Australian wheat farmers may soon have no choice but to grow genetically modified seed, say anti-GM campaigners concerned by wheat giant Monsanto’s move into the local industry. And while industry group WA Farmers welcome the move, they also acknowledge that there must be some kind of guarantee that the “interests of Australia’s growers are going to be taken into account.”

Monsanto — one the world’s biggest owners of genetically modified wheat crops — recently purchased a 19.9% stake in one of Australia’s largest wheat breeding companies, InterGrain. InterGrain — whose majority shareholder is the West Australian government — said at the time that the partnership was an “exciting development” for wheat farmers and that it would “open the doors” to increased technological capacity.

Alan Hill, director of policy at industry group WA Farmers, said that his organisation was expecting the Monsanto/InterGrain partnership to bring a greater number of seed varieties to wheat growers.

“We’re particularly interested in the opportunities that it brings for growers,” Hill told Crikey. “Both parties have access to a lot of genetic material in terms of germplasm and we’re hopeful that what it does bring is a broader range of varieties to the farmer.”

Earlier this year, the Australian Office of the Gene Technology Regulator approved over 1,300 lines of genetically modified wheat for field trials across the nation. The trials — which are set to take place in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia — seek to test genetically modified wheat for nutrient utilisation, abiotic stress tolerance and carbon assimilation in drought.

Similar tests have already been conducted in Victoria, while the CSIRO is currently undertaking a trial in NSW. There are six GM commodities currently approved for the food supply in Australia — soybean, corn, cotton, canola, potato, and sugar beet. Two of these, cotton and canola, are grown commercially in Australia.

According to Claire Parfitt, an anti-GM campaigner for Greenpeace, Monsanto’s move into the Australian wheat market is a “key stepping stone” in its global GM plans. Monsanto recently re-launched its global strategy to develop genetically modified wheat, more than five years after its application to grow “Round Up Ready” wheat was shelved after objections from farmers, exporters and buyers.

“Australia is one of the biggest wheat producers in the world,” Parfitt told Crikey. “And unlike the EU, Russia and Canada, Monsanto has found our political system to be receptive to being a GM wheat-testing ground.”

Mike Jones, a professor of agricultural bio-technology at Murdoch University and long-time supporter of GM technology, recently told ABC radio that the Monsanto move would not mean farmers would be forced into buying GM seed.

“If it (InterGrain) goes into GM, then they would have the choice of GM or not GM. Every farm is a business and they might try it once. If it didn’t work for them, they don’t have to buy it, if it works for them they will go ahead and use it.”

Paula Fitzgerald, executive director at Agrifood Awareness Australia, agreed, telling Crikey that it was unlikely the Monsanto play would mean an imminent move to GM wheat. She said that major agricultural companies were already teaming up with research agencies — earlier this year Bayer CropScience announced a collaboration with the CSIRO — and that Monsanto had a long history of working with local growers.

“My view is that initially this alliance will see conventional seed coming to growers,” Fitzgerald told Crikey. “I think over time we will see a move to GM varieties, but if that comes before seven years I will be very surprised.”

But Claire Parfitt says that Australian wheat crops were being offered up as a “giant genetic experiment” and it would be impossible to contain the cultivation of GM crops, leading to a wheat GM monoculture.

“Once a GM seed is propagated across Australia, it is virtually impossible to go back,” Parfitt told Crikey. “Monocultures are less robust, and without diversity in Australian wheat seeds, the crop will be more susceptible to disease, pests and the increasing impacts of climate change.”

Parfitt pointed to a recent report in North Dakota, which found that 80% of wild canola plants tested had at least one genetically modified transgene. She also said that there were risks from allowing Monsanto to trial GM wheat in Australia, because the company would have a patent on any harvest which contained the genetically modified trait.

“Even if a farmer’s crop is unwillingly contaminated with Monsanto’s GM seed, the farmer is at the helm of the company,” Parfitt told Crikey. “A foreign chemical company would be in control of the cost of our bread at the store.”

Paula Fitzgerald told Crikey that the patenting of crops was becoming an issue, but that it was unreasonable to expect private investment in Australian crop breeding without some kind of return on that investment.

“If we are moving to a system where we have private investment in our crop breeding that can’t happen unless there is some kind of return on that investment.”

In expressing her concerns over the commercial harvesting of GM crops, Parfitt told Crikey that there was “scant evidence” to assure that widespread human consumption of GM food was safe.

“The companies that produce GM seeds control most of the research,” Parfitt told Crikey. “We are entering into unknown territory, and could potentially replant the nation with a crop entirely unsafe for human consumption.”

Fitzgerald responded by saying that GM crops were not a new technology and that Australia had one of the “most stringent regulatory systems in the world”:

“In terms of the risk factor I think we keep forgetting that GM crops aren’t new, they’ve been grown here for 14 years,” Fitzgerald told Crikey. “I think these products will be thoroughly assessed before they enter the marketplace.”

Parfitt said that the big issue was foreign ownership of the food industry and that the Gillard government had “a responsibility to defend our farmers and our food.”

“Giving control of our food supply and our staple foods to foreign corporations, like Monsanto, is a risk we can’t afford to take,” Parfitt told Crikey. “Food security requires food sovereignty — we must own our soil, our water, and our seeds.”

Alan Hill from WA Farmers said that foreign ownership was a big issue and that protecting local interests was critical in whatever direction the farming industry moves.

“In terms of Monsanto, we still have 75% Australian ownership which is quite strong,” Hill told Crikey. “But what we need is an absolute guarantee that the interests of Australia’s growers are going to be taken into account.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey