THE Productivity Commission has been warned about listening to nonsensical arguments and outright falsehoods from anti-science activists that want to strain farm viability through ineffectual red tape that only imposes additional costs.
Public hearings on the Commission’s ongoing and broad-ranging inquiry into agricultural regulation were held at various capital cities throughout the nation, over the past week.
Feedback is being gathered on a 570-page draft report released in July that made 32 preliminary recommendations, including axing rules that restrain agricultural profitability, like State based moratoriums on Genetically Modified (GM) crops.
A final report is set for release in mid-November to be tabled within 25 sitting days of parliament, with a formal government response then needed on the its final recommendations and findings.
Mainstream agricultural representative groups like the National Farmers’ Federation have given their feedback at the public hearings and in written submissions but others with conflicting motives and views have also been venting strong opinions.
In Perth, long-time anti-GM campaigner Julie Newman spoke for the Network of Concerned Farmers while the Sydney hearing heard similar opposition to the technology’s commercial uptake from GM Cropwatch’s Jessica Harrison and former Greens WA staffer and Greenpeace campaigner Louise Sales for Friends of the Earth.
In Melbourne, Bob Phelps from Gene Ethics and Fran Murrell from MADGE Australia re-expressed their long-standing opposition to GMs in raising various concerns that have been repeatedly rejected by credible industry and scientific sources.
The draft report said farm regulation must be better-informed by scientific evidence, with Commissioner Paul Lindwall declaring some existing rules like bans on GM crops in various State jurisdictions weren’t driven by such proof.
Ms Newman’s submission said if the Commission’s recommendations were taken-up and WA was the first to commercialise GM wheat, as proposed, it was “highly likely” to result in an immediate $2 to $3 billion per year loss for that State alone.
“Although the Productivity Commission report suggests GM crops are over-regulated, current legislation has failed to adequately manage the health, environmental, and economic risks associated with GM crops,” she said.
“As a consequence, risks to the public and to farmers are not being managed responsibly.
“Legislation is primarily based on self-regulation by the GM industry and anti-competitive conduct has been promoted, particularly unfair liability imposed on opposition clients.”
Ms Newman said a Senate enquiry was required to explain “unreasonable promotion of the technology by government agencies” and legislation must also ensure any risks associated with GM crops are managed fairly.
A large number of personal responses to the inquiry have also been collated from private individuals expressing strong views about GM crops and animal welfare standards in livestock production.
The Commission has excluded identifiable information on those submissions with some calling for organic growers to be protected from GM “contamination” to maintain access into lucrative, non-GM export markets.
But CropLife Australia CEO Matthew Cossey told the Canberra session this week that “nonsense and outright falsehoods” had been raised by “anti-science activists”, in prior public hearings, about the Commission’s report.
Mr Cossey said his group strongly supported the Commission’s draft findings that there was no economic or health and safety justification for banning the cultivation of approved GM organisms.
“Of note, this is also a position that is supported by every relevant international, independent regulator, academic and scientific institutions and most recently a collection of none less than 107 Nobel Laureates,” he said.
“The Commission quite rightly concludes that there is no demonstrated market failure regarding the co-existence of GM and non-GM production systems; and therefore State and Territory governments should remove the respective moratoria.
“Activist myths, infamous retracted ‘lumpy rat’ false studies, baseless anecdotal statements by some misguided public commenters and by some state parliamentarians who should know better, and use of inflammatory and technically incorrect terms such as ‘contamination’, abound in the discussion on modern seed breeding techniques such as genetic modification.
“We’ve seen this again in the activists’ reaction to the Productivity Commission’s rational, fact-based draft report.”
Mr Cossey said CropLife welcomed the Commission taking a more evidence-based approach on GM crop cultivation and strongly agreed with the view that it was difficult to justify a mandatory labelling regime on GMs, based on any empirical data or scientific reasoning.
“The ‘precautionary principle’ is a term often invoked by anti-science groups to delay, inhibit or stop altogether the introduction of useful and beneficial products and technologies, even when such introduction is supported by scientific evidence and has been assessed and approved as safe by the relevant regulatory authorities,” he said.
Mr Cossey said rigorous and robust science-based approval systems already existed in Australia through the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator and Food Standards Australia New Zealand which both hold responsibility for GMs.
Murdoch University’s Professor of Agricultural Biotechnology Michael Jones - from the WA State Agricultural Biotechnology Centre - said he supported the repeal of the WA GM Crops Free Areas Act and similar legislation in other States and Territories.
“I have been involved in the development and science behind genetically modified crops since 1979 and have seen its roll-out worldwide since 1996 as the most rapidly embraced technology in farming ever,” he said.
“The State and Commonwealth governments should not be swayed by organised letter writing of a few vociferous people with their own agendas - eg vested interest in organic production - or the misinformation that is widely peddled on the web and by the press.”
Mr Jones cited economic research which said the use of GM crops from 1996-2013 had increased crop production globally by $133 billion; reduced the use of chemical pesticides by 37pc; and increased crop yields by 22pc.
It also said the technology’s use had reduced C02 emissions and alleviated many poor farmers from poverty, while in Australia farm income from GM canola had increased by $98.9 million.
“These benefits are just the tip of the iceberg of what is in the pipeline, with the emphasis changing from crop production traits to traits which benefit human health,” he said.
“WA farmers will only be able to compete in the world market if they use the best technologies available and that certainly includes GM crops.
“There are so many opportunities that it would be a really retrograde step to continue the State GM Crops Free Areas Act and allow the possibility that this Act may be used for political purposes in the future to prevent implementation of the powerful GM technologies that can so benefit WA growers.”
Mr Jones said the definition of a GMO was now out of date and needed revising.
“I submit that virtually all food crops are genetically manipulated: GM technology is just another more precise tool for plant breeders,” he said.
“What is and is not classified as GM is simply a matter of definition and the definition of GMOs is outdated and is in severe need of review.
“All major scientific studies conclude GM food is safe; indeed safer than conventional or organic produce.
“We also now have 20 years’ experience of the safe use of GM crops; now grown on 10pc of the world’s arable land.
“Future food security requires two things: the application and dissemination of technology and the implementation of sensible government policies.
“The present policies that prevent many advances in crop production, their improvement for human health and environmental benefits, are in severe need of amendment to provide a level playing field based on the properties of the final product, and not on how it was generated.”
The Commission’s report has also set up a heated battle between conventional farming groups and animal rights organisations over the merits of an Independent Office of Animal Welfare.
The Melbourne hearing took evidence from the Animal Justice Party of Victoria’s Justine Curatolo while in Sydney World Animal Protection, Animals Australia’s Glenys Oogjes and Vegan Australia’s Greg McFarlane had their say.
Australian Pork Limited’s Deb Kerr presented at the Canberra forum and said an independent process should be established to ensure harmonised national standards and guidelines for farm animal welfare.
She said the standards and guidelines must be based on scientific evidence and what was appropriate animal welfare; not what people think is appropriate.
But Vegan Australia said it supported the establishment of an independent body for farmed animal welfare and its main objective should be to plan for the “complete phasing out of animal agriculture in Australia”.
“We propose that a ten year phase out period be included in the terms of reference for the body,” the submission co-signed by Mr McFarlane said.
Vegan Australia also said the argument that farm trespass, and in particular trespass by animal activists, significantly increased biosecurity risk “has no basis in evidence”.
It said any stakeholders using biosecurity as a justification for advocating tougher penalties for animal activists trespassing on farms must provide evidence, and not merely rhetoric, demonstrating that the activists pose a significant biosecurity risk.
Vegan Australia also said it “recognises the value of the work done by those investigating animal agriculture”.
“In order to inform the public about the reality of animal agriculture, photographic and videographic evidence is vital to understanding the misery and suffering that many animals are subjected to in this country,” the submission said.
“Whilst honest, genuine footage is not provided by the industry nor the government, it falls upon activist groups, sometimes operating outside the law, to gather and disseminate this footage.”
Vegan Australia said it agreed with the draft report’s view that one way of reducing trespass was to remove the motivation for it.
“The reason animal activists trespass is to obtain evidence of farmed animal practices and conditions - farms should be required to allow access at any time so that animals can be inspected and freely filmed,” it said.
“Transparency in the monitoring and enforcement of farmed animal welfare should mean access to how animals are treated so that the community can be better informed.”
Sarah McKinnon from the NFF told the Canberra hearing that the breadth of the Commission’s inquiry demonstrated that red tape affected every agricultural issue.
Ms McKinnon said it was important to identify areas for improvement but equally important to find ways to achieve change, for the farm sector’s benefit.
The NFF’s submission said Animals played an important role in many aspects of Australian life and the Australian community had high expectations of animal welfare system.
“Farmers care for their animals and are themselves strong advocates of good animal health and welfare outcomes,” it said.
“The NFF is advocating for the respectful treatment of animals and supports the proactive implementation of welfare benchmarking across industry.
“The NFF also emphasises the importance of government working collaboratively with the sector to achieve animal welfare standards that meet joint industry and community expectations.
“The NFF is of the opinion that those community expectations and community perceptions need to be researched to fully comprehend how the agricultural sector can better communicate animal welfare outcomes.”