Out of the blue, or rather a few days after at leasta million votes for the environment, the New South WalesPrimary Industries Minister Ian Macdonald announced,in a complete non sequitur, that he would be liftingthe ban on genetically engineered (GE) canola crops,just as Agriculture Minister Joe Helper in Victoriawould be.The reasons given were consistent with claims madeby GE advocates. They speak of being more environmentallyfriendly, and farmers not missing out on markets, ofbetter yields. The only thing missing in November'ssurprise announcement was Monsanto's own claims forits GE approach, that engineering the genes of plantswill actually end Third World hunger. If there wasn'tso much at stake, the whole effect would be risible.The reasons are so often implausible, and demonstrablycontradicted by overseas experience, it would be madto proceed. And yet next month, proceed it seems wewill.
As people ought to know, once GE canola is releasedinto the environment, there is no going back. The Queenslandand South Australian borders won't be respected: plantsknow no constitutionality. Flowers pollinate, and cross-pollinate.In the United States, GE canola grows like a weed bythe side of the road, and in the wild. Companies markettheir GE seed aggressively. Over 70 per cent of Canadiancanola is now genetically modified. Organic, non GEfarmers won't be able to vouch for their "cleangreen" product. So despite ministerial promisesof segregation, it's only a matter time before seedsand plant stock mix.
In 2004, Saskatchewan farmers Percy and Louise Schmeiserwere prosecuted by Monsanto for "violating"the company's patent because GE canola seeds blew ontotheir property, and started to infest the Schmeiser'scanola crops. Monsanto wanted royalties for the genethat it "owns", and after fighting a courtban, got what it wanted. For giving the world its wakeup call about Monsanto's methods, the Schmeisers receivedthe 2007 Right Livelihood Award. The jury acknowledgedthe Schmeisers, "for their courage in defendingbiodiversity and farmers' rights, and challenging theenvironmental and moral perversity of current interpretationsof patent laws."
I heard Percy Schmeiser speak to farmers in the wheatbelttown of York, in Western Australia, a few years back.The York meeting hall was packed with farmers, all plainlyanxious to hear and weigh it all up. On the one hand,they are under a lot of pressure to make ends meet.The companies are promising that they'll need less pesticide,which many farmers will acknowledge gets overused onfarms. On the other hand, here was a cocky like themselves,with that endearing Canadian accent, who'd been doneover by the system in a way not unfamiliar to the localfarmers. This Canadian was saying once the "cleangreen" label is gone, it's gone. There would beno going back. That the promises about pesticide reductionwere overstated. That prices would not necessarily improve,if consumers didn't want to buy into the GE world. Thatthe GE companies play a hard game. Naturally, therewas a lot of uncomfortable shifting in the seats, andmuch talk from the heart.
Since then, the Australian Network of Concerned Farmersnote that Canadian yields have not improved with GEseed: in fact, "with little benefit, higher costsand lower commodity prices and an inability to segregate,there is a risk, not a benefit associated with GM canola."NCF Spokesperson Julie Newman has also noted, "Ifintroduced, Australia will be the first country to introducelarge scale commercial release of a patented GM foodcrop without subsidising farmers to compensate for highercosts and associated market loss. This is about industriesmaking money from farmers, not for farmers."
Indeed, some people say Canadian farmers have lostout big time as European consumers check their packsfor country of origin. In October 2007, a delegationof Japanese food buyers visited Australia and urgedus not to shift our ban. Ryoko Shimizu said that thedelegation represented almost three million Japaneseconsumers who would not want to buy genetically modifiedcanola. "Now we import from Australia because ofthe GMO free status. So I believe it would damage theexport market for Australian farmers," she said.
Within Australia, many big companies are opposed tolabelling products as being "GM" (geneticallymodified) or "GE" (genetically engineered.)They don't want consumers to make irrational choices,so prefer they had no choice at all. I know companieslike Bayer Cropscience and Monsanto have spent a lotof money on all this, but to my mind, the whole ideathat we can "own" genes or genetically manipulatethem to make hybrid species brings out the conservativein me. These are not things to be rushed. It's not thelack of GE grains in the world that's causing worldhunger (there's enough food right now to feed everyone),it's the way we distribute food that's the problem.Farmers within Australia are already struggling andthey don't need pressures like this to complicate andundermine their livelihoods.
If you are moved to act, the best response would beto do something about it today, now, wherever you livein Australia, to try and keep the moratorium againstthe use of GE crops going. Better a quick letter sentnow than a great letter sent too late. Write to theNew South Wales and Victorian governments, write toyour own state or territory government, and urge the"precautionary principle", that waiting tosee about the success or otherwise of GE crops in Argentina,Brazil, Canada and the US is the smartest and safestthing to do, that we want to maintain our competitiveadvantage in "clean green" produce, and thatgoing down the GE route is irreversible. Write fromthe heart; Google all the facts you need: maybe startwith "Schmeiser."
At the same time, also consider writing to the newFederal Government, asking it to override State agriculturalministers and impose a ban on all GE crops throughoutAustralia.
If the bans are lifted, and GE canola farming commences,one option will be to give up consuming canola altogether.Check the sides of boxes on supermarket shelves to seeif "canola" is an ingredient. You will besurprised how extensively canola appears in many processedfoods. If so, if the ban is indeed lifted, exerciseyour choice to know, to eat simply, to support a nature-basedagriculture, and purchase another product that usesa different ingredient altogether. And of course, alwaysconsider buying organic or biodynamic produce to supportcleaner farming.
The time to act is now. Later, we can work out thelogic that got us here.