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Biotech companies cut back GM trials

GENETICALLY modified crop research has been scaled back in WA to a fraction of the area trialled during the 2000 season.

One of the companies holding tests of new GM canola varieties, Aventis, has completely withdrawn from such work in WA while its major competitor, Monsanto, has consolidated research into one site.

Canola, considered the GM crop most likely to be adopted in the near future by WA farmers if it is accepted in the marketplace, has been the subject of the most advanced research in the State.

As leaders in the research field, both companies deny hysteria over GM crops in WA has prompted the changes or that WA would fall behind other areas.

But there are those in the world of agriculture who believe any reduction in trials could prove costly to the State’s farmers – with estimates that GM canola already was earning Canadian farmers at least $50 a hectare more than other varieties.

Canola is WA’s fourth biggest crop, but output has slowed as farmers have halved their plantings of the oilseed crop in the past two years.

Opposition to GM crop trials has been significant in WA and both Federal and State Government action has come too late to change decisions made for the current winter growing season.

New federal regulations are set come into force in three weeks, while the WA Government released its interim policy last week, adopting a cautious approach to introduction of GM crop varieties.

Keith Alcock, director of the crop improvement institute at Agriculture WA, said that the big research houses had grown tired of opposition in WA, particularly the damaging publicity that often came from it.

Mr Alcock said that WA shires banning GM research made headlines around the world, whereas the eastern states were more tolerant of development work in the controversial area.

“I can certainly attest that there has been a withdrawal,” he said.

“There is basically no development work going on in WA this year because of the general scenario, because of adverse publicity.

“The multinationals have decided it is not worth fighting battles in WA.

“That sets us back in terms of picking up new varieties.”

But neither Aventis nor Monsanto directly blame the anti-GM climate in WA for their decisions. Instead, they say the changes are purely commercial.

Monsanto public relations manager Brian Arnst said that, largely due to regulatory needs, GM research had been consolidated to five key sites around Australia, and work in WA had simply followed that trend, with several trials being undertaken on just one central site in the State.

“It is fair to say our program is not as big as we planned, however our commercialisation date for this technology was 2003 and it continues to be 2003,” Mr Arnst said. “We basically have most of the data we need.”

Aventis public affairs manager Naomi Stevens said her company had stopped trials in WA but that would not affect variety development or its availability to the State’s farmers in the future.

Ms Stevens said one of the key reasons for the decision to stop work in WA was the cost of outsourcing the research, particularly the need to monitor and manage remote test sites for three years after the trial were completed.

“There may be a small number of sites spread over a large area,” she said.

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