Genetically Modified crops
Mr TRELOAR (Flinders) (12:08): I rise today to speak in support of the Genetically Modified Crops Management (Designated Area) Amendment Bill 2019, brought to this place by the Hon. Tim Whetstone, minister for agriculture. At the outset, I must also declare an interest: I spent 30 years as an active grain grower and farmer on Eyre Peninsula prior to coming into this place. I still have an interest, obviously, in my family’s property and I am watching with interest how the current harvest unfolds.
Following the election, our government commissioned a high-level independent review into the GM crops moratorium. The review found that the moratorium had cost the state’s grain growers at least $33 million since 2004 and would cost at least a further $5 million if extended to 2025. It had also discouraged public and private investment in research and failed to provide a premium for South Australian canola growers when compared with growers in neighbouring states—pretty damning stuff.
In accordance with the findings of the review and supported by public consultations, including the GM Crop Advisory Committee, the government sought to introduce regulations to lift the GM moratorium on the South Australian mainland, while retaining the moratorium on Kangaroo Island, where KI Pure Grain have secured a niche market into Japan.
Last week, we saw SA-Best and the Greens MPs vote in the upper house to disallow regulations. They argued that the government should have introduced a bill to change the boundary of the moratorium, rather than following the process provided by the Genetically Modified Crops Management Act to amend regulations. Well, here we are: we have introduced a bill—exactly what they wanted. Should the bill pass this week, it will provide South Australia’s farmers with certainty for the 2020 cropping season.
I congratulate the minister on introducing the bill. For those who have continually said in the past few weeks that they have not had enough time to do their research on this particular issue, I remind them that we have had a moratorium in place in this state since 2004. If 15 years is not long enough, I am not sure how long is.
My first introduction to GM crops was in 2002 when I was in the US as part of a Nuffield scholarship. I was in St Louis and became familiar with GM corn and GM soybeans. They were relatively new at that stage and there was much discussion about them. Monsanto had the patent, I think, or at least had the rights over GM corn and soybeans. They were essentially glyphosate tolerant or Roundup Ready tolerant.
They were being adopted with great enthusiasm by growers across the Midwest, the heart of the American corn belt, where they very much work on a corn and soybean rotation. It was the enthusiasm and the rate of adoption which struck me, which led me to believe it must be a good thing. Farmers do not do things for no reason. They adopt a new system because it is economic to do so, it is beneficial to the environment and it is beneficial to their business.
When we first had our moratorium in place in South Australia, other states also had moratoriums in place. Essentially, we were talking about glyphosate-resistant canola or Roundup Ready canola. I am not into conspiracy theories. I do not feel the threat of great multinationals taking over the world food chain and the world food supply. We, as farmers, are already purchasing our canola seed. Even non-GM canola is relatively difficult to kill in the field with Roundup or glyphosate, and usually it needs to be spiked with another chemical to do so.
While we remained under moratorium, the lifting of the moratorium in the other states enabled producers in the southern states to grow GM canola, Roundup Ready canola. It also allowed cotton growers in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland to grow Bt cotton. This had great environmental advantage. Cotton is often looked down upon, particularly for us at this end of the Murray-Darling Basin, but it has been a significant crop in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. It is an opportunity crop: it is grown when there is enough water—there is not at the moment.
Regardless of that, the introduction of Bt cotton meant that the cotton was resistant to certain insects and greatly reduced the amount of chemical that had to be used in controlling that insect on the crop. It reduced chemical applications by as much as seven times. Eventually, the other states lifted their moratorium. South Australia became the only mainland state to remain under moratorium. My understanding is that, in 2008, advice was given to the then Rann Labor government to lift the moratorium. We, as growers, were fully expecting the moratorium to be lifted in 2008.
Contrary to the advice that was received, the moratorium stayed in place, thanks to the Rann Labor government. In 2017, we debated a bill in this place to extend the moratorium out to 2025. It was introduced in the other place by the Hon. Mark Parnell, supported by the then Weatherill government, opposed by the Liberal Party in opposition, but ultimately led to the current moratorium being extended to 2025. We now have the opportunity to lift that moratorium and allow our producers to be at one with the rest of the world, remembering that we compete on the world market, and we cannot afford to have any disadvantages in relation to our competitors in other states, in other countries around the world.
I have a friend who farms in Essex and I have quoted him before in this place. His name is Guy Smith. He is currently the Deputy President of the National Farmers Union in the UK. Right at this very moment there is much discussion about the reaccreditation of glyphosate in Europe. It is a discussion and debate which defies logic, I might add, because in my humble opinion glyphosate has had the single biggest impact on agriculture around the world since the introduction of the traction engine, or what we know as the tractor. Amid all of this debate in Europe about glyphosate, Guy put an article in the Farmers Weekly, which is the UK farming magazine. He said:
When politicians and administrators stop listening to the authorities charged with scientific evaluation, you get bad regulation.
It is interesting that we have that comment coming from him, and I think that applies to this debate as well.
Throughout history, agriculture has improvised: for some 10,000 years, if that is as long as we have been growing cereals, and the general consensus is that it was probably barley first followed by wheat, which was first cultivated in the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Since that time, agriculture and our producers have striven for improvements, for a better and more productive and more sustainable way of doing things, and that is the critical word here—sustainability.
I will give you a quick history lesson. I do not mean to bore you, but I probably will. The member for Hammond, I know, will pay attention. Back in the 18th century in England, and that is as far as we can go back really with our history books, Turnip Townshend introduced a system of rotation into Norfolk. He had a four-field system of rotation, which involved turnips, hence the nickname. Wouldn’t you love a nickname like ‘Turnip’, member for Narungga? He was able to lift production across a whole farm, across a four-field rotation, and lift sustainability. Jethro Tull, that famous agricultural inventor at the end of the 18th century, invented amongst other things the mechanical winnower. He was roundly ostracised at the time.
Mr Hughes: It was a band.
Mr TRELOAR: It was a band also. Did they ever play at Westlands?
Mr Hughes: No.
Mr TRELOAR: No, they did not. Yes, I am assuming the band took their name from the great agricultural inventor who I said invented the mechanical winnower and was roundly ostracised at the time for going against the will of God. Imagine having a mechanical means to thresh grain, and here we are essentially having the same discussion. South Australia has been at the forefront of agricultural developments over the last 180 years or so. The Ridley Stripper was invented here in 1842. The stump jump plough was invented by Richard Smith on Yorke Peninsula. The member for Narungga would be well familiar with that. It allowed settlers to more effectively cultivate land that was, in the first instance, populated by mallee.
We brought in fallowing. We discovered our soils were deficient in superphosphate. The Correll brothers developed a seed drill—once again, on Yorke Peninsula at Ardrossan. It was all happening then and probably still is now. That was to insert phosphate into the soil to boost production. At about the same time, we saw Federation wheat, the beginning of wheat breeding. Federation wheat was grown throughout southern Australia and was the primary source of breed stock for wheat genes for many years to come.
I talked about the tractor being introduced here in South Australia, and we introduced lay farming. Rather than constant fallow-wheat rotation, we introduced sub clovers into the more acid soils and medics into the more alkaline soils. That enabled farmers to not only carry sheep but also boost their nitrogen and hence gain a better cereal crop subsequently.
We have seen the introduction of agricultural chemicals, grain legumes, beans, lupins and, more recently, lentils, high-analysis fertilisers and the bulk handling of grain. We now have GPS tracking on our harvesters, our tractors and our sprayers. We have yield mapping and we have precision agriculture. My point is that agriculture is continually evolving. Systems are continually evolving, and they will continue to evolve. As a parliament and as an industry, we just have to recognise where we are at this point in history.
This legislation is about giving farmers choice. They will have a choice of whether to grow GM crops or not. You do not have to grow them. In fact, my feeling is that uptake in the first instance will be relatively small. I am a canola grower. I do not know that I would necessarily grow GM canola in the first instance—but I might. At least I will have the opportunity to do that.
As I said, our growers, our producers, are competing in a world market. Often, we forget that as decision-makers. We are competing head-to-head against other exporters from southern Australia. We are competing head-to-head in world markets—against the Canadians, against Ukraine, against the US, against Argentina and against Europe. I urge people not to be fearful of the science.
Interestingly, I had a quick conversation earlier with the member for Newland, who I know is going to make a contribution here. Way back in 2002, when I was in the US, there was much discussion about mapping the genome of these various plant crops. At that stage, they had mapped the genome of corn. My recollection is that there are some 32,000 genes in a corn plant. There are about 20,000 genes in the human genome, which makes us relatively simple folk. Incredibly, wheat is complex, and has about 50,000 genes. So it is important that we recognise the significant scientific effort and research going into all this development at this stage.
Gene editing is just around the corner. Gene editing is where DNA is inserted, deleted or replaced in the genome. Are we going to deny our agricultural producers in this state the opportunity to access that technology when the rest of the world has it? Should we be deprived of this opportunity, we run the very real risk of being left behind and we run the very real risk of becoming an agricultural backwater. We are dictated to by governments and a parliament who do not understand necessarily the imperatives here, not the least being a significantly growing world population that we in a way have an obligation to ensure has enough protein and food at an affordable price.
The passage of this bill will give our growers choice, certainty and opportunity. It is timely because, even though we are probably still six or seven months away from the beginning of the South Australian growing season, with the passage of this bill growers will need the opportunity to order seed and the opportunity to be organised. There will not just be significant economic benefits. Business decisions will be made, so the economic benefits will be taken into account. Potentially, gene technology could bring significant environmental benefits as well as significant health benefits.
The member for Giles talked about omega-3 being inserted into canola. Omega-3 is important to human health and available, at the moment, through humans eating fish. If we were able to make it available through our canola crops, our canola oil and our canola spread, then that omega-3 would get into our human food chain, bringing health benefits. So there are functional benefits from GM technology.
In relation to the environmental benefits, we talk a lot about frost tolerance. In some areas this year, South Australian farmers have once again taken significant hits from frost. However, there are such things as salt-tolerant barley. I must check on this but I think breeding of that has already taken place and it is just a matter of giving our growers access to those sorts of things.
I once again declare my interest, which is not insignificant, in the grain industry because I am an active grain grower and producer still. With those words, I congratulate the minister on bringing the bill to the house. After 15 years under a moratorium, when the rest of the world has left us behind, we now have the opportunity to lift that moratorium. I commend the bill.