Bizarre argument against GE wheat

This is a first. While browsing the news recently, I came across this article in Farm Weekly, an Australian site: GM silver bullet could shoot farmers in foot. In the short article, a representative from Network of Concerned Farmers, Julie Newman, says that conventional wheat farmers need to be protected – from being outperformed by genetically engineered wheat. I have to post the whole thing because I can’t figure out what to leave out:

THE introduction of a Genetically Modified (GM) wheat variety with frost tolerance could potentially flood the world wheat market and drastically lower its price and profitability, according to Network of Concerned Farmers WA spokesperson Julie Newman.
“Our competitors will actually fare much better if we bring in GM wheat, because we can grow frost-tolerant crops now but they can’t because of the cold snaps,” she said.
“If you invent a GM wheat variety that has frost tolerance, it will open up all of the rich farming area in Russia and the Ukraine, and there will be a major glut of wheat on the world market.
“It would almost double global production and that means our wheat would be worth a fraction of the price.”
She said a clear set of rules needed to be established to ensure non-GM farmers were protected and retained their right of choice to not grow it.
“The reason you grow a crop is because you want to sell it, but if you can’t sell it, why grow it?
“There’s not much point growing GM wheat if it can’t be sold, because you will make a loss.
“Now that wouldn’t be so bad if it only affected the growers who choose to grow it, but the losses will also be forced upon the other farmers who don’t want to grow it.
“Bringing in GM wheat will force losses on everyone who grows conventional wheat.”

Let me get this straight: Julie Newman is worried that if a variety of wheat is genetically engineered to resist frost, then previously wheat-free northern areas would be able to grow this staple. And this is bad?
According to Newman, an increase in wheat production worldwide is a bad thing not because it will lower the price of wheat – it is bad because it will lower the price of non-GE wheat. Lowering the price of GE wheat is ok, but if it so much as drops the price per bushel one penny – it’s infringing on our rights!
This doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. I have read it no less than ten times, and I still cannot understand her reasoning. If you were to improve wheat to be more frost-tolerant through conventional breeding, that would also pose the same ‘threat’ of increased production and depressed prices. This would make it more difficult for other wheat farmers to economically choose wheat as a good crop to grow. It would not force farmers in non-frosty places to grow the frost-resistant wheat, any more or less than those farmers would be forced to grow a genetically engineered equivalent. There is no change in the ‘right’ not to grow the improved wheat whatsoever.
Faced with lower prices, wheat farmers may choose to grow something else to stay profitable. Note the key word: Choose. If a wheat farmer really wants to grow wheat when it is no longer profitable for them, they can do that, conventional or otherwise. But as the spokesperson for an anti-GE organization, the remedy for this future issue is to prop up local conventional wheat farmers as a special category to keep them afloat. No, not to prop up all local wheat farmers, only the conventional non-GE ones.
Take it out of context of the anti-GE argument, such as with the hypothetical conventionally-bred frost-tolerant wheat I mentioned above, and it is absurd. Or how about another thought-experiment: Let’s say someone finds a fertilizer or growing method that boosts yield – and some farmers don’t feel like using it. Should they be granted price supports to keep them in business while other farmers produce more? Or if a futuristic advanced organic production system produced twice as much yield as conventional farms, would it make any sense to subsidize farmers that just don’t feel like making the switch?
Under the surface of this plan there are several real issues at play. This is coming from an Australian organization, founded by 8 farmers, half of them who grow wheat. (I could find no information on total membership, if there are any more members than these 8.) And Newman is worried that farmers in Ukraine and Russia will start to produce a lot more wheat and drive Australian farmers to something else. (Or to GE wheat) It is difficult to tell what kind of rules Newman is talking about. She may be arguing for a government subsidy to elevate the price of Australia-grown wheat to combat increased production in other countries. This is pretty standard international politics when it comes to agriculture. Or it may instead be a suggestion for some sort of tariff, ban, or other way of blocking the slightly-more-than-hypothetical wheat from Asia from depressing the Australian market.
But this is coming from a group of farmers that is opposed to genetic engineering, so it takes two special twists in addition to the international issue. The first is that the support must be for non-GE wheat only. As the wheat farmers who founded the organization probably do not plan to grow GE wheat themselves, it is a self-serving advocacy in addition to promoting their cause. And in this case they would be using the potential for another nation to flood the market as an excuse to specifically benefit non-GE wheat farmers.
The second twist is of a form that I have begun to recognize in the international discussions over GE wheat – the tool of genetic engineering for crop improvement is being made a tool for international agricultural struggles that don’t necessarily have anything to do with genetic engineering per se. This is problematic because we need laws and regulations concerning GE crops to be based on scientific and ethical guidelines, not price protectionism. If it is necessary to support the price of local wheat in your country, do it and don’t drag this technology into that battle.

8 comments

  1. Perhaps Julie should champion a massive reduction in global farming acreage – surely all farmers would benefit from having their acreage cut in half as then their crops will be more valuable (and they wont have to spend so much on fertilizer,pesticides and herbicides)

  2. Let me explain for you Karl as media do not have the room
    to publish the full story. If you bring in GM wheat we all risk
    losing our markets as it is too expensive and too difficult to grow
    and sell as non-GM. The process required to segregate, test and the
    cost involved to recall a product if GM contamination is found is
    unaffordable and unworkable. There is such market resistance to GM
    wheat that the Canadian Wheat Board research found that if Canada
    adopted GM wheat their customers would stop buying any wheat from
    Canada. In other words if one farmer grew GM wheat commercially in
    West Australia, all farmers risk losing out markets. The comment
    about Russia is basic to everyone. Why should Australian farmers be
    forced to pay GRDC levies to fund something like GM frost tolerant
    wheat when it has the potential to destroy our markets and provide
    opposition countries with a better advantage than we will gain from
    it? Its not rocket science.

    1. Julie – is the playing field still the same?
      The reason I ask is that Monsanto dropped GE wheat like a hot potato some time ago entirely because acceptance of GE wheat was likely to be such that it wouldn’t be grown – as such it wasn’t worthwhile persuing commercially as a product – however Monsanto have now purchased a wheat breeding company and R&D on GE wheat has kicked back into gear. I have a feeling that this is because prior market non-acceptance of GE wheat has been overcome by the experience in other GE commodities combined with farmers seeing the benefits of GE in other crops and demanding it in wheat also.

      If you bring in GM wheat we all risk
      losing our markets as it is too expensive and too difficult to grow and sell as non-GM.

      Is this really the case? How do Organic growers and other non-GE growers in current crops manage? Are there actual cases of people going out of business because they can’t get their non-GE crop to market – have prices really been reduced vastly such that you’re making less of a profit on non-GE as compared to GE grains? (as a non-GE grain would still sell for the same price of a GE grain and afaik there isnt a price differential on GE vs non GE grain at any elevators)

      In other words if one farmer grew GM wheat commercially in West Australia, all farmers risk losing out markets.

      Has this happened for any other crop since the introduction of GM crops?

      Why should Australian farmers be forced to pay GRDC levies to fund something like GM frost tolerant wheat when it has the potential to destroy our markets and provide opposition countries with a better advantage than we will gain from it? Its not rocket science.

      What %age of your GRDC levy goes towards GM frost tolerant wheat as compared to development of other varieites which are of direct benefit to Australian farmers? This arguement however does at least make sense from a cold hearted business perspective, although somewhat ignores the need to double grain production globally in the next few decades – well, ignores it, or rather than seeing it as a challenge to be met sees it as a cash cow to be milked – if production stagnates and demand doubles then farmers who can grow consistently will make bank in years like the current one where the Russian crop fails – it’d be akin to Monsanto arguing against paying taxes that go towards research in the public domain on transgenics or crop breeding – understandable from a business perspective, but utterly cold hearted (pun intended)

  3. Hi Julie, thanks for stopping by and for reminding me of this old post.
    You are right that the media did not publish the full story, as there wasn’t even an opposing voice quoted in the article. You had the full attention of the author, and you were able to put your argument forward, however logically problematic it was.
    The argument you put forward in your comment is a different one. In the article quoted above, you said that prices would be depressed by an increase in wheat production internationally. Your new argument is that if other countries (or Australia) grow GE wheat that you will experience problems with segregating the wheat and the costs involved with maintaining the identity of your crop. While in both arguments there is the commonality of arguing that it could be made more difficult to grow and sell non-GE wheat, when you are talking about GE wheat grown internationally the arguments are almost the reverse of each other.
    I have read some about the issue of genetically engineered wheat and international market acceptance, and it is not as simple as you are suggesting. It sounds like the wheat industry is interested in pursuing GE wheat in some places, often for the reason that wheat is losing its profitability compared to other crops and acreage is going down. I certainly know that is the case in the US, farmers make more money growing corn and soy than wheat. The landscape of opinion with regard to GE wheat is complex, and there are some buyers that are not interested in GE wheat, while others are fine with it. It is certainly true that some buyers will shun an entire country’s wheat to avoid the possibility of accidentally importing GE wheat, which, since that would effectively reduce the supply of wheat available for them to import, it would have the effect of raising the price of non-GE wheat. If Canada was to commercialize GE wheat, along with, say, the United States, and if Australia didn’t, then what would happen to the price of non-GE wheat in Australia?
    If markets for wheat from GE-wheat producing countries are depressed as much as you are suggesting, then the correct answer to this question is that non-GE wheat producing countries would benefit from a price hike due to the reduced supply that they can buy from. This is where the price argument you made against Russia producing GE frost-tolerant wheat parts ways with the market argument you make here in your comment, and indeed, becomes the opposite argument for international trade of wheat. If Russia was to produce a ton of GE wheat, it would reduce the price of wheat around the world, but only if you believe that the world will accept the GE wheat and not shun it. So in order to believe one argument or the other, you must choose between wheat buyers accepting or shunning GE wheat – which one is it?
    One important thing to keep in mind is that these arguments about international trade and losing or gaining markets is that it all depends on acceptance – or even just the perception of acceptance. You don’t like the idea of GE wheat, but not everyone agrees with that, or will agree with that ten or twenty years down the road. Maybe you will abandon wheat altogether to avoid growing it, maybe you’ll carve out a niche market based on certified non-GE seed, or maybe you’ll grow GE wheat someday. (I would be curious to hear what you think about that should GE wheat become common in your country?) But while change has so far been slow to GE crops from nations that have initially avoided it, there are signs that nations are loosening up on initial safety and market concerns. The mere fact that we are talking about wheat again when it was supposed to be dead ten years ago is a sign of that.
    Public opinion can change, and farmers and others campaigning against genetic engineering have to consider their role in public opinion and market acceptance as well. You are a wheat farmer and you are worried about market issues should GE wheat be grown next door – why is the response to try to prevent other farmers from being able to grow it, versus educating consumers that it is not an issue they should be worried about – or that a few stray grains in their bag of non-GE flour made form the wheat on your farm should not be cause to reject your wheat? Do people campaigning against genetic engineering also bear some responsibility for market rejections that they could help to prevent?
    You have a right to grow what you want on your farm, but does that translate into a right to tell every other farmer in your nation that they do not have the same right?
    Here’s hoping for a world where different farming systems can co-exist and that this doesn’t get ground up in the machine of international politics.

  4. Actually Karl, as is clearly evident, GE growers will not give the choice for non-GM growers as contamination occurs and has everywhere where it has been grown in Australia. Because Murdoch owns all the papers and he is a major shareholder of Monsanto Australia we will never see that evidence in print.
    You can say that public opinion has changed and yet it has not. Japan and Europe are against GM in their food. This is clearly shown because BASF packed up shop and has moved out of Europe recently because of the non-GM status. If Australians knew what food they were buying and if it was labelled non-GM or GM they would buy the non-GM according to surveys done clearly showing that people are against the uncertainly of health issues with GM (See the MADGE site). But because FSANZ has conflicts of interest with GM Company members on their board, how will we ever know and show our opinion that we don’t want GM in our food. There are clear evidences of health issues and yet the GM multinational Corporations are paying their way into our food from bribes and Corruption. (See Monsanto Wikipedia site). Monsanto has said “No food shall be grown that we don’t own” is clear evidence that they want to own the food chain.
    We cannot have co-existance with GM – it contaminates all crops and the implications of that is that the GM companies will sue and have in the US and Canada. How many farmers have had to walk off their farm because they can no longer afford the GM seed and the “technology fees” that these corrupt companies charge and the poor farmer did not want to grow GM in the first place. Farmers will not have a choice in the end as the contamination of GM is like wildfire. Why you are not looking at past mistakes like Ryegrass and was “introduced because we need it” which is a major weed in most states and learning from our past mistakes I don’t know.
    All farmers have the right to grow what they want and GM contamination will not give them that right.

    1. All farmers have the right to grow what they want and GM contamination will not give them that right.

      Cognitive dissonance much?

    2. Actually Karl, as is clearly evident, GE growers will not give the choice for non-GM growers as contamination occurs and has everywhere where it has been grown in Australia.

      and you know this because ….?

      Because Murdoch owns all the papers and he is a major shareholder of Monsanto Australia we will never see that evidence in print.

      Oh! Never mind, then. My government keeps little green men captive in Roswell too, but we’ll never see that evidence in print either 🙁

      There are clear evidences of health issues …….

      Really? Where?

      …. (See Monsanto Wikipedia site).

      Ahhh! Never mind, again!

      How many farmers have had to walk off their farm because they can no longer afford the GM seed and the “technology fees” that these corrupt companies charge and the poor farmer did not want to grow GM in the first place.

      Wow! Just, Wow! … I have no idea how many. Do you? I couldn’t find it anywhere on Wikipedia. Maybe the Illuminati are keeping that to themselves too.

    3. All quips aside, Vicki brings up an argument that cannot be easily dismissed. That is, once you introduce a GE trait, you cannot (except with the use of multiple sterility systems) ensure that all farmers who want to be 100% free of it will be able to have that kind of purity. However, the problem with it is that this is true for all conventionally bred crop varieties, weed seeds, insects that have a niche on someone’s farm, etc.
      I once bought a commercially-produced crookneck squash plant from a nursery, and when the big squash plant started producing fruit it turned out to be a Zucchini. I was really disappointed, because I wanted to grow fresh crookneck yellow squash. I did not want to grow zucchini, although I still turned it into delicious kabobs. Imagine if zucchinis were brand new, and everyone had been growing crookneck squash in their backyards for centuries. Let’s say that many people want the “right” not to grow zucchini. Can you ensure that the introduction of zucchini will not in any way “contaminate” the back yards of people who want to only grow crookneck squash? If you believe that being unable to have absolute absence of a GE trait means that you no longer have the “right not to grow” it, then you must agree that introducing any new crop variety is eliminating the right of someone “not to grow” that variety, be it zucchini or purple tomatoes, etc.
      Therefore you must either reject your argument, or also agree that all new crop varieties must have a tight leash on them, to protect the “right not to grow” them.
      Did this argument make sense to you, Vicki?
      Genetic engineers must realize that there can be long-term crop identity issues when it comes to GE crops, but on the flipside, people who use simplistic arguments like this against GE crops must realize what the logical consequences of them are. The “right not to grow” stems from Lockean rights-theory, more specifically, the idea that you have the right to do on your land what you please, without being affected by the actions of others. But we live in an interconnected world, where nothing anyone does has zero effect on everyone else, and inflexible arguments that put a narrow desire of one group over the overall benefit of everyone (and coexistence when people have differing opinions on those benefits) should be scrapped.

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