11/02/2010 - 00:00

GM ‘debate’ highlights city-rural disconnect

11/02/2010 - 00:00


Save articles for future reference.

Too much passion and too few facts dominate discussion over GM crops.

THE so-called consensus science is really a conspiracy, in which opposition voices are suppressed. We don’t need a radical change to what we are doing now, especially as modern technology is unproved. If we do want to change, we ought to wait to see if existing science stands the test of time.

These lines represent the views of a typical climate sceptic, right? One of those dinosaurs who isn’t convinced that man is on the verge of destroying the planet?

Wrong. This is the set of arguments put up in opposition to genetically modified food.

I find it strangely disconcerting to see the familiar language of climate change alarmists completely reversed when the discussion turns to GM food. That is especially the case when it is the same people – conservationists and urbanites who have become disconnected from the means of production in any form – who most strongly hold these views.

Having just published a piece that was largely positive regarding the state government’s decision to allow GM canola to be grown commercially, it is becoming clearer to me how passionate opposition to anything can become a faith-based mantra.

Take for instance the 424 submissions to a recent review of the GM Crops Free Areas Act 2003.

As Labor’s agriculture spokesman Mick Murray pointed out in a statement released after the state government exempted canola from laws banning GM crops, almost 90 per cent of those submissions opposed their introduction.

The problem I have with this is two-fold.

Firstly, even though we live in a democracy, there are big issues when the urban majority keeps telling the rural community how to mind its business for no good reason.

Secondly, if they are going to do so, they ought to at least make an effort to find out what they are talking about.

Before I examine those two issues, let’s just examine the submissions Mr Murray’s comments were based on.

At first glance, I’d say a political leader ought to be reflective of voters in a democracy; but which voters and in which democracy?

Just looking at the addresses provided by those making submissions, more than 10 per cent came from the eastern states and at least 12 came from overseas.

That is not taking into account the 90 submissions, more than 21 per cent, which did not have an address on the link provided by the Agriculture Department. A deeper reading of a small sample of these showed many also came from the eastern states or overseas. Some simply defied my ability to determine their origin.

Of the rest of the submissions, I loosely divided them into the following categories: 110 from the Perth metropolitan area; 23 from the Perth Hills; 49 from the South West, predominantly Margaret River and Denmark; and approximately 45 came from what seemed to be legitimate associations or commercial entities.

Just 28 submissions came from what I viewed as the Wheatbelt, or at least areas that in my best judgement were where canola might be grown.

Therefore, from what I could tell, the majority of the people making submissions to this important review were not residents in an area where these crops would be grown. In other words, they had no direct commercial interest in the outcome.

While I totally respect people’s right to want GM-free food, I don’t believe they have a right to dictate what a farmer grows. I like blueberries but I shouldn’t be able to demand that politicians make farmers grow them.

With respect to canola, 95 per cent of our production is exported. Furthermore, there is no premium price either here or offshore for GM-free canola, even though it is ultimately more expensive to produce. If people here or elsewhere want to treat their bodies as non-GM temples, then they should pay for that, not expect the farmer to.

The scientists and industry believe that GM crops can be segregated safely. The science also shows that GM poses no known danger to humans.

Fair enough if people doubt that. I have no issue with doubting scientific consensus. But if you feel so strongly, whether you are local, interstate or overseas, use your market power to make your point.

Demand adequate labelling if that is the issue but don’t keep farmers in the last century with template views cut and paste from a convenient website.

And that brings me to my second point. A vast number of the submissions were thematically the same, with many of them resembling a version which appeared on a website established by the True Food Network. You can guess which side of the argument that organisation is on.

In this day and age, with vast resources at our fingertips and so much of the population having been educated at university, we could easily feel smugly confident about our self-awareness. But are we any better at forming our own opinion than the people of yesteryear?

Cookie cutter views from the internet don’t give me that impression, especially when they are often wrong.

Japan, for instance, is not a major market for GM-free canola, no matter how many times a cut and paste from the internet might say so. Just ask the experts.

Given the government opted to allow GM canola to be grown, I can only presume it managed to wade through this repetitive garbage to find the proper submissions – both for and against – which put forward properly researched arguments.

Governments need to be aware of how people feel about sensitive subjects, but when it comes to reviews of legislation these are not referendums.

If people don’t want GM they can vote out the government, but I’d suggest consumers in Perth might start by getting better labelling laws so that they can see what they are eating rather than try to put a blanket ban on technology adoption for our state’s farmers just to suit their own faith-based foibles.

Oh, and why don’t they tell the farmers they’ll pay more for GM-free? That is a message the rural community might like to hear from the city folk.



Subscription Options