The WA Department of Agriculture and Food’s new Merredin Research Centre is part of the state government’s $9 million New Genes for New Environments project and it’s developing genetically modified wheat and barley. Despite minister Terry Redman’s claims in a media release that the centre will put WA at the forefront of agricultural research, in parliament he echoed the concerns of two fellow Liberal Party members and admitted that not all countries currently importing Australian wheat would accept GM crops.
The Grain Growers Ltd Stakeholders’ Report 2011, called What the World Wants from Australian Wheat, summarised survey interviews with flour and stockfeed manufacturers in Australia and flour millers in south-east Asia, north Asia, the Middle East and Europe. All countries that import Australian wheat were involved in the survey. It concluded:
1. GM wheat would not be acceptable for the Australian, North Asian and European markets in the foreseeable future
2. Food security concerns may assist acceptance of GM wheat in South East Asia
3. It would be at least five years before GM wheat would be acceptable in the Middle East.
Two GM traits are being trialled on the Merredin property. One is co-funded by the CSIRO and the Grains Research and Development Corporation; the other trait is part of a research collaboration between CSIRO, the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics and Arcadia Biosciences, a US biotechnology company.
The Department of Agriculture and Food (DAFWA) said a Katanning facility will be completed for the 2012 growing season, providing two contrasting environments with varying rainfall, length of season and soil types from which to evaluate breeding material, in accordance with the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator’s strict standards.
A DAFWA spokesperson said: “The New Genes for New Environments facilities aim to ensure that GM technologies will be among the tools available to plant breeders to deliver climate resilient crop varieties, improved quality and improved consumer health benefits. The consequences of not investing in these new GM technologies at this time includes a reduction in future productivity gains, a decline in international competitiveness, less profitable farming systems, less viable regional farming communities, and fewer varieties.”
DAFWA said if the trials are approved and commercial varieties of these GM wheat and barley plants become available by 2017, each GM crop will require approval for sale in the market destinations before sales can be made.
“Grain growers will make decisions on which varieties to grow, whether they are GM or non-GM, based upon how well they match their farming needs and the ability to generate additional profit,” DAFWA said.
CSIRO would not confirm how much money has been invested by the federal government to date in the development of the GM crops.
Peter Abetz, Liberal Member for Southern River, said continuing refinement of gene technology decreased the chance of new GM crops producing rogue proteins or genes producing other harmful compounds.
“If DAFWA could produce a drought, salt or frost tolerant cultivar of wheat, which after evaluation was found to be safe, I think there would be much less resistance to it being accepted in the marketplace, because the multinational agrichemical companies would not be seen to be benefiting from these cultivars,” he said. It would only be the farmers who benefit.”
John McGrath, Liberal member for South Perth, said: “While I am not opposed to well-controlled research in grain plant breeding, I think we have to tread very warily on the subject of GM wheat, which is such a staple food crop and one of our biggest exports.
“I do not think there is any appetite in overseas markets for GM wheat. In fact, when Japanese leaders raised concerns about GM wheat earlier this year, Premier Colin Barnett, assured them that WA would not be going down that path. I still have concerns about the results of the first year of planting GM canola on a commercial basis, especially after Kojonup organic farmer Steve Marsh lost his organic certification due to contamination from a neighbour’s GM crop.
“I think grain producers need to be aware of what consumers want. I think they are becoming more particular about what they buy.”
Shadow Minister for Agriculture Mick Murray asked: “Why are we spending huge amounts of money on GM when there’s no appetite for it?” Murray said the money would be better spent on crossbreeding and developing better qualities of conventional wheat.
“This is a push by the minister to further his own bouquet. The connection with the companies concerned, like InterGrain, is a real worry as they’re in bed with the government. This compromises the independence of InterGrain,” he said. “If people come in and use it for their own benefits, what tests will be done to ensure cross-contamination doesn’t occur?”