Genetically Modified Crops Management (Designated Area) Amendment Bill

Second Reading

Adjourned debate on second reading.

(Continued from 18 February 2020.)

Mr TRELOAR (Flinders) (11:43): I rise today to speak to the amendments to the Genetically Modified Crops Management (Designated Area) Amendment Bill 2020—it is quite a mouthful—and it is a pleasure to finally be here. I have lost track of the number of times I have stood to contribute to the GM debate in this place in my time here. Our moratorium extends back to 2004, when the then Rann Labor government imposed, for whatever reason at the time, a ban on growing genetically engineered crops in this state. Despite recommendations to the contrary, that same government decided to maintain that moratorium again in 2008, if my memory serves me correctly, and here we are in 2020, finally having reached a compromise between the government and the opposition to be able to allow the growing of genetically engineered crops across the majority of South Australia.

I need to declare an interest here, Mr Speaker. For 30 years I was an active grain grower on Eyre Peninsula and for the last 10 years, during which I have been a member of this place, I have retained an interest in that grain growing operation. I do not come to this debate without an interest and I do not come to this debate without also some experience, I might add, on this particular subject.

I was introduced to GM crops way back in 2002 when I was fortunate enough to visit the United States as part of my Nuffield Scholarship travels during that year. It was in the very early stages of GM crops being grown in the US—baby steps at that time—and certainly Monsanto was a company that was on everybody’s lips at the time and probably still is. I might add that I am not into conspiracy theories; I concur with the Deputy Premier in regard to that. I do not think there is any conspiratorial intention by any of these major companies to control the world’s food supply. I just do not buy that as an argument at all.

I digress. I visited the Monsanto factory in St Louis and was briefed on what was the very early days of Roundup Ready corn. Within a very short period of time, much of the corn and the vast majority of soybeans grown across the American Midwest—that huge grain belt, that food bowl of North America—was actually Roundup Ready or glyphosate tolerant.

At that same time, experiments were being done, and slowly but surely introduction into Australia came, in other states initially and particularly around Bt cotton. I think that was probably the first crop that gained any real foothold here in Australia. I understand cotton is grown in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. What it really gave those cotton growers and that cotton plant was resistance to insects. I was told at the time that growers were able to reduce the application of pesticides significantly. They had been spraying up to seven times with pesticides—chemicals being applied to the crop—and this inherent resistance bred into Bt cotton meant they only had to have one spray. It was a significant saving and a significant benefit to the environment.

The shadow minister talked about golden rice, and of course that too is one of the great success stories, and I think that is an incredibly responsible thing for us as a world community to pursue—to be able to feed the masses and have an addition of vitamin A into a very limited diet across vast areas of the world. We are talking very much about Roundup Ready canola in this state at the moment. There will be other opportunities very soon probably, in relation to canola—that is the addition of omega-3. Of course we all know the health benefits of having omega-3 in our diets; hence the recommendation for us to eat more seafood than we are to gain those benefits.

I mentioned the shadow minister, the member for Giles, and I am going to congratulate him and our Minister for Primary Industries on the negotiations they have had. They have been able to reach agreement on some amendments that will allow, after all this time, our grain producers the opportunity to plant and grow genetically engineered canola, in this instance, at this point in time, and have the benefits of that. It will be their choice to do so. Not all will, I might add.

So it has been very much about choice for us as a government, and we have reached an agreement. It is great news for our farmers and regional communities who for a long time have been calling for the opportunity to have that choice.

I will just spend a little bit of time talking to the agreed amendments under this bill, which will establish a time-limited, six-month period whereby the Minister for Primary Industries may, upon application from a council—that is, a local government area—designate that council area as being an area where it is prohibited to cultivate GM crops. In other words, we are giving local government areas, local councils, the opportunity, after required consultation with their communities about whether they may wish to apply to the minister, to seek to have their council area remain GM free.

The minister would be required to consult with the GM Crop Advisory Committee prior to designating a council area and must take into account any advice provided by that committee. Ultimately, the decision will be left with the minister. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I am sure there will be some councils which might want to consider taking this position, after suitable consultation. There will be many which will not. Many across the broadacre farming areas of the state will be pleased to give their farming ratepayers the opportunity to do that. It is a compromise position but it will ensure that our farmers have the management tools they need.

I want to talk a little about farming systems because I have seen incredible change and evolution in farming systems over the last 40 years. My father, who is 84 now, has seen incredible changes in his lifetime, as his father did before him, so my point here is that farming systems are continually changing and evolving. They are never perfect. We never come to a perfect system. In fact, often just when we think we are getting it right, something changes. Mother Nature will throw something at us or we will discover that we have pushed a particular part of the system too far and we have to make adjustments. This is part of the next change to those farming systems.

In this place before, I have traced through South Australia’s history of changes in farming systems. It began with the Ridley Stripper in 1842. That single development allowed larger areas of wheat to be harvested in a day. We go through the development of superphosphate, the introduction of traction engines, lay farming systems, and trace elements, as the member for Bragg mentioned, which were critical in large areas of the state, up to what was called the green revolution in the 1970s. There were new varieties which gave a significant yield increase at that time. It was all about plant breeding at that stage, and in a way this is as well. We move on to the current day where we have specific applications for fertilisers, chemicals, varieties and rotations, which are long considered to give the best result, not just financially but also to the production across areas of South Australia.

There was an independent review undertaken which supported the government’s position in relation to lifting the GM moratorium. The independent review found the cost to canola farmers of South Australia’s GM crop moratorium was estimated to be $33 million over the period from 2004 to 2018. My quick maths tells me that that is a cost of about $2.5 million a year. I am going to stand here and say that that is not a whole lot of money in the grand scheme.

But my point is, and I go back to my experience as a farmer, and I want to talk about how grain producers make a decision in relation to crop varieties and crop systems. Their goal, our goal, is to make money; it is to make a profit on every single acre on one’s property. Profit is derived by multiplying yield by price achieved and subtracting the cost of production. It is a very simple formula but it works.

Much has been made about the so-called price premium that is available for non-GM canola to growers here in this state and elsewhere. The evidence is that there is not really a premium, but even if there is, that is a consideration for the farmer to make, not for the parliament. The farmers themselves, the growers themselves, have to decide whether an increased yield and lower cost of production make up for a lower price or otherwise. These are really serious considerations and they are considerations that our grain producers and farmers need to be able to make themselves and not have such things dictated to them by the parliament in South Australia.

Of course, we need to respect our growers and their choice and their responsibility in managing vast areas of South Australia’s landscape and production. There will be other benefits for our farmers. We will have more varieties to choose from to suit specific environments and seasonal weather anomalies.

I can see that the area assigned to canola may extend a little bit further north in this state. The further north we go, the drier it gets. There may be the opportunity now to sow canola prior to the break of the season, so in those areas that have a shorter growing season they can sow earlier and they can sow dry. The crop comes up. The weeds come up at the same time—that is a reality. We cannot farm without weeds and an application of Roundup or glyphosate would take out the weeds and not the crop. That will allow growers to make full use of the growing season.

There will be environmental and health benefits from reduced farm chemical applications. Roundup has had a bit of bad press in recent years and it is seen by some as a big ogre. I am going to put to you, Mr Speaker, that the development and introduction of glyphosate, often known by the trade name Roundup, is the most significant development in broadacre farming in this state, across the country and around the world since the introduction of the tractor—it is that significant. There is no shying away from that. We should not be frightened of that.

Farmers often worry about crops and weeds developing resistance to chemicals such as Roundup, but that is something we should be managing anyway. That is all part of this whole farming system package whereby we make decisions about rotations and systems to manage that very resistance that we talk about. It is not just resistance to Roundup that we should be considering, there are other chemicals as well, so we need to balance that out.

There is likely to be a boost to the value of farmland whose productivity and profitability is raised. Remember that formula: yield by price, less cost of production, equals profit. I think that our farmers deserve the regulatory certainty and confidence to know they can invest in GMC and plant GM crops if they want to. Now, it is not going to be for this year, or this coming season.

For those grain growers who have not had rain yet they are about to get rain, given the forecast for the coming week, and that is an exciting time. It means that our growers will be on their tractors planting, or cultivating if they are not, or direct seeding if they choose to. It gives them some certainty. We are already in the 2020 cropping season, so this will carry over to the 2021 season.

All foodstuffs containing GM crops must be labelled so that we are considerate of consumer choice. I talked a lot today about what growers are looking for and what grain producers are requiring and expecting, but ultimately consumers play a role in this as well. I suspect that, as we go forward and the functionality of some of these crops and some of our foods through genetic engineering is developed, we will have people actively seeking out that functionality for health benefits and otherwise.

I have had emails, as we all have had, urging us to consider carefully the impact of lifting this moratorium, which I have dutifully done. As I said, I come with an interest and some experience. Often, those emails come from producers who describe themselves as being organic producers. I do not have a problem with that. If they choose a production system that is defined and described as organic then so be it.

Ultimately, I am sure they are profitable at the end of it and that will allow them to remain in business, but I did put a question to the organic growers association at a presentation here in Parliament House. I put to them that I did not feel that genetically engineered crops and organic farming are necessarily mutually exclusive. It just did not seem to fit with my concept of farming.

The answer I got was that the association itself had decreed that organic farmers must not grow genetically engineered crops. Of course, there is no doubt that many of them will be growing varieties of cereal and other things that have been developed and bred using traditional means. There is a bit of an anomaly there that still exists for me. As I said, I am not being critical of that; it is just that questions need to be answered.

It will be interesting to see how the situation evolves on Kangaroo Island. Obviously, that part of the state is geographically isolated and has chosen to be. It has indicated to us as parliamentarians that they want to be dealt with separately in this legislation and it will be interesting to see how the situation is in 2025. We are talking very much about just Roundup Ready canola at the moment, as that is the crop that will be available to South Australian growers. There is no genetically engineered wheat available commercially to growers, but that may come.

My question for Kangaroo Island and the other grazing areas of the state is, if and when genetically engineered fodder crops become available, whether they will come under the same jurisdiction. A large area of our state cultivates improved pastures that contain such things as ryegrass, lucerne, sub clover, medics and all those things that potentially could have their production enhanced by genetic engineering. It will be interesting to see how that evolves over time.

As I said earlier, farming systems are continually evolving and no system is perfect. This, too, will take us to the next level of production. I mentioned earlier that my father still believes at 84 that the greatest developments in his farming career were the introduction of cabs on tractors and hydraulics. We need to put these things in perspective. This is just simply the next development in our farming system.

Congratulations to the minister and the shadow minister on being able to reach agreement on this. There has been a lot of work over a lot of years and I appreciate now being able to stand up and contribute to a debate where, hopefully, we will be able to deliver a good result for the grain growers of South Australia.


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