Podcast: How activists and politicians derailed South Australia’s attempt to embrace GMO crops

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Australia has grown GMO crops for well over 15 years and reaped the predictable benefits—most notably an 80 percent drop in pesticide use. But the controversy didn’t end after the federal government enacted regulations in 2000 to ensure the safe use of crop biotechnology. Following intense lobbying from environmental activist groups, the state of South Australia implemented a temporary moratorium on GMO crop cultivation in 2004, ostensibly to evaluate concerns that GMO canola could pose a threat to human health.

The ban was supposed to be a temporary measure. However, continued pressure from the organic food industry prompted the state government to enact a series of extensions that kept the moratorium in place well past its scheduled end date. In 2017, the political landscape shifted when a new administration took control of South Australia’s government. Officials examined whether or not the moratorium had served its purpose and ultimately decided to rescind the ban, a move enthusiastically endorsed by many of the state’s farmers.

But local activists connected to Green Party and Labor Party representatives in Parliament derailed the government’s plan and kept the moratorium in place. Minister of Primary Industries and Regional Development Tim Whetstone said on Dec. 3 the last-minute reversal came down to “petty politics” and vowed to introduce legislation to finally rescind the moratorium, which he said harms the state’s economy:

By continuing to leave a moratorium in place the Labor Party are costing farmers in South Australia real money and denying them a basic right – choice. New and improved crop varieties will also help farmers tackle drought and climate change as we look to provide our grain growers with as many tools as possible.

[Editor’s note: The debate over South Australia’s GMO moratorium is ongoing. GLP is monitoring the situation and will post updates as they become available.]

On this episode of Talking Biotech, plant geneticist and host Kevin Folta sits down with Caroline Rhodes, CEO of Grain Producers South Australia. Rhodes breaks down Australia’s complex history with crop biotechnology and explains the playbook local activists use to manipulate politicians with fear, uncertainty and doubt. Ultimately, she says, this is a case of restricting farmer choice for political reasons.

Caroline Rhodes is the CEO of Grain Producers South Australia. Follow her on Twitter @bespoke_rural

Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta and email your questions to [email protected]

Related article:  UK GM wheat trial highlights costs of violent activism

The Talking Biotech podcast, produced by Kevin Folta, is available for listening or subscription:

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