Trials on trial

By Alec Nicol

One of the key emerging issues for growers is the role of crop trials by private plant breeders and the extent to which the data is made freely available to them, and to the industry generally.

It was company trials of GM canola, for example, that attracted much of the GM debate and grower unease. Growers have made it clear they want the arguments for and against gene modification to be based on data from realistic, replicated, transparent and independently evaluated trials.

One of the most vocal anti-GM campaigners, Julie McFarlane of the Network of Concerned Farmers, had little faith in company-run trials with GM canola because she says the data was never disclosed: "There"s been seven or eight years of trials and we still know nothing. It makes me nervous. It makes me ask, why not?"

Mrs McFarlane says that like any farmer she wants the agronomic, economic, environmental and marketing information, but she also wants to know about issues such as increased liabilities that could accompany the new technology.

"Our customers are concerned about issues of food security. There are neighbours to be concerned about. What happens if I grow a GM crop and there"s gene leakage over the fence? Am I responsible? What about the harvesting contractor who can"t guarantee a 100 percent clean down?"

The chairman of the NSW Farmers Association Biotechnology Taskforce, Hugh Roberts, has similar concerns: "I don"t grow crops where I don"t know the results of trial work," he says. "If we"re talking about GM canola I need to see trials comparing Roundup Ready® canola and the associated technology, compared with Invigor® canola and its associated technology, and other existing varieties.

"It"s a complicated issue. The trials have to be replicated, the companies must make a contribution to the costs, and they must be open to the public. I should be able to climb over the fence and compare for myself." That personal, or at least trusted, independent evaluation goes to the heart of the GM issue for many growers.

"There was a time when before a variety was released we"d seen it 20 times at field days," says the chairman of the NSW Agricultural Advisory Council on Gene Technology, Professor Timothy Reeves. "Before it was released, farmers would have a good idea of the associated agronomic benefits and there"d also be information about its market potential."

While organisations like agriculture departments could be obvious contenders for the role of independent assessor, Professor Reeves says there are people who would challenge that independence, just as they would of any private company that was managing trials. "If for example any one of these (public) bodies has been associated with private industry trials in the past, somebody would question their independence."

And while information for producers and marketers is still the primary role of trials, Professor Reeves warns that there is a wider community interest. Like Julie McFarlane and Hugh Roberts, he acknowledges the neighbours" right to be concerned in farming decisions, as well as local government and the wider community.

"While the parameters of any trials should be set by farmers, companies and agronomists, there are shires and municipalities with GM issues in their environmental plans and they need to be consulted.

"Trials won"t address all of the philosophical concerns, but I think that most people are reasonable enough to see, for example, a 20 percent increase in yield and reduced use of herbicides and say, "I don"t agree with the technology but I can see the benefits". But we don"t have that information at the moment."

Julie McFarlane lists information on herbicide resistance, disease pressures and the impact on soil biota, resulting from the adoption of GM technology, as essential information. "I am keen to be innovative, but farming is about risk management. We"re already managing the risk of the weather and the market; we don"t need to take on a third gamble."

She believes that small agronomic trials are essential before the industry moves to the larger trials needed to test the supply chain and validation systems. However, Hugh Roberts warns about being too timid: "Yes, there have to be white peg trial plots, but say within three years, based on the information provided by those trials, farmers want to grow these crops.

"We"ve got to have enough to test the delivery system and to give a marketer enough for a shipment. Realistically we need 3000 tonnes. That"s the hold of a ship. It"s the amount of barley that maltsters need to test a variety to rate its value as a malt variety."

So, what about the marketplace? Looking past the issue of GM canola, there is much talk about the potential of gene technology to produce a new generation of grains-based pharmaceuticals.

AWB Ltd"s manager for quality and hygiene, Gerard McMullen, says this is still down the track. "Currently there"s no movement in the market for them," he says. "But our technical milling people are telling us that at some stage in the next couple of years there will be opportunities.

"At present the emphasis seems to be on food safety and quality, with all of our international customers calling for an independently verifiable system that will go all the way back down the line, perhaps as far as the individual farmer."

Mr McMullen says AWB is watching how the new European legislation on food safety will be interpreted by some of the company"s customers.

In the meantime, the debate continues. Hugh Roberts defines the popular debate as, "low standard, sensationalised and lacking in fact". Conversely, he sees the level of academic debate as perhaps a bit too "boffinish".

Julie McFarlane is waiting to be convinced. "I"m not anti the technology per se," she says. "But neither am I convinced that it"s the best way to go. I"m concerned about breeding monopolies.

"They"re running a business ... and I want to know if their business will help mine, and if not, can I choose to remain GM free."