Reuters
Australia Grain-GM canola to stage shy debut
Friday April 4, 2:07 am ET
By Michael Byrnes

SYDNEY, April 4 (Reuters) - Conditional clearance for Australian farmers to grow genetically modified (GM) canola is expected to lead to a small 2003 crop with opinion remaining strongly divided on the transgenic plant's merit.

The clearance, handed down by Australia's Gene Technology Regulator on Tuesday subject to eight weeks of public consultation, has produced resigned acceptance by opponents of the technology that Australia will grow its first GM food crop.

"The path has been cleared for the introduction of genetically engineered canola into Australia," Greenpeace campaigner Jeremy Tager said, describing the regulator as throwing caution to the wind. Australia's Gene Technology Regulator Sue Meek conditionally cleared an application by Germany's Bayer CropScience (XETRA:BAYG.DE - News). Monsanto Co (NYSE:MON - News) of the U.S. has also applied.

Only a small area would be commercially grown in 2003, in Victoria state, Bayer CropScience general manager bioscience Susie O'Neill said after Meek's announcement.

Bayer and Monsanto have each said they plan to release enough GM seed to cover only 5,000 hectares (12,360 acres) in 2003, a tiny fraction of the million hectares (2.471 million acres) or more which is normally planted to canola in Australia each year.

But industry leaders believe that GM canola will eventually become the dominant crop.

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) said in a study released this week that Australia would grow larger GM canola crops in later years if significant problems did not emerge from the first crop.

FARMERS DIVIDED

"Farmers are all over the place on GM canola," Ian Donges, a large grain grower and former president of the National Farmers Federation, commented to Reuters at this week's Grains Week annual conference.

The Grains Council of Australia (GCA), which represents growers, welcomed the decision.

"After nine months of exhaustive assessment, (Gene Technology Regulator Sue) Meek has found that GM canola poses no higher risk to human health and safety of the environment than conventional non-GM canola," GCA president Keith Perrett said.

The decision would provide an assurance for Australian grain growers who may be contemplating planting a GM crop, he said.

Not so, said the anti-GM Network of Concerned Farmers (NCF).

"This...plan does not consider the costs to farmers and the potential loss of markets," it said.

NCF estimates that the cost to farmers of segregating grain under a system of coexistence between GM and conventional canola at a minimum of 10 percent of the product value.

Farmers producing conventional canola would be forced to market their product as GM to remain viable, it said.

In contrast, ABARE said agronomic benefits to Australian production of GM canola would outweigh likely additional costs of compliance with GM market access restrictions.

Bayer CropScience has said its InVigor hybrid GM canola in Canada showed yield increases of 10 percent to 15 percent over conventional canola, as well as better weed control.

The public discussion period, which will end on May 26, will leave just enough time for some GM canola to be put in the ground before the end of the planting season around the end of June.

Rapid expansion of Australia's canola industry, to 2.4 million tonnes in 1999/00 from just 200,000 tonnes in 1991/92, has made it the world's second biggest exporter after Canada, whose crop is more than 60 percent GM.

Canola, a variety of rapeseed, is widely used as cooking oil.