Fierce divisions in the Greens over genetically modified crops have surfaced following Greens leader Richard Di Natale’s comments on the controversial issue, which took aim at how the party’s opposition to GM crops flies in the face of its environmentalist identity.
On January 7, Senator Di Natale questioned his party’s longstanding anti-GM food stance and argued that a lack of evidence to show that GM food poses any significant risks to human health rendered the party’s stance illogical.
“The literature so far, on the issue of human health, hasn’t produced evidence of widespread and significant health harms,” Senator Di Natale told the ABC.
“The concerns are less around human health and much more around the application of the technology when it comes to giving farmers choice, ensuring that farmers are able to produce a non-GM produce if they choose, making sure we don’t use this technology simply to drive up the use of more herbicides and pesticides, which is not which is not good land management.”
Although the senator’s moderate stance may appear radical to some hardliners in the party, it highlights his pragmatic style and approach to policy development that stems from the empiricism that naturally defines any medical professional.
For a party that is increasingly becoming the alternative to Labor for progressive voters, the Greens’ policy of a moratorium on GM foods feels not just outdated but archaic.
Understandably, this decades-old policy was conceived when the effects of GM crops on the environment and human health were still unknown, but the science has come a long way since and the Greens have failed to embrace it.
One of the main arguments against GM crops is largely centred around claims of low crop yields and the use of pesticides and herbicides. However, recent studies have not only debunked these claims but also shown that GM crops have less of an environmental impact than non-GM crops.
In a 2014 review article, authors analysed data from 147 studies that investigated the environmental and economic effects GM crops and found “robust evidence for GM crop benefits”. It was shown that on average, adoption of GM crops led to a 37 per cent decrease in chemical pesticide use by farmers, and crop yields increased by 22 per cent.
By reducing the use of harsh chemicals in farming, there is less risk of such chemicals contaminating waterways and causing further environmental damage such as algal blooms.
GM crops might also be useful in slowing down the effects of climate change, which the Greens lead the debate in, with a 2013 report by PG Economics showing that in 2012, GM crops alone contributed to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by almost 27 million tonnes.
However, as with any debate, these pros need to be weighed up against the cons. Biotech giant Monsanto has been heavily criticised by environmental groups for its practice of engineering crop seeds to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup, which it also conveniently owns. This has allowed farmers who use Monsanto’s Roundup-resistant seeds to kill weeds without killing their crops, hence increasing their crop yield and profits.
Roundup is far from being harmless, with the World Health Organisation classifying its key chemical glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” in 2015. But opposition to Monsanto’s practices should not be translated into opposition to all GM crops, as they can clearly be grown in a way that does not harm the environment.
Scientists are also yet to identify any serious adverse health effects on humans from GM food consumption. The potential for positive health outcomes, on the other hand, are being pursued vigorously, with many projects working towards the ambitious goal of using GM crops to improve the socio-economic and health status of impoverished nations.
Golden rice, for example, was developed as a humanitarian tool to combat vitamin A deficiency in third world countries, which is responsible for over a million deaths and half a million cases of blindness every year.
In 2010, World Vision Australia said “we cannot afford to discard GM as one of a range of options for improving food security” and a means of breaking the “cycle of recurring hunger and malnutrition” that is still prevalent in many countries.
The issue of GM crops will not go away any time soon, and the debate between scientists and policymakers will continue to rage on. But instead of engaging in this debate, the Greens continue to hold onto their blanket ban on GMOs for dear life.
A more nuanced approach that embraces the science and balances the benefits with the benefits would allow the Greens to become leaders in this debate, just like they have been with climate change.