Down Under Doesn’t Want to Be Left Behind When It Comes to Biotechnology
Jun 21, 2012
By Heather Baldock: Kimba, South Australia
Psalm 63 speaks of "a dry and thirsty land, where no water is."
It’s not quite that bad where we live, but it’s close. We need to be very conservative with our water use. We plan our entire livelihood and lifestyle around rainfall events.
My family farms on the Eyre Peninsula in the state of South Australia on the continent of Australia.
We "dry land" farm on some of the driest agricultural land of the driest state on the driest continent on the planet.
Water is a precious resource. To make it here, about halfway between Sydney and Perth, we have to use water with care and efficiency. Drought is factored into our risk management planning. Using no till farming is one tool we are using effectively to help manage the risk while improving our soil structure.
Rainfall is not the only challenge but we worry that it will worsen as the climate changes with models predicting a hotter and drier environment in our area. As farmers, we need to adapt to meet this challenge.
I see biotechnology giving us one of the tools needed to breed crops that will help us manage the risk. We need access to GM crops that can cope with increased temperatures and use water more efficiently. And we need them sooner rather than later.
The ban on GM crops in South Australia, through a moratorium that’s been in place for almost a decade, is stifling the opportunity to meet the challenge of food production.
This is a huge mistake. Around the world, biotechnology is transforming agriculture for the better, helping farmers grow more food on less land and in sustainable ways. Australia should place itself on the cutting edge of this development. In South Australia, we have amazing facilities like the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics and a state of the art Plant Accelerator that can help us do this--and yet we’re failing to keep up, as countries from Brazil to Canada to the Philippines accept biotechnology and discover its incredible benefits.
Down Under can’t afford to get Left Behind.
Last month, PG Economics, a research firm in the United Kingdom, released a new report that describes why GM crops make so much sense. Between 1996 and 2010--the first year GM crops were commercialized and the latest year for which reliable figures are available--biotechnology boosted global yields by almost 160 million metric tons of corn and nearly 100 million metric tons of soybeans.
If the 15 million global farmers who used crop biotechnology in 2010 had lacked access to it--through bans like the one in South Australia or for whatever reason--they would have had to cultivate millions of extra hectares just to make up the difference. The amount of new farmland needed would be equal to about 30 percent of all the arable land in Australia.
So biotechnology isn’t just a boon to farmers. It’s also a conservation strategy.
GM crops are much better at fending off weeds and insects. Without the assistance of GM crops, there has been an increase in the reliance on herbicides and pesticides to manage weeds and pests. In Australia’s cotton growing areas the introduction of insect resistant cotton has reduced the use of insecticide by around 85% resulting in healthier waterways, ecosystems and communities. And this could be replicated in other crops.
Biotechnology also lowers production costs, which become a savings we can pass on to consumers. It shows that environmental and economic sustainability can work hand in hand.
In South Australia, we’d make good use of biotechnology right away, especially with the planting of canola. Over time, the innovation we’d most welcome is drought-resistant wheat. This crop would be a great addition to the cropping program in low-rainfall regions such as ours. The technology is not yet widely available, though it’s near. And with the rate of productivity growth slowing over the last decade in Australia according to the "At a Glance 2010" publication released by the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, it is certainly time for the next round of innovation on our farm. The one thing most responsible for holding it back is politics, not science.
We’re eventually going to have to accept agricultural biotechnology in all of its forms. The world has more than 7 billion people on it, with the equivalent of more than two Chinas expected to join to the global population by 2050. Most demographers think that farmers will have to double their production by the middle of the century.
Success will require growing more on each parcel of land--and we’ll have to make sure that every parcel is doing its part, including the marginal ones in the driest and thirstiest parts of Australia.
Heather Baldock and her husband Graeme grow wheat, barley, canola, peas and lupins on a 3rd generation family farm on Eyre Peninsula, South Australia. Heather is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).