GM canola teases its grower hosts

Image of Ground Cover Issue 59 Southern region cover

[Photo (left) by Brad Collis: Greg Petrass, feeling "pretty envious" about the GM canola on his farm that he can only observe]

Standing waist-deep in a lush crop of canola, Greg and Brian Petrass would normally have every reason to be feeling pleased after the late start to the season that stopped most growers in north-west Victoria from putting in a canola crop this year.

In mid-September, when the photograph above was taken, the crop was flourishing. The only catch for Greg and Brian, who farm 2500 hectares of mostly cereals and pulses near Horsham, is that while this particular crop is on their land, it is not theirs. It is one of Bayer CropScience"s GM trials - the subject of intense debate as anti-GM groups continue to pressure governments to stop GM food crops being part of Australian agriculture. Opposition arises from claims that there are health and market risks and from philosophical objections.

The frustration for growers who host GM canola trials, like the Petrass brothers, is that difficult seasons like 2005 show up an increasingly stark contrast between the performance of their conventional varieties and GM hybrids. Bayer CropScience plant breeder David Pike says the company"s InVigor® hybrid canola is yielding 15 per cent higher than conventional varieties. Greg Petrass suggests the company is being coy, saying most growers involved with trials are seeing at least a 20 per cent gap in favour of the hybrids.

Growers like the Petrass brothers are pioneers in the GM quest, although they say they were motivated mainly by curiosity when they agreed to host GM trials in 1998. Neither expected that seven years later they would still be unable to grow GM varieties commercially.

The NSW Government has extended its bans to 2008 because no on-farm trials have been done in that state. The concern for many growers is the prospect of such trials happening is diminishing, as companies like Monsanto decide their research money is better spent elsewhere.

The frustration is particularly acute for the Petrass brothers and other growers, because they see first-hand the opportunities which they fear are slipping away.