AUS – FARMERS MUST SPEAK UP
1 November 2014
AGRICULTURAL Biotechnology Council of Australia (ABCA) chair Ken Matthews says some Australian governments are “gutless” when it comes to giving farmers access to genetically modified (GM) crops.
The former secretary of both the agriculture and transport departments made the no-nonsense observation in a detailed outline of global and domestic attitudes on biotechnology at the National Farmers’ Federation Congress in Canberra last week.
Mr Matthews summed up by saying Australia suffers from not having a more objective, science-based discussion about agricultural biotechnology.
“It’s really important that Australia has practicing farmers speak up for agricultural biotechnology because it’s practicing farmers that will be persuasive.”
The ongoing anti-GM campaign is one of the “big risks” facing the technology’s development, he said.
“There is a great suspicion of science and scientists in public debate in Australia and there has been a very effective campaign by NGOs (non-government organisations) which has influenced public opinion.
“As a result, what worries me is that environmentally responsible farmers – who tend in many other areas to be leaders of farm opinion – can often be ambivalent about GM.
“The pro-GM constituency among farmers is therefore not as strong as it could be in Australia.”
Governments need to lead
Mr Matthews said attitudes held by the general public, consumers, environmentalists and media were also central problems in the GM debate.
But his strongest criticism was reserved for various governments that refuse to allow GM crops to be cultivated, despite overwhelming scientific evidence.
“Some governments in Australia are – and I use this word carefully – gutless,” he said.
“There are total bans on GM in South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT,” he said.
“There are moratoriums in WA and NSW but there are certainly exemptions for that. In my view they (total bans) aren’t rationally based; they aren’t properly founded in science.
Need to build trust
Mr Matthews said Australia grew GM canola and GM cotton and had great strengths in the area, with a world class regulatory system and plant breeding expertise.
But he said a three-part plan was needed to help overcome the slow progress of biotechnology development.
He said a constituency of biotechnology supporters was needed to build understanding of the potential benefits to farmers, consumers, the environment and society as a whole.
“We need to build community confidence and trust in Australia’s regulatory arrangements,” he said.
“We do need to be respectful of ethical concerns about biotechnology, but at the same time we need to give voice to the beneficiaries, and I think of those kids in Africa.
“When people are talking grandly about ethical concerns about biotechnology I worry about starving kids in Africa.
“We need to focus research more on benefits to consumers, to the environment, to society and we need to find some champions.”