Benefits of GM crops challenged in Australia (10/3/2007)

1.Responses to Heffernan
2.Heffernan calls for a rethink on genetically altered crops

GM WATCH comment: Australia's pro-GM lobbyists have been pushing desperately for some lifting of the moratoriums imposed by Australia's State governments.

Senator Bill Heffernan - someone described as a "close confidant" of Prime Minister John Howard - has even been punting GM crops as a "more environmentally friendly" way of cultivating the unfarmed wilderness of Northern Australia (item 2). Here are some excellent responses (item 1).
1.Responses to Heffernan etc.
Letters, The Age, March 10, 2007

What benefits?

WHAT are the supposed benefits of GM crops? Vaccines in bananas? These do not exist. Vitamin A in rice? This does not exist. Grains with omega 3 fish oil? These do not exist. Drought-resistant crops? These have been developed, but with trait-selective, non-GM methods. GM varieties are at least 10 years away. Productivity gains? In 2005, the Canadian Government's rural assistance was $1.6 billion. Its canola markets were lost to Europe due to its GM status. In more than 10 years of production, with billions of dollars spent on research, there are only two commercial GM traits. The second generation of GM crops has failed to materialise. As shoppers, farmers and the food industry around the world reject GM seeds, crops and foods, it would be a folly to remove GM bans and allow commercial GM crops in northern Australia - especially cotton.
Peter Robertson,
Environment Centre of the Northern Territory, Darwin

Let's be cautious

ALL of a sudden, climate change is a reason to argue for blanket acceptance of genetically modified crops (The Age, 7/3). And as the world price of cotton has dropped because of oversupply, why is this issue being raised now? Arguing for approval of GM cotton planting in Western Australia is aimed at opening the gate for all GM crops. Agricultural development in northern Australia is not solely dependent on adopting GM plants (or animals, which may follow). Each plant variety is different and must be evaluated separately. GM cotton has been unsuccessful in Indonesia and India, and even China has reported new problems. Once released, GM life forms may have unexpected effects on related plants, soils and other organisms, either directly or in the food chain, and then cannot be recalled, so enthusiasm must be tempered with caution.
Michael Mullerworth, Hawthorn

Repeating mistakes

NORTHERN Australia has one of the world's last wild places - tropical savannah that is in good condition and hasn't been cleared and planted with non-native species such as cotton and rice. Senator Bill Heffernan proposes moving southern problems to northern Australia, an area that rivals the Amazon, "the lungs of the earth", for the size and condition of its wilderness. The world is reacting to climate change. What is Senator Heffernan's answer to re-creating an industry that unavoidably creates more global warming? Land clearing. Be smart, Australia. Let's lead the world in protecting the environment and establishing industries that sustain and support the landscape, rather than repeat mistakes that cost a fortune to fix.
Larissa Cordner,
The Wilderness Society, West End, Qld
2.Heffernan calls for a rethink on genetically altered crops
Jewel Topsfield, Canberra
The Age, March 7 2007

AUSTRALIA will need to rethink its attitude to genetically modified crops in order to transform the water-drenched Top End into the nation's food bowl, Senator Bill Heffernan says.

In his first major interview since being asked in January to head a high-ranking taskforce into the ambitious plan, he also told The Age that rice growers had formally expressed interest in moving north.

Rice could be a success in the north, he said, with growers now having the scientific expertise they lacked in the 1950s when a Northern Territory rice experiment failed.

Senator Heffernan said genetically modified crops such as cotton were more environmentally friendly because there was less need for chemical pesticides and they were more water efficient.

The close confidant of Prime Minister John Howard said the taskforce would be guided by science and would not take a bulldozer approach.

Only two GM crops, cotton and carnations, are grown commercially in Australia.

The West Australian Government has banned all GM crops, though trials of genetically modified cotton near Kununurra, in far north WA, highlighted its potential as a commercial crop.

"One of the things which would make Kununurra immediately viable would be GM cotton production," Senator Heffernan said. "The taskforce and Northern Territory and West Australian governments have to come to terms with a change of attitude on things like GM produce."

Former deputy prime minister John Anderson this month called for a rethink on the states' ban on genetically modified food crops.

He said Australia was falling behind in the rapid world growth of more productive biotech crops, such as drought-tolerant and pest-resistant strains.

Senator Heffernan said development of the north could see Australia position itself as the one of the world's great food, fibre and energy exporters, as countries such as China and India face problems with food production as they run out of water.

"One of the most alarming things about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is that in 50 years' time, 50 per cent of the world's population is going to be water poor," he said. "If Australia is to remain an aggressive world marketer in primary industries, it needs to look at all the opportunities that present themselves with climate change."

He said the taskforce, which would include scientists, indigenous Australians, farmers, environmentalists and finance experts, would also look at options for new infrastructure, such as an east-west rail line, which could also be used by gas and mineral producers.

Senator Heffernan said there were probably "unlimited" opportunities in the north for carbon off-setting, in which greenhouse emissions are reduced through tree planting. He also said there were great opportunities for ethanol production from crop residues, sugar stalks and stems and crop stubble, rather than molasses and grain, which are needed for food.

"Given the right science and and understanding of Mother Earth, this represents one of the last great agriculture frontier opportunities on the planet.

"We may well reconfigure the settlement of Australia, especially in the rural and regional sense."

Senator Heffernan, a farmer from Junee, has been pushing for a decade for Australians to harness the millions of megalitres of fresh water that flow into the northern tropical seas.

Whereas Australia's drought-stricken food bowl, the Murray-Darling Basin, typically received run-off of about 23,000 gigalitres a year, he said the three major river catchments in northern Australia received inflows of 280,000 gigalitres.

He said he hoped the taskforce would meet for the first time within the month.


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