Published on: 12:21PM Oct 17, 2008
Australia is so far away that I can almost understand what a badly informed character in an Oscar Wilde play says about the land Down Under: “It must be so pretty with all the dear little kangaroos flying about.”
For Queensland farmer Jeff Bidstrup, kangaroos aren’t cute marsupials that seem ready-made for Animal Planet documentaries. To him, they’re big-time pests.
A worse problem than kangaroos, however, is the anti-biotech lobby in Bidstrup’s country. It seeks to deny him and every other Australian farmer a right that American farmers can take for granted: The ability to choose what seeds they want to plant, including those that are improved through the latest genetic technologies.
A few years ago, Bidstrup decided to fight back--and that’s why he is the recipient of the Dean Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award for 2008.
The board of Truth About Trade and Technology established the prize last year, in honor of its founder and chairman. It seeks to recognize “strong leadership, vision, and resolve in advancing the right of all farmers to choose the technology and tools that will improve the quality, quantity, and availability of agricultural products around the world.” The award will be given out annually in conjunction with the World Food Prize. In 2007, it went to Rosalie Ellasus of the Philippines.
“We’ve had biotech cotton for more than a decade,” says Bidstrup, who grows grain and cotton on about 12,000 acres in the Darling Downs region of Queensland, in northeast Australia. “I immediately saw the difference it made and understood that this was a wonderful technology for farmers.”
But then the anti-GM activists struck.
“One of Australia’s states banned GM food crops, then all of them but Queensland passed their own moratoriums in a matter of weeks,” says Bidstrup. (There are six states in Australia.)
“There was almost no discussion. We were caught off guard, completely flat footed.”
For a while, nobody did much of anything. “We all thought someone else would take care of the problem,” says Bidstrup. The result: Inaction.
One day, Bidstrup saw professional protestor Percy Schmeiser on television. “He was standing in a wheat field, explaining how awful GM crops are,” says Bidstrup. “But the field was full of weeds. It was a disgusting farm. It made me upset.”
That got Bidstrup thinking: “I have two sons who want to be farmers. I started worrying about their future in this business. I realized that they aren’t going to have one unless somebody does something about all of this anti-biotech nonsense.”
So Bidstrup founded Producers Forum, a coalition of farmers who work to educate Australians about the benefits of biotechnology and to repeal moratoriums based on the kind of ignorance that allows some people to believe that kangaroos have wings.
Earlier this year, they succeeded in persuading the governments of New South Wales and Victoria to lift their bans and came close to convincing South Australia to do the same.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” says Bidstrup. “We’re going to make even more in 2009 and beyond.”
They do it through intelligent activism. Bidstrup and his farmer allies concentrate on the media, giving interviews to journalists and writing letters to the editor. Bidstrup himself speaks with enormous authority: He has farmed for 40 years, serves as the director of a company that sells a certified organic product, belongs to a co-op that processes organic crops, and is a former organic grower himself.
In one recent letter, he pointed out that his countrymen depend on GM crops everyday: “In Australia, our intensive animal industries are reliant on imported and domestic GM protein, and we rely on imported GM soy of 90 per cent of our soy extract that is used in most processed foods.”
It makes no sense for Australia to stop its own farmers from growing these crops: Under a ban, “the chickens will still eat GM soy, we will still eat the chickens, but the profits and environmental benefits will be exported to our competitors.”
Because of the efforts of the 2008 Kleckner laureate, the truth about biotechnology is on the verge of victory in Australia.
Let’s look forward to the day when Bidstrup can go back to worrying full time about kangaroos.
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm manages both road side retail and wholesale markets. John is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrrade.org