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7-Business: Shall Australia plant GM crops when Japan goes GM-free?



-------------------------- GENET-news ---------------------------

TITLE:  Australia: Farmers face tough choices on gene-altered
        crops
SOURCE: COMTEX Newswire, by Jackie Woods
DATE:   January 3, 2000

----------------- archive: http://www.gene.ch/ ------------------


Australia: Farmers face tough choices on gene-altered crops

SYDNEY -- Disease-resistant wheat, seedless oranges, vitamin
boosted rice and potatoes that do not go brown are just some of a
raft of gene-altered crops currently being field-tested by
scientists hoping to boost the yield and quality of Australia's
agricultural produce. But farmers are divided over the benefits
of embracing gene technology, with some in the industry warning
the move could have catastrophic effects on the country's exports
as public opinion in key markets, including Japan, turns against
genetically modified (GM) food. Currently, insect-resistant
cotton is the only GM crop approved for widespread commercial
cultivation in Australia. Dozens of other crops have been tested,
and the government's Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee is
expecting an application for the general release of modified
canola in early 2000, said Andina Farragher, a secretary of the
committee.

The federal government has expressed broad support for the
research and development of gene technology. According to
Agriculture Minister Warren Truss, while the government is
concerned about the level of public opposition to GM food,
embracing the technology will have enormous benefits for
Australia's agricultural sector. "There is a terrific potential
for Australian farmers in environmental terms and productivity
levels," a spokesman for Truss said. "Our concern is Australia
could be left behind (in the gene technology race) and other
countries produce higher yields or better products."

But Douglas Shears, chairman of ICM Agribusiness, Australia's
largest group of agricultural companies, says Australia's 22
billion Australian dollar agricultural sector risks jeopardizing
its "clean, natural" image overseas if it goes down the GM path.
"Here we are in the situation where Japan and Europe are telling
us they don't want (modified products) in the food chain. We
should be listening to them. The advent of genetically engineered
farming has the potential of wiping out an economic advantage,"
he said. Shears has called on the government to impose a
moratorium on the use of GM crops until their effects are fully
examined. "I don't know what the long-term effects of this
technology will be on our agriculture, on our farms, on our
ecosystems. Nor does it seem anyone else," he said.

Scott Kinnear, a spokesman for the Organic Federation of
Australia, which represents 2,000 organic farmers, predicts a
catastrophic outcome for Australia's agricultural sector if GM
crops are widely cultivated. "It's a very, very hot subject. It's
fraught with risk," he said. "There is a risk that contamination
will be discovered in genetically modified crops and Australia's
reputation will be damaged. The whole thing will crash, because
consumers will reject it." Not only will GM crops be hard to
sell, said Kinnear, but farmers face other dangers, including
falling land values as traces of GM crops can not be removed from
land and have the potential to contaminate vast areas.

"We find it difficult to understand why the government doesn't
realize this. They have the attitude that we just have to educate
consumers, but the more consumers are educated the more they are
opposed (to GM crops)," he said. Stephen Prowse, executive
officer of the industry body Agrifood Alliance Australia (AAA),
said there was a very high level of debate among farmers over the
benefits of GM crops, and it was difficult to ascertain to what
extent farmers would embrace the technology. "There's no doubt
farmers are very concerned," he said. "About 80% of our produce
is exported, so they are very concerned that if they grow
(modified crops) it will limit the number of markets they can
export to."

An AAA survey released in December showed 55% of Australian
farmers thought the benefits of producing GM food partially
outweighed the risks, 12% thought the benefits definitely
outweighed the risks, and 32% thought the risks outweighed the
benefits. One of the major risks identified by farmers was market
acceptance of GM food.

Prowse said speculation that Australian GM crops would be
rejected by Japanese consumers was misleading, as Japan was
already the largest importer of genetically modified canola.
"Japan has been cited (as a major source of opposition to GM
food), again that's not correct. Japan is maneuvering to leverage
the best prices. They will use GM and non-GM to obtain the best
possible price," he said.

But Setsuko Yasudo, director of the Japanese Consumer Union, has
warned Australian farmers the consumer backlash against GM food
in Japan will continue to grow. In November, she attended a
seminar in Melbourne that examined the issues faced by Australian
farmers in moving to GM farming. "My very clear message for
Australian farmers is do not produce genetically modified foods,"
she told her audience. "You simply will not sell it in Japan." 


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