Global Consumer Pressure Keeps Australia from Producing GE Crops
Headline: FEATURE - Australia shrinks from GM crops
Wire Service: RTw (Reuters World Report)
Date: Thu, Oct 14, 1999

By Michael Byrnes

SYDNEY, Oct 15 (Reuters) - Australia's A$22 billion ($14.3 billion) farm export industry, which serves up a big helping of the world's traded food, is wary of rushing into genetically modified (GM) crops and risking a
consumer backlash.

Items declared off the GM list for now are ingredients for a wide range of foodstuffs from bread to beer to cooking oil -- and include sugar, wheat, barley and canola.

Australia's A$3 billion ($1.95 billion) a year beef industry, which exports around the world but mainly to Asia, is also GM free, although anxiously watching whether other cattle-producing countries venture into genetically engineered steaks.

As Australian and New Zealand health ministers prepare to meet next week to decide whether to introduce some of the toughest labelling laws in the world on GM foods, Australia's farm sector faces a dilemma. "If GM proves its worth and becomes a valuable production technique overseas and Australia doesn't adopt it, it could well spell the end of Australia as the world's leading (beef) exporter," said one industry source, who asked not to be named.


Stakes are high. Genetic engineering could allow beef to close a crucial time gap enjoyed by chicken and pork, which produce meat and 'genetic efficiency' in a fraction of the time. This has set up beef producing nations like dominoes. Once one falls to GM the rest could follow.

But commercial sensitivity prevails. Australia's sugar export marketing chief David Rutledge this week said it would be irresponsible for Australia to produce GM sugarcane in the face of strong consumer reaction against GM food. There was no immediate prospect of it being grown, he said.

Australia's national wheat exporter AWB Ltd has the same view. GM wheat would not be grown in Australia for at least three to four years, only partly because of difficulties with engineering the grain, a spokeswoman said. "Our customers have driven us over the last 60 years. If they don't want it, we're not going to plant it," she said.

No GM barley is produced commercially in Australia although some research plots are on trial under the umbrella of the government-appointed Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee. "Growers ... understand that they can only produce what the customers, ultimately the consumers, will want," one barley industry official said.

Canola is the main crop where Australia, now a major world producer after rapid gains in recent years, sees a clear competitive advantage in remaining GM-free for now.

With up to 65 percent of the Canadian crop of 8.3 million tonnes genetically engineered -- and shunned by Europe -- Australia's 2.2 million tonnes production has an unexpected edge. "There's certainly a market now for GM-free canola in Japan and in Europe. That market may last one year, two years, 15 years, 20 years ... At this stage we just can't say," said Glenn Dalton, grains director of the NSW Farmers Association.

But Dalton points to the very fine line Australia walks.


Most of Australia's farm hierarchy believes the country should develop and test GM products and that it would be a mistake to have a moratorium on genetic engineering, he said. "Our export markets could be decimated overnight if America finished up with a product that we didn't have access to."

There was still a good case for Australia hanging back from GM production, especially on plans to produce GM canola in 2001. "We see nothing wrong with that provided it's going hand-in-hand with scientific development, controlling and testing," Dalton said. Private traders agree.

As part of Australia's bet each way, it is as quietly as possible carrying out scientific trials into a wide range of genetically engineered crops and products across the country. Potatoes, canola, poppies, tomatoes, clover, field peas, carnations, cotton, wheat, barley, tobacco, baker's yeast, fowlpox virus, Indian mustard, apples, sugarcane and pineapples are all involved. Trials have also involved pigs and cattle.

Cotton is the exception as Australia's only major GM crop, with about 30 percent of annual output produced from transgenic seed, but is mostly used as lint in textile manufacture. Gordon Cherry, Australian Cotton Shippers Association chairman, said growers were not shrinking from GM cotton, "quite the reverse," because it reduced use of pest-control chemicals.

Apart from Canada's canola, other major world GM crops are cotton in the United States, China and Australia, and corn and soy in the U.S. -- both only minor crops in Australia.

Australian and New Zealand health ministers meet in Canberra on October 22 to consider proposals on labelling for GM foods. Reports say Australia will most likely have hardline requirements for products with even minute traces of GM ingredients. "Million-dollar question," an Australia New Zealand Food Authority spokeswoman said when asked if the ministers would decide or delay.

(A$1 - US$0.65)

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