Providing Context for GM Foods

By Jessica Lee
Posted on 22 March 2012
Filed under Agriculture

The debate on the regulation of GM technology should be placed into a broader context.

The rate of food production needs to double by 2050 to feed the planet's growing population (UN: 2009). Factors such as a changing climate and expanding cities will lead to the diminution of our arable land and fresh water supply (FAO: 2009). Key natural resources that are critical for growing the food for the nutrients we need are becoming more and more scarce (FAO: 2009). At the same time, many people in developed nations are increasing their demand for more specialised food-types (Ipsos-Eureka: 2010). New markets for specialty foods calling for distinct production methods continue to grow and change, placing demands on the agriculture industry to adapt.

Regardless of your preference for low-GI sugar, organic apples, free-range chicken, cereal high in resistant starch, bio-dynamic bread or whatever happens to be the best bargain at the time; it is clear that there is increasing pressure on our farmers not only to produce better food in greater quantities, but to produce that food using a broad range of agricultural production systems. It should therefore be evident that blundering on in this context without a clear strategy for Australia’s agriculture industry is akin to a child embarking upon a debut attempt at making soufflé, without a recipe, and a rapidly decreasing supply of eggs. 

I will argue that such a strategy, whatever its form, should aim for a regulatory system that facilitates the coexistence of different agricultural production systems. On a practical level, for the purposes of this post, coexistence requires facilitation of the ability to maintain product integrity in the Australian seed and grain supply chain to ensure that consumers get what they pay for, be it GM, conventional or organic.

With this broader context in mind, I will use this post to explore the relationship between misinformation and regulation, focusing on the debate surrounding the adoption of GM technology in Australia and the overarching issue of coexistence of different agricultural systems. I will first outline the state of media discourse surrounding coexistence, using the example of a dispute in Western Australia where some key factors have come to a head. I will argue that the media coverage of this incident and the broader concepts involved has constructed false dichotomies.  Borrowing from Habermas’ discourse theory of law, I will contend that the illusion of a divided public constitutes a “social power” (Habermas: 1996) from which the process of law making should be kept free. Stated otherwise, false dichotomies skew understanding of actual public perceptions of the wider issues involved in the GM debate, and in turn skew the regulatory environment, taking us further from a solution to the complex problems discussed above.

Media Controversy

The public discourse surrounding regulation of different agricultural production systems has fallen easily into the simplistic characterisations of nature versus human, environmentalist versus corporation, organic versus modern agriculture. These are false dichotomies of the most dangerous kind. Fictitious oppositions like those above have contorted both the law and the discourse surrounding agricultural coexistence.

The threatened litigation between farmers Steve Marsh and Michael Baxter in Western Australia is the most recent opportunity Australians have had to garner real discussion on the issue of agricultural coexistence. However, this is not how the incident has been constructed; as the sensationalists would have it, Marsh v Baxter is the most recent battle in a war between organics and biotechnology.

While it is difficult to find two articles covering the case that contain the same facts, the essence of the situation is that Mr Marsh was decertified by his organic certifying body after the unintended presence of Roundup Ready canola, allegedly caused by movement via wind of plants from the Baxter farm was confirmed on his farm. Mr Baxter was found by the Western Australian Department of Agriculture to have complied with all relevant regulations.

An analysis of the coverage of this case in the media reveals, with some notable exceptions, the construction of a war (see e.g. “Organic farmer to sue over GM contamination” ABC News, 13 January 2010; Kate Matthews, “Redman digs in on GM canola”, The Countryman, 10 February 2011). It was reported (see e.g. Alan Dick, The Land, 27 January 2011) that anti-GM lobby groups, along with the organic certification body that removed Mr Marsh’s status, the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA), were backing Mr Marsh. Subsequently, the Pastoralists’ and Graziers’ Association (PGA) announced their support for Mr Baxter. Funds for donations were set up by backers to help with each party’s legal costs. According to the coverage, neighbours have been turned against each other, teams have been picked and the supremacy of one ideology over another rests on the outcome of this litigation (see e.g. Elizabeth Farrelly, “Danger lies on the GM Food Road” The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 February 2011).

While most of the media constructs the debate as a war between David organics and Goliath biotechnology, the landscape of public opinion in reality is far more varied and affected by an extensive range of contingencies (Cormick: 2011). According to a 2007 study conducted for the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research on Australian public attitudes towards GM crops and foods; the percentage of Australians ‘strongly opposed’ to GM foods is only 7% while those ‘strongly for’ stand at 9% (Ipsos-Eureka: 2010). These figures reveal a significant contrast between the polarised construction of the debate and the reality of public perception.

Policy and Media

A study conducted for the European Commission in 2001 found that policy decisions are often made according to lawmakers’ perceptions of public attitudes, rather than a comprehension of public attitudes in actuality (European Commission: 2001). Such an approach to policy can only skew outcomes, and in the case of GM technology, has resulted in a confused regulatory environment which not only fails to consider, but actually acts to undermine coexistence.

In the coverage of the Marsh and Baxter dispute, there hasn’t been one particular mainstream media outlet running a clear campaign for or against any single farming system (as was recently shown to be the case with the carbon pricing policy debate in the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism’s 2011 “A Sceptical Climate” report (Bacon: 2011)).

However, the portrayal of the difficulties of regulating the coexistence of different farming systems as a "war" between two distinct and incompatible ideologies has undoubtedly had an effect on the state of the regulatory environment. This influence, I would argue, is particularly evident in the implementation of respective state moratoria on GM crops in 2003, many of which are still in place today, and the current organic standards for tolerance of GM on organically certified farms. Both of these regulatory mechanisms undermine the capacity of different agricultural production systems to coexist. Future regulatory changes need to be developed in an environment free of the influence of a constructed polarised debate (see Habermas: 1996).

Solutions

If there is a solution to our food security woes and the debate on agricultural practices, it doesn’t lie in an ideology that excludes all others, nor is it contained in a single farming system, chemical, or technology. We need to re-frame the discussion of GM technology in terms of a holistic approach to agriculture, with a view to formulating the best approach for Australian farmers and consumers. This means realistic regulations that allow farmers information about and access to the tools that will help them to meet the production demands they face, as well as a well-thought out strategy for the facilitation of mutual acceptance of a range of agricultural systems. This will help us to avoid divisive conflict and threats of litigation like that between Steve Marsh and Michael Baxter. It will also allow Australia to take up the unique opportunity presented by our economic and geographic situation, to lead the world in a holistic approach to the threat of food insecurity.

This is not a debate about having to choose one agricultural system over another. It is about recognising that farmers make choices in their production systems and identifying how we can work together to uphold those choices. The challenge of coexistence of different crops, production systems and pest management in agriculture and the supply chain is not new. Different agricultural productions systems have been successfully practiced around the world in proximity to each other for many years. Any debate on the issue needs to be science based and include all the farming practices that help provide the food, feed and fibre for our world.

Both legislators and the media have a role to play in facilitating this much-needed change. A focus on peer-reviewed studies of the complicated issues in science and law that lie behind a dispute like that of Marsh and Baxter will go a long way towards rationalising the discourse This will decrease the likelihood that the regulatory system will continue to be unduly influenced by misinformation.

References

UN General Assembly Panel Discussion, “Food Production Must Double by 2050 to Meet Demand from World’s Growing Population” available at http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2009/gaef3242.doc.htm

Food and Agriculture Organisation, “How to Feed the World in 2050” (2009), available at http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/wsfs/docs/expert_paper/How_to_Feed_the_World_in_2050.pdf

Dr Craig Cormick, “Understanding the Target Audience for Better Communication” in Mariechal J. Navarro and Randy A. Hautea (eds) “Communication Challenges and Convergence in Crop Biotechnology” (ISAA:2011).   

European Commission (2001) “Public Perceptions of Agricultural Biotechnologies in Europe research project”.

Ipsos-Eureka Social Research Institute (2010) “Public Attitudes Towards Biotechnology”, available at http://www.innovation.gov.au/Industry/Nanotechnology/PublicAwarenessandEngagement/Documents/AustBioAttitude2010.pdf

Wendy Bacon, “A sceptical climate – media coverage of climate change in Australia”, Australian Centre for Independent Journalism 2011, available at http://imlweb04.itd.uts.edu.au/acij-ds/investigations/detail.cfm?ItemId=29219

Jurgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy” (William Rehg trans., 1996), 21-22.

These views are the author's own and do not reflect the views of her employer, CropLife Australia or the Australian National University.

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