WA farmers are playing catch-up in canola while the rest of their sector remains GM free.
THE state government’s move last week to allow Western Australian farmers to grow genetically modified canola appears to be more of an incremental step in the region’s grain industry than the revolutionary change opponents have claimed.
Welcomed by mainstream agriculture, the announcement last week by Agriculture Minister Terry Redman to exempt canola from the Genetically Modified Crops Free Areas Act 2003 has been greeted with howls of protest from opponents of GM foods.
A key argument of opponents is that WA will lose its clean, green image by tainting itself with commercial GM canola production.
“This is not something that can be reversed when it all goes wrong – the effects of this decision will be felt for generations to come,” Labor’s agriculture spokesman Mick Murray said.
But mainstream industry seems dismissive of this argument, pointing out that global trade in canola is now dominated by GM products with only pockets of resistance that are unwilling to pay a premium for GM-free varieties.
Both of the big farmer organisations, WAFarmers and the Pastoralists & Graziers Association, support the move because it offers farmers the choice to adopt new technology, which is expected to significantly increase yields and reduce chemical usage. Bulk handler CBH Group is also onside, in as much as it claims it can keep the GM grain segregated from GM-free versions.
Even local processors with a non-GM focus appear comfortable with the decision.
The nature of canola has been the big driver for the plant to be at the cutting edge of GM crop growth globally.
Because the GM element of the canola is in the cell wall of the seed, the main end product – oil – contains no trace of the modified part of the plant. The ‘meal’ by-product resulting from oil production is mainly used for animal feed.
As a result, much of the world’s GM and GM-free canola crops are now mixed together. That is particularly the case in the dominant export nation of Canada.
Apart from those fanatically opposed to GM exposure at even the trace level, the real risk of contamination appears to lie in cropping, with small risks of cross-pollination where both canola versions are grown side by side.
Cross-pollination is not just about GM-free status. It could also result in a small level of seed corruption because GM crops are bred to resist glyphosate pesticide, including seed developer Monsanto’s Roundup, while non-GM crops tend to have naturally bred resistance to another pesticide, triazine.
Specialist growers have also warned they will seek compensation if any lose their organic accreditation because of neighbouring GM crops.
Another source of angst is the potential for pesticide resistance to occur in weeds as a result of exclusive use of glyphosate on GM crops that tolerate it.
A more commercial issue is the monopoly of multi-national player Monsanto, which holds the intellectual property rights for both the canola seeds and the main pesticide, Roundup, to which they have genetically modified resistance.
There is also the additional paperwork and administration due to both the strict licensing of GM varieties and the controls placed on growers by the government.
But some argue the positives outweigh the perceived negatives.
In its recommendation to lift the moratorium on the commercial production of canola from GM, the Department of Agriculture reported the commercial benefits outweigh the downsides.
“One grower noted the additional paper work required in working with Roundup Ready varieties – arising both from the trial being carried out under an exemption order and the licensing requirements of the technology – but considered this to be more than compensated by excellent weed control, simplicity of management and higher yield and oil content,” the report stated.
“Another noted the additional work involved in cleaning of harvesting equipment, but again considered this as ‘… worth it for the extra gains’.”
Industry players believe the state government’s announcement will have a big impact on the sector immediately.
About 650,000 hectares of canola were planted in 2009, producing a crop of 930,000 tonnes, almost 95 per cent of which was exported for an estimated $536 million. Of this, just 1,200t of GM canola was produced in a strictly controlled, commercial trial with 17 farmers.
Canola Breeders WA research director Wallace Cowling estimates the area devoted to canola production in 2010 will increase 10 per cent, with GM accounting for a big proportion of that.
Mr Cowling believes the introduction of GM versions will make canola more attractive for farmers seeking viable rotation crops to help diversify their income and remove the disease risks of monoculture.
“More canola is good for the long-term sustainability of agriculture,” he said.
Mr Cowling believes the very quick take-up of GM by farmers will only be limited by accessibility to seeds in the first year, with canola farming proving to be a big stimulus for farming sector growth in Canada in recent years.
He added new non-GM triazine-tolerant seeds will also attract interest for those seeking to diversify their canola production.
A joint venture between WA growers group COGGO and the federal government’s GRDC, with two junior partners in the University of WA and Germany’s NPZ, Canola Breeders is the only WA-based player of the four national GM seed breeders licensed by Monsanto.
CBH canola marketing manager Rob Dickie played down the impact of the changes on GM-free markets.
Mr Dickie said there was limited demand for non-GM canola, mainly from niche markets in countries like Japan, which he believed could be safely supplied from WA.
He said there were consumer cooperatives that insisted on non-GM food across the board, but they did not pay any significant premium for it.
PGA spokesman Rick Wilson welcomed the move but said the exemption for canola was not enough to provide certainty for the industry and legislation banning GM crops across WA ought to be repealed.
“This year-by-year moratorium will not encourage investment in this technology,” Mr Wilson said.
It was a view shared by Kojonup-based canola processor Aus-Oils, even though the business planned to remain primarily focused on non-GM oilseed processing.
In his September submission to a review of the GM Crops Free Areas Act 2003, Aus-Oils director Jonathan Slee said the industry had the capacity to manage itself effectively without the costly intervention of bureaucracy.
“Aus-Oils believes the act needs to be removed so that industry can see there is a clear path to market for the development of new GM traits for all crops,” Mr Slee wrote.
“With this uncertainty around the future of GM crop production in the major grain producing state in Australia many companies will focus their research and investment dollars into traits and regions where they can see a clear path to market.
“This will only reduce our global competitiveness in oilseed production.”