There have been reviews of the last remaining state GM moratoriums in Australia carried out almost simultaneously in recent months. In South Australia the government has announced it will lift its GM ban, allowing for GM food crops to be grown on the mainland from next season while the ban remains in place for King Island.
In announcing the end of the moratorium, the Minister for Primary Industries and Regional Development Tim Whetstone said the independent Anderson Review found the policy had cost SA grain growers A$33 million since 2004, and if extended to 2025 would cost a further A$5 million, and deter investment in agricultural research and development. The review found the state’s grain growers did not achieve a premium for GM-free crops, and deserve a choice in what they can grow in the face of a more variable climate.
Meanwhile, in Tasmania the state government extended its moratorium on GM crops for another 10 years.
In contrast to the SA findings, the Department of Primary Industries in Tasmania found the benefits of the extended the GM ban far outweighed risks or benefits from ending it. The review considered 76 submissions, most of them in favour of keeping the GM moratorium in place. According to a statement from the State’s minister for trade Will Hodgman and minister for primary industries and water Guy Barnett, Tasmania’s exports markets actively demand products certified as GMO-free, with some products such as beef fetching an additional A$125 per animal.
Two reviews, two completely opposite outcomes. It could be argued that the type of products produced in Tasmania and Kangaroo Island as opposed to mainland South Australia perhaps lend themselves more to “clean and green” branding and the associated premiums that can be extracted in markets like Japan and the EU. These are markets that have a low tolerance for GM products – which may or may not represent a barrier to trade – but also offer some reward for suppliers that forgo the productivity benefits offered by a proven technology.
A recent report from an expert working group convened by the Australian Academy of Science once again highlighted the broad consensus that after 20 years of commercial use, GM technologies pose no greater risk to human health or the environment to similar products derived from traditional breeding.
However, the report also highlighted the fact that concerns amongst the community remain. The latest survey from the Office of Gene Technology regulator found just 13% of Australians support GM foods. If GM foods are regulated or have environmental or health benefit, support increases to just 50% of Australians.
The completely opposite and almost simultaneous decisions by state governments at first seem ridiculous, but then GM policy has never been black and white. It has certainly never just been about science, and at a time when even settled science – about the efficacy of vaccinations or the consensus on climate change – is still open for debate, the opposing policy outcomes are less surprising.
It does raise the question as to whether GM technologies will ever be recognised for what they actually are and what they can contribute in terms of sustainable food production. Will perceptions continue to rule this technology out as often as the science leads to acceptance.