GM Technology Can Be Western Australias Ally

Published on: 20:32PM Apr 08, 2015

By Kelly Manton-Pearce: Yealering, Western Australia

The U.S. government has just approved a new kind of apple. When cut or bruised, it keeps its color—it doesn’t turn brown, as apples do so quickly now.

The Canadian company behind this innovation calls them “Arctic apples.” They’re the result of a new form of genetic modification. Rather than transplanting genes from one species to another—up to now, the most common way to create GM crops—scientists simply work with the genes in the apples themselves.

By “turning off” the genes that cause rapid browning, they’ve invented a new and improved apple that should have great consumer appeal. 

We’ll see how the market responds. You never know what consumers will think until they’ve had a chance to try something, but I can sense the appeal of this one. Mums will find it easier to pack sliced apples in school lunches.

In the meantime, let’s hope that consumers and politicians don’t react with fear and ignorance, driven by special interests and ideological activists who want to destroy novel ideas before they’ve even had a chance to face the public.

Farmers in Western Australia, like us, appreciate the problem. We live in one of the Australian states that allows a bit of GM cropping: Under tight rules, we can grow GM canola.

Yet we could do so much more.

There is currently a debate in our state to remove legislation that restricts the growing of GM food. I hope it’s overturned: Farmers in Western Australia should enjoy all the tools of modern agriculture, especially the ones that have proven so popular and effective in the Western hemisphere, from Canada in the north to Argentina in the south.

This would represent progress. Unfortunately, we may have to endure regress. The states of South Australia and Tasmania continue to ban GM farming. If a Labor government comes to power in the next Western Australian state election they have indicated they will re-impose the moratorium.

The controversy over GM food represents the greatest failure in our lifetime to communicate the basic facts of science. Around the world, billions of people misunderstand a whole class of technology. They don’t recognise that GM crops represent some of our best opportunities to address food security amid a booming global population and environmental challenges during a period of unpredictable climate change.

As am Agricultural Scientist, I am intrigued by the trend across the food chain in Australia and developed countries around the world – particularly Europe – to desire less modern agricultural science and technology than more. The full-bellied consumers in these countries are demanding more from the food sector than just cheap, safe and readily available food by raising unsubstantiated concerns regarding new applications of agricultural science in food production.

During my research and farming career, I have had the opportunity to meet many farmers and research organizations working with GM crops.  From Arctic apples to weed-resistant canola, GM foods represent the victory of human ingenuity and the wonder of science over the grinding misery of hunger and suffering. I’ve witnessed the research trials in the Philippines on “Golden Rice,” a GM crop whose biofortification could wipe out the scourge of childhood blindness caused by vitamin-A deficiency.

It’s heartbreaking to visit these Golden Rice plots, and then to meet the sightless children whose fate in life would be so different if only they could have had access to this food.

The only thing standing between a new generation of blind children and a preventative solution is the illogical opposition of activist NGOs based in Western countries— prosperous countries that have full bellies and readily available and nutritious food, but nonetheless have allowed its fixation with hypothetical risks to trump both common sense and miraculous potential.

We cannot allow similiar harmful obsessions to take root in Australia.

On our family farm in Western Australia, we grow grain and raise sheep. We’ve experimented with GM canola, with mixed results. Although we saw vast improvement in our paddocks, we didn’t benefit from gains in yield—and so we’re waiting for better technologies to come along before we try again.

That’s how GM farming ought to work: Farmers should enjoy the freedom to decide what they’ll grow, making decisions based on economic and environmental sustainability. One thing we’d like to try is drought-tolerant wheat, helping us make the most of our sparse rainfall in Western Australia and letting us grow more food on less land in tough times.

As we struggle to feed a hungry world, we need to make technology our ally rather than our enemy. And if GM apples ever make it to Australia, I’ll gladly try them out and feed them to my family.

 

Dr. Kelly Manton-Pearce, along with her husband Alan, grow canola, wheat, barley, oaten-hay and sheep in Western Australia.  In addition to farming, Kelly is a Nuffield Scholar, Research Fellow with Murdoch University and a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).

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