adequate containment measures. The most logical way to achieve this is to ensure the GM industry is responsible for containing their product and are liable for any economic loss caused by the introduction of their product.
Farmers are constantly told we will be left behind" but we are not being offered anything that can not be achieved with non-GM biotechnology.
There are many high yielding non-GM chemical resistant canola alternatives and continued research and development in non-GM biotechnology will ensure Australian farmers are well placed to compete globally. For example, glyphosate resistant canola is an easy alternative for those farmers that have not adopted good farming practices but it should not be too difficult to produce Non-GM glyphosate tolerant canola using conventional plant breeding techniques as weeds are developing unwanted resistance to glyphosate now.
There is concern that there is concerted efforts to remove the rights for farmers to replant our own seeds and remove unpatented non-GM varieties from the market which will remove farmers ability to avoid growing GM crops.
Australian farmers invest around $168m/yr in GRDC in compulsory levies to research and development, farmers also pay a significant research royalty for new seed, a hefty collection fee to the license holder and an increasing end-point royalty when delivering the seed produced from the new variety. To maintain viability, farmers need to reduce input costs and rather than encouraging corporate investment in to plant breeding, farmers should stake a claim in the intellectual property they fund.
The Network of Concerned Farmers would like to wish all people involved in this debate (pro-GM, anti-GM and those in between) a very Merry Christmas and a New Year that will maintain farmers ability to market the uncontaminated non-GM products they prefer at a price they can afford. We genuinely hope 2005 will bring more open and transparent debate resulting in the implementation of fair risk management.
Network of Concerned Farmers