‘Frankenstein veggies’? Don’t be afraid of eating GM food
A dangerous fallacy has been encouraged by recent discussion of an Opposition discussion paper on revitalising the north of Australia. The fallacy is that for northern prosperity, just add water.
It is based on a romantic and attractive notion that by reversing a few rivers and building a few dams the factors prohibiting northern development will be washed away.
But that won’t happen unless the crops are suitable for the conditions, and that would involve agricultural bio-technology.
Unfortunately, there is widespread rejection of this option and such practices - the genetic modification of food crops.
The fight against bio-technology has become the new, dominant anti-science frontier - broader and more virulent than opposition to climate change science - and that could damage plans to exploit Australia’s potential as a prime global food source.
As one industry source said, “GM opponents are the climate skeptics of the left.” Interestingly, one of the important research areas is into climate change-resistant crops.
This battle against ag-biotech advances can be seen in the market place where there is significant demand for so-called organic food which costs more but which can be afforded by most Australians who seek a mythical agricultural purity.
Forbes magazine recently reported a study, aggregating work from 237 previous studies, showing “that fruits and vegetables that met the criteria for ‘organic’ were on average no more nutritious than their far cheaper conventional counterparts, nor were those foods less likely to be contaminated by pathogenic bacteria like E. coli or Salmonella”.
The article’s headline was: “Is Organic Agriculture Affluent Narcissism?”
Not everyone is fighting bio-technology. Among its biggest fans are, not surprisingly, farmers.
The National Farmers’ Federation championed it in its first Blueprint for Australian Agriculture released two weeks ago.
“The adoption of new technologies and management practices can improve productivity and profitability of business, and also reduce the sector’s impact on the environment,” said the document.
“The need for investment in innovation and productivity growth through research development and extension (RD&E) is a critical area of concern for the Blueprint.
“There is strong evidence that a more co-operative approach to RD&E, and in particular extension, is where real productivity gains for Australian agriculture are to be found.”
The problem for the farmers and the bio-technology industry is that many inner-city voters who have grown nothing grander than a tub of kitchen parsley on the back porch are frightened by stories of “Frankenstein plants”.
It is the thinking which inspired the anti-science vandalism by a group which in July 2011 slashed a CSIRO experimental crop outside Canberra.
The farmers’ proposition that bio-technology could help the environment is either dismissed or ignored.
Plus, there is the temptation among conservatives to think problems can be solved by moving great lumps of earth around and changing the face of nature. It’s a vision of hairy-chested national development, the bold and manly way of getting results.
However, it is more likely it will be men and women in lab coats and experimental farms who make the changes by ensuring the crops we want can be grown and harvested readily.
The Greens’ party policy has a measured hostility and skepticism towards the science.
“Genetically manipulated organisms (GMOs), their products, and the chemicals used to manage them pose significant risks to natural and agricultural ecosystems and human health,’’ the policy begins.
“The precautionary principle must be applied to the use of GMOs and the techniques for producing them.’‘
Nobody wants to abandon caution. But equally, experimentation should not be neglected at a time when agricultural productivity needs to be lifted.
As the National Farmers’ Federation Blueprint said, “The flat productivity growth of the last few years will need to be addressed through the development and adoption of existing technology and new technology.
“The whole community - urban families, agricultural professionals, farmers, supply chain business - all need to be educated about agriculture, the cost, environmental impacts and the social decisions that drive markets and production.
“Efficiency needs to be created on-farm and within the supply chain through continued technological developments and R&D.”
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