It’s no secret Monsanto wants to increase the 19.9% share it bought in WA’s crop-breeding company InterGrain last August. After the announcement, InterGrain’s CEO Brian Whan gleefully said InterGrain was “in bed” with Monsanto and proud of it.

Monsanto’s Peter O’Keefe said it was “part of its business model” to look towards increasing its share in InterGrain, citing global competition from other big biotech players as well as “strong competition for InterGrain on the varietal front in Australia” as reasons to do so.

Whan said the partnership meant InterGrain would have access to very sophisticated technology, and there would be significant improvements to Australian grain growers who could expect to see crop yields increase, with an estimated yield improvement of 2% per year. InterGrain wasted no time sending wheat breeders over to Monsanto’s headquarters in St Louis in the US last October to learn about implementing new strategies.

Whan said InterGrain had to partner with an international organisation in order to grow and expand the grains industry. However, this expansion did not include non-GM varieties, from which the best would be taken and crossed with GM biotechnology to make them viable for WA.

Whan said farmers who don’t want to embrace the GM technology can stay with the old varieties, although he found this idea hard to contemplate. “I don’t for one minute think a farmer’s going to reject a 10% yield improvement because it has a biotech trait,” he said.

Not everyone agrees that Monsanto’s investment in InterGrain is good for WA agriculture. The issues of choice and the negative impact on non-GM farming are at the forefront of concerns as InterGrain and Monsanto’s intention means taking the best (non GM) germplasm, and inserting a GM gene — restricting a non-GM choice.

Greens MLC Lynn McLaren told 3rd Degree: “The sale of 19.9% of InterGrain to Monsanto can only limit the types of plant breeding carried out by InterGrain and I consider this decision to be anti-competitive in nature.”

The lack of market for GM canola, and contamination issues and subsequent market loss, as experienced by Kojonup organic farmer Steve Marsh were reasons to call for new legislation, she said.

“The Greens are calling for Farmer Protection Legislation to protect non-GM farmers from economic losses caused by the introduction of GM crops.”

McLaren said if Monsanto wants to increase its share of InterGrain, which it has indicated it would like to, there is no requirement for this to be a parliamentary decision — “since InterGrain acts like a private company with the state government as a primary shareholder”.

“I believe this is wrong — InterGrain should be acting in the best interests of WA farmers, not those of multinational GM crop companies.”

McLaren told 3rd Degree she would ask in parliament how much money  the WA government makes from the sale of agricultural products.

InterGrain is one of several grain-breeding businesses that collect royalties through an end-point royalty system. Tresslyn Walmsley, commercial manager at InterGrain told 3rd Degree she could only speak in terms of wheat and barley, not for canola, and said there is a “fair indication that the royalties don’t exceed the operating costs of the business”.

“There are no royalties going back to the state government at the moment, though as a shareholder in InterGrain the state government receives its rights at the end of the day,” said Walmsley. “We’re in a transition to being fully commercial, where wheat and barley’s sole revenue source is end point royalties.”

Walmsley said InterGrain does not receive levies from the Grains and Research Development Corporation (GRDC). She praised GRDC’s end point royalties system, saying it was a “fundamental reason as to why we’re attracting international investment”.

*This article is the latest in a 10-part 3rd Degree investigative series into the GM industry in Western Australia and the links between the WA government and Monsanto

Peter Fray

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