Admit there's something in the genes

Bookmark and Share | Louise Staley
Herald Sun 2nd June, 2007

Biotechnology should be one of Victoria's great successes. The state garners more than 40 per cent of medical research grants and is home to 141 biotech companies.

Premier Steve Bracks and his Treasurer, John Brumby have been active overseas and at home spruiking biotech.

Victoria can't boast the natural advantages of Western Australia and Queensland; if the state is not to end up like South Australia, with sluggish growth, higher unemployment and lower living standards then it must develop new industries.

Victoria also has key strengths in the oldest industry on the planet: agriculture. By combining the old with the new, Victoria can be a global player in agricultural biotechnology.

But it is hard to be a biotech leader if commercialisation of the research is banned -- and that's the situation in Victoria for agricultural biotechnology, or Genetically Modified (GM) food.

It is therefore unremarkable that both Premier Bracks and Treasurer Brumby now favour an end to Victoria's ban on growing genetically modified canola.

It is more remarkable that the ban was ever there in the first place. The supposed grounds for the ban were that GM canola might harm agricultural exports.

But over the four years since the ban was introduced Victoria has imported large amounts of GM soybean meal and cottonseed oil from overseas and interstate.

Last year 57,000 tonnes of GM canola was imported to Australia. This GM soy, cottonseed oil and canola regularly turns up in Victorians' food, without problem. Bread, oil used in fish and chips, doughnuts, cake icing and many other products contain GM ingredients.

M OREOVER, the livestock industries such as dairy, poultry, beef and pork all make extensive use of feedstock containing GM material.

The ban on growing GM canola in Victoria certainly hasn't stopped imported GM crops being used extensively in Victorian food, including food for export.

If evidence was needed that GM canola is accepted into international markets just like the conventional product, one need go no further than Japan. Japan is the largest importer of canola in the world and Australia's biggest market. More than 85 per cent of canola imported into Japan is GM from Canada. Research studies have shown conventional and GM canola trade at the same price.

Clearly Australia's biggest export market sees no difference between GM and conventional canola.

European markets are often wrongly cited as closed to GM crops. The European Union imports vast amounts of GM soybeans from the United States for use in animal feed.

It seems silly to allow Victorians to eat imported GM canola and other GM plants but ban it from being grown here; all that does is disadvantage Victorian farmers. No wonder the major farming group, the Victorian Farmers Federation, is calling for the ban to end.

Victoria is not GM free now; it is not even GM canola free. It is time the state's farmers and scientists were allowed to get on with developing both the agricultural and biotechnology industries so vital to Victoria's future.