Grains Research and Development

Date: 01.10.2004

A grower on the sidelines

Murray Gmeiner

West Australian grower and Nuffield Scholar Murray Gmeiner (left) offers an interested bystander"s view of the GM debate.

The debate on genetically modified (GM) crops is a difficult topic to approach, and will remain so until the emotion is set aside so the debate can progress in a scientific and unbiased manner. The anecdote I use is that for every 10 farmers, two will have very strong views on GM crops - one vehemently opposed to the introduction of the crop and the other angry that they are not allowed to adopt the technology.

They argue fiercely with each other when they should instead be informing the other eight.

The arguments often get lost in statistics - both sides even using the same statistics and reports in their own way - leaving the majority confused, and then uninterested. This achieves little and leaves a "no result" when what we need is better informed food-producing farmers and consuming public.

Another point in the GM debate is that not many people seem to separate the issue of genetically modified crops in general and the current herbicide-tolerant GM crops that are being offered.

These are separate issues that need to be debated accordingly because the development of crops that offer benefits to consumers might help to allay many of the fears about genetically modified foods.

The currently proposed GM crops are herbicide-tolerant so that multinational companies that own the technology can get a faster return on their investment. A huge amount of money has been invested in this technology to bring it this far and the companies are looking for returns.

If the crop is tolerant to their herbicide then that company can sell you both the seed and the herbicide. This is not deriding the companies; it"s just a business reality.

However, here we have a situation in which farmers are the consumers, and as consumers we are exercising our right to decide what we want.

On the production side of our businesses, we are already putting in place more and more segregations, quality assurance and generally difficult (but essential) management techniques to supply the products that our consumers demand.

The offer of GM crops such as herbicide-resistant canola is one of the rare times when we can decide what, when and if, we require such an option. Perhaps this is why we are fumbling with the decision?

It is certainly why acknowledging the difference between genetically modified crops per se and herbicide tolerant crops specifically, is so important.

Is the current argument really about gene modification technology, or is it about a new herbicide-tolerant crop, because if it was a GM crop with clear consumer benefits, such as providing a cholesterol-lowering bread, it is hard to imagine the debate would be anywhere near as divisive as it has been.