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6-Regulation: Australia readies for plunge into GM canola crop

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TITLE:  Australia readies for plunge into GM canola crop
SOURCE: Reuters, by Michael Byrnes
DATE:   Feb 28, 2003

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Australia readies for plunge into GM canola crop

SYDNEY - After years of torrid debate and official inquiries, global
chemical giants are targeting Australia to produce the country's first
genetically modified (GM) food crop in 2003.

Chemical groups led by German heavyweight Bayer CropScience believe they
will be given the go-ahead by Australian authorities just in time to sow
Australia's first GM canola crop for this winter's growing season.

This would decisively tip the world balance toward gene-altered
production of canola, a variety of rapeseed.

Canada, the world's largest exporter, grows GM canola. Australia, the
world's second-largest exporter, so far does not.

"We're still hopeful that we'll get a crop in the ground this year, with
all that (official assessment) process coming through, I guess, by June,"
said Naomi Stevens, public and government affairs officer at the
bioscience division of Bayer CropScience.

Australia's planting window for a winter oilseed canola crop runs from
around April 25 to around the end of June.

After years of deliberations, the federal government authority charged
with deciding whether a GM canola crop might be introduced, the Office of
the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR), is seen close to issuing a risk-
assessment report.

This would open the way for two months of public comment, just enough
time to plant a 2003 crop if approvals are granted.

Gene Technology Regulator Sue Meek last November "stopped the clock" on
applications by Bayer and its U.S. competitor Monsanto Co to introduce
commercial GM canola crops to Australia.

Meek postponed the timetable for release of the risk assessment until
early 2003, to allow the GM companies to further develop technology
stewardship and crop management documents.

The OGTR told Reuters it had not yet set a date for release of the
report, but GM companies believe the crunch-time is close.


Leading anti-GM activist Bob Phelps of GeneEthics Network told Reuters he
still hoped to persuade Meek to delay introduction of a commercial GM
canola crop for a year, and to hold field trials in 2003 instead.

Faced also with splits among farmers on gene-altered canola, the GM
companies are planning an extremely soft launch in Australia in 2003 - if
Meek gives the expected go-ahead.

Both Bayer and Monsanto plan to release enough GM seed to cover only
5,000 hectares (12,360 acres), a tiny fraction of the million hectares
(2.471 million acres) or more which is normally planted to canola in
Australia each year.

"It's certainly is not going to be an unlimited open-slather approach to
commercialisation," Stevens said. "We've been waiting to get the freedom
to operate to be able to demonstrate the varieties to farmers. Seeing is
believing for them."

Farmer meetings around Australia show that most growers are still
attempting to weigh the possible loss of some markets against
productivity gains.

Bayer is claiming a minimum 10 percent yield gain over any existing
variety for its InVigor canola hybrid, after a five-year programme in
Canada produced yield increases of over 20 percent.

But Network of Concerned Farmers, a concerned growers group, has said the
introduction of GM canola under protocols suggested by the GM companies'
Gene Technology Grains Committee (GTGC) would add 10 percent to farm gate

The group also describes a minimum five metre buffer zone between GM and
GM-free canola crops proposed by GTGC as "ludicrous", with contamination
possible within three kilometres.

A soft launch of GM canola in Australia would follow years of
controversy, including raids by anti-GM activists on trial crops and an
uproar in 2000 over how a "dumped" truckload of engineered canola plants
escaped official controls.