All GM foods to be declared on labels if Californian bill passes

Genetically modified (GM) food is a controversial issue that is set to become an electoral one in the US, with one state set to vote on the practise.

In November, California will be the first state to vote on whether declaration labels will be mandatory on all genetically modified food.

Up to 18 states in the US have attempted to pass similar laws in the same way, but so far all have failed to make it to the statewide ballot.

But in California, Proposition 37 as it is known, has received over a million citizen signatures, indicating it will be successful and foods that have been genetically modified with have to include that information on labelling.

Those against genetically modified foods believe consumers have the right to know if what they’re eating has been created or altered in such a way.

Major food manufacturers including PepsiCo, Nestlé and Coca-Cola, however, are opposed to the legislation, arguing that fears over the lack of long term health impacts of genetically modified foods are misguided.

They even argue that the benefits of genetically modified food far outweigh the perceived negatives.

"Bioengineered crops are the safest crops in the world," Bob Goldberg, a molecular biologist who's a professor at UCLA and a member of the National Academy of Science said.

"We've been testing them for 40 years.

“They're like the Model T Ford.

“There is not one credible scientist working on this that would call it unsafe."

Up to 80 percent of all processed foods sold in the US are made with genetically modified ingredients, including corn, soybeans, sugar beets and cotton oil.

If the proposal became law in California, genetically modified processed foods would be required to include the words "Partially produced with genetic engineering" on the front or back label, while foods entirely made through GM systems would h have to declare so with a sign on the shelf.

Where do you stand on genetically modified foods? Do you think Australians need input, similar to California?

Ask and you shall receive – smart consultation leads to better scienc

Worldwide, and especially in Australia, much valuable science is being wasted or stalled through what is known as technology rejection – the public’s hostile reception of new technologies or scientific advice.

This isn’t always the fault of the public. It’s often the fault of the scientific process for not bothering to find out in the first place what the public wants or knows and what it doesn’t. The grand assumption – “we’re scientists. We know what’s best for you” – still rules.

As a result, research institutions and technology companies are constantly ambushed and surprised when society doesn’t embrace their latest offering with wild enthusiasm, but instead carps, objects and wants it regulated, retarded or banned. The issue is that in a democracy people consider they have a right to say what they think, to use the products and eat the foods they prefer, and to take a good hard look at anything new before they decide to accept it.

What the public knows, but science sometimes chooses to overlook, is that many of the ills in society today are the result of the use, misuse or overuse of various technologies. Indeed, much science is devoted to repairing them. Take, for example, the paradox that tens of thousands of scientists are working worldwide to prevent and cure cancer – while tens of thousands more are adding daily to the toxic miasma of 83,000 man-made chemicals, many of which are known to cause it.

 

The more educated a society becomes, the harder the questions it asks about science. US Department of Agriculture

 

Educated people in modern society are aware of the downsides of science, as well as its upsides. They grew up on stories like thalidomide, and have a fair grasp of the origins of many contemporary diseases and the risks inherent in modern technologies, especially untested ones. They are cautious about GM food, stem cell science or nanotechnologies because they know that scientists do not have all the answers where these powerful, disruptive technologies are concerned. The more educated and democratic a society becomes, the harder the questions it asks about new science and technology. As former UK chief scientist Bob May liked to point out, an educated public becomes more like scientists: sceptical.

Yet many high tech firms and research centres are still confounded by this problem: labouring for years and spending millions to develop something the public takes an instant dislike to. They generally comfort and excuse themselves by shooting the messenger – blaming a green group, the media or a consumer lobby – rather than asking themselves: what did we do wrong?

The short answer is that they failed to do research. Not scientific research, but research into public attitudes, values and wishes. They then sprang an unwanted product on an unsuspecting “market” – and were shocked and offended when it failed.

The good news is that this no longer needs to happen. Thanks to a novel approach, developed within the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre, any scientific centre can find out how the public is likely to receive its latest innovation, and what drives its attitudes for or against any new technology or scientific advice. This applies equally whether it is climate change policy, or the introduction of a new mobile widget.

The technique is known as Reading the Public Mind (RtPM), and it uses an advanced statistical internet survey method to obtain a moving picture (as distinct from a snapshot) of public opinion in real time. It enables the user to drill down into what motivates the public for or against a particular issue or technology now – and how the balance of the pros and cons shifts over time.

This is an important advance over the traditional opinion poll or market research, which only take expensive one-off snapshots and, unless accompanied by costly qualitative research, do not reveal what drives public attitudes.

 

Finding out the limits of public enthusiasm can help advance new animal control methods. AAP

 

The Invasive Animals CRC used this method experimentally to assess public attitudes to invasive animals (such as rabbits, foxes, cats, cane toads and camels) and to the ways they are controlled. The CRC has been working on a range of sophisticated new control methods for these feral menaces, it did not want to be taken by surprise by public refusal to sanction their adoption and deployment. It also wanted to understand what the public knew and did not know about invasive species, and where education might be needed.

Over three years of surveying community attitudes, using a constantly changing sample of the population, it discovered many interesting things about what the public thought about this issue. One of the most striking was that Australians generally dislike feral cats – whereas scientists, fearing public criticism from cat-lovers, had long avoided doing research into their control. The technique was also able for the first time to measure the actual impact of public education campaigns (for example, about rabbits and camels).

Assessing public attitudes this way:

  • helps technology developers anticipate public or market reaction
  • helps scientific leaders plan research better, favouring those technologies most likely to be adopted or commercialised
  • anticipates both hostile and positive reactions and responds with public education or by altering research tack
  • assesses whether a communication initiative has fallen on deaf ears, or actually influenced public perceptions.

All of this adds up to more science adopted, less rejected and a better return on the taxpayer’s $9 billion-a-year science investment.

If Australian science is to genuinely benefit society as it should, then it needs far better tools to understand public attitudes and how they affect likely rates of adoption. It needs to become more sensitised to how Australians at large will respond to new technologies and insights. This will not only increase the impact of science. It will help make us a smarter society.

This article was co-authored by Julian Cribb. He is the principal of Julian Cribb & Associates, consultants in science communication, and is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering. Both Nick and Julian have been working with the Invasive Animals CRC at Canberra University.

Nick Fisher received funding from the Invasive Animals CRC to carry out this research.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

How Australia can become Asia’s food bowl

AUSTRALIA IN THE ASIAN CENTURY – A series examining Australia’s role in the rapidly transforming Asian region. Delivered in partnership with the Australian government.

Here, Dr Peter Batt looks at Australia’s potential to feed Asia’s rapidly growing population.

Asia has the fastest-growing population in world. This will increase the demand for food, but greater urbanisation, westernisation and rising personal wealth is changing the form in which food is consumed.

There is a rising demand for more animal protein in the diet, more dairy products and a greater variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. There is also more demand for value-added food: food that is convenient, safe and which has been produced more sustainably.

While it is the objective of most sovereign nations to be self-sufficient in food, in much of Asia it will be exceedingly difficult to produce enough food. There are major resource constraints in the form of arable land and water. Farmers are often unable to access appropriate technology, and the lack of infrastructure imposes major constraints on the efficient distribution of food.

Opportunities and challenges

To the south, Australia is well positioned to take advantage of the emerging opportunities. However, Australia must also find a way to address the many impediments that threaten to restrict market opportunities in the future.

Agriculture is the most volatile sector of the Australian economy. Seasonal variations, primarily in rainfall, have a direct impact on productivity. While productivity per area continues to grow, the rate of growth has slowed considerably. This is because the public is contributing less to research and development expenditure, and because many farmers can’t make the necessary investments in technology, equipment and machinery, due to their diminishing equity position and lack of confidence.

The economies of scale, which once favoured greater farm aggregation, are becoming more elusive. As input costs continue to rise and prices trend downward, the terms of trade are eroding.

While more accurate long-term weather forecasts may provide farmers with the information to make better decisions, the full impact of climate change is expected to place a considerable burden on the public purse. Huge investments in infrastructure will be necessary in much of the country to provide a regular and reliable source of water.

If the potential for agriculture in north Australia is to be realised, transport and logistics systems will need to be enhanced to ship the products to population centres.

Selling GM

Conventional plant breeding systems are likely to give way to the increasing use of genetic modification. Many consumers have concerns about the introduction of genetically modified plants.

But if the technology can be shown to reduce the use of agricultural chemicals and fertilisers, water and fossil fuels, and to deliver positive benefits to health and nutrition through enrichment, consumer resistance should diminish. This is even more likely if the use of GM reduces the costs of production and if that cost reduction flows through to consumers.

The high value of the Australian dollar is putting pressure on producers both domestically and abroad. Domestically, competition between the two major supermarket chains is driving food prices lower, often to the point where farmers’ profit margins are so small they can’t invest in new technology and new product development.

And more liberal terms of trade enable many food ingredients to be imported at prices well below the costs of production. This is forcing many food processing plants to close, with a commensurate negative impact on employment, farmers and rural communities.

The food bowl of Asia

As markets evolve, there is an increasing demand for higher quality products. Beyond the tangible characteristics of the product itself – such as size, shape, colour and appearance – consumers are now also expecting sustainably produced food. Australia leads the world in the implementation of quality assurance systems, but the uptake of sustainable farming practices has been slow, despite Australia having one of the most fragile ecologies.

To access world markets, Australian food producers have to show that their product has been produced using good agricultural practice. But competition between global retailers is continuously raising the bar, imposing additional costs on all food producers. These costs are seldom recovered, and this absence of sufficient financial incentives provides the major barrier to the more widespread adoption of sustainable farming practices.

However, there is a long-term public benefit in supporting the more sustainable use of resources and encouraging the more widespread adoption of integrated crop management.

If Australia is to become the food bowl of Asia, we need to start making changes now.

This is part thirteen of Australia in the Asian Century. You can read other instalments by clicking the links below:

Part One: Want to get ahead this century? Learn an Asian language

Part Two: Australia’s great, untapped resource … Chinese investment

Part Three: Beyond China: Australia and Asia’s northern democracies

Part Four: More than a farm on top of a mine: Australia’s soft power potential in Asia

Part Five: Australia can lead the fight against Asia’s lifestyle disease epidemic

Part Six: Why Australia needs an Asian Century Institute

Part Seven: Taming the tigers: tourism in Asia to become a two-way street

Part Eight: Australia will need a strong constitution for the Asian Century

Part Nine: A focus on skills will allow Australia to reap fruits of its labour

Part Ten: Engaging with Asia? We’ve been here before

Part Eleven: China, India and Australian gas – who controls energy in the Asian Century?

Part Twelve: Dealing with the threat of deadly viruses from Asia

Part Thirteen: Defence agreements with US harm Australia’s reputation in Asia

Part Fourteen: As Asia faces climate change upheaval, how will Australia respond?

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Calls for public register of foreign investment in Australian farming land

The peak farming representative group is calling for more transparency on the investments made in Australia by foreign investors.

The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) is calling for a compulsory national land register, to keep track of foreign interest in Australian agricultural land.

It would require any person or company not from Australia which acquire or transfer an interest in agricultural land to report the sale in a specified timeframe.

The NFF also wants the records to be made public.

“We are also calling for an annual report of the register findings to be published, summarising any changes to the holdings of agricultural land held by foreign interests,” president Jock Laurie said.

“This report will trigger an annual review of the policy settings around foreign investment, including the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) reporting threshold for agricultural land purchases by commercial interests.”

Earlier this year there were suggestions that Australians needed more transparency about modern farming practices, which were only fuelled by a Primary Industries Education Foundation research project, which found school children think yoghurt grows on trees and cotton socks are an animal product.

Laurie acknowledged the benefits foreign investment had provided for Australia’s agricultural industry, but said NFF members are concerned about the number of foreign interests in Australian farming land, which is ensuring food security for other countries and leaving us behind.

“At the core, the NFF supports foreign investment in Australian agriculture – provided that it does not negatively distort our resource allocations or outputs, does not undermine our farm gate prices, and is not undertaken with the intent of damaging competition in the marketplace,” Laurie said.

“While there have been some calls for the FIRB threshold to be lowered, we believe to do so at this point would be premature.

“This debate has long been described as a debate without data – and, in order to suggest a suitable FIRB threshold, we must first know what land is owned by whom- based on real data, not just a survey sample,” he added.

Do you agree with the suggested register? Do we need to know more about foreign farming interests in Australia?

Salt-tolerant durum wheat could ensure food security

A new type of durum wheat that can tolerate salty soil has been developed by Australian scientists, in a discovery they could help reduce world food shortages.

A team from the University of Adelaide conducted the study, and will make the new kind of durum wheat, which was made by crossing a modern wheat variety with a similar variety of crop, will be available to publically funded breeding programs across the globe.

Trials crops of the wheat in Moree and other areas in the south have a grain yield in salty crops that is 25 per cent higher than the normal type.

The University of Adelaide’s Matthew Gilliham, who led the study, said his team is the first in the world to conduct successful research on farms, not just in laboratories or greenhouses.

"This is why this work is particularly important, we think," he said.

The team first discovered a gene in an older salt-tolerant relative of commercial durum wheat which removes sodium from water as it is moves from the roots to the leaves.

The most challenging part was developing a new cross-breed which had this gene, without reducing the crop yield, Gilliham said.

Tests of the crop have found that the wheat performed far better than the traditional variety under salty conditions, and it did not come at the price of performance in normal conditions, which remained the same as the other type.

Salinity affects over 20 per cent of the world’s agricultural soils, including some in Australia, and presents a worsening threat to food production because of climate change, according to CSIRO’s Rana Munns, who was part of the research team.

Gilliham said creating crops that can withstand environmental changes is crucial to ensuring our food security in years to come.

"With global population estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050, and the demand for food expected to rise by 100 per cent in this time, salt-tolerant crops will be an important tool to ensure future food security," he said.

Durum wheat is mostly used to make pasta and couscous, and is very susceptible to soil salinity.

The team is now working on a new variety of bread-making wheat with the salt tolerance gene.

Aussie kids think yoghurt grows on trees: better education needed

If anyone needed further proof that Aussie children need better education on farming, new research showing many think yoghurt is grown on trees and socks come from animals should prove the point.

Of the year six students surveyed, 75 per cent believe cotton socks come from animals and just under half did not know bananas, bread and cheese came from farms.

A young child could be forgiven for such incorrect thoughts, but considering year six students are usually 12 and going into secondary school the following year, it is apparent more education is needed.

Especially if a quarter believe yoghurt comes from trees.

Students in year 10 did not have the same problem as their younger counterparts, with more correctly identifying where pasta, scrambled eggs and yoghurt come from.

Most of them even correctly identified where pearl necklaces came from.

A total of 300 students were interviewed for the study, half from year ten and the other half were year in year six.

The Australia Council of Educational Research, which conducted the study, is concerned about the findings, which prove there is a huge disconnect between farmers and consumers.

“This should be of real concern to parents, teachers and society as a whole: if children do not understand food or where it comes from, how can we expect them to be able to make healthy, nutritious and sustainable food choices?” president Jock Laurie asked.

"Food and clothing are among the most basic of all human needs.

“It seems incredulous that children are not taught more about where these vital products come from, or what goes into growing them."

Another worrying discovery from the research was 65 per cent of students who did not associate farming with innovation.

In January this year, Australian farm groups were considering taking on a US initiative to build public trust in farming to address consumer concerns about modern agriculture and food production.

The initiative, which was established by soybean producers in 2007 and funded by farmers, farm and food organisations and private companies is committed to undertaking research to create messages to increase consumer trust and has had great success.

According to Natioanal Farmers Federation (NFF) executive officer, Matt Linegar, "agriculture’s social licences to operate "are under increasing pressure, particularly as the divide between urban and rural Australians increases.

This divide leads to a huge lack of understanding about farming and agriculture for city dwellers, who have almost permanent availability of any fruit or vegetable, despite weather conditions, which has lead many to question the storage and transport of the produce.

There is also a plethora of jobs available in the farming industry, as fewer people see it as a promising career path.

Even universities can’t get the numbers in agricultural courses, and this year, one of the oldest and most respected courses in the industry was cancelled due to lack of numbers.

Hawkesbury Agricultural College, in Sydney’s west, opened in 1891 and graduates were highly regarded in the industry.

The college was purchased by the University of Western Sydney in 1989 and has suffered declining student numbers over recent years.

With few youngsters wanting to take up the occupation, many third or fourth generation farmers leaving the industry because they can’t make a profit and the average farmer reaching retirement age, the future looks pretty grim.

“We have thousands of jobs available in agriculture and this will continue to grow as the current generation of farmers retire, which means there are enormous opportunities for students. But unless the next generation learn about agriculture and food and fibre production, it seems unlikely that they will ever consider these areas as a career,” Laurie said.

The Primary Industries Education Foundation, which commissioned the survey, wants food and fibre production included in the national curriculum.

"The people who will need to solve the problems related to food security are either currently in school or are yet to be born," chair Cameron Archer said.

GM ban holding us back : SA business group

A South Australian business group has called for the ban on GM crops to be lifted for the sake of the food industry. 

South Australia stands with Tasmania as the only states to have a legal ban on GM crops.

Business SA chief executive Peter Vaughan says the ban is holding back the regions food industry.

"It is essential that our food-processing sector implements some key initiatives to ensure our long-term contribution to the global food supply chain," he told Adelaide Now.

"Genetically modified crops have overcome many of the challenging conditions faced by growers, and an extensive trial would address the issues, concerns and benefits."

The SA government has stated the ban would continue until 2014 when it is due for a review.

 Despite extensive testing, many groups still believe genetically modified organisms to be a threat to the natural ecosystem.

 However advocates, often from the food industry, say that GM crops often increase yield whilst reducing the amount of pesticides needed to be used.

Opponents of GM crops, which have modified DNA to increase yield and pest resistance, argue the potential health effects are unknown and contamination of GM-free products could destroy Australia’s export industry to countries that maintain a GM ban.

Advocates argue the benefits would particularly help South Australia through increased yields in a dry climate as well as more pest and drought resistant crops.

Whilst many farmers are happy to use GM crops due to the increased yield, some have even sued other farmers due to “contamination”. 

Steve Marsh, a farmer from Western Australia, recently took his neighbour to court () over GM contamination saying that he could no longer sell his canola as certified organic, and hence resulted in a monetary loss.

 “I think this is going to be a huge problem not only the division that’s caused by court cases like this but just the legal liability for people is going to be enormous.” he told the ABC.

The debate has become so heated recently that Greenpeace activists destroyed an entire strain of genetically modified wheat being developed by the CSIRO.

Greenpeace said in a statement that the action was to stop an  “open, risky experiments with something as fundamental as our food and the environment we depend on for life”

 However despite the opposition, Dr Anna Lavelle from AusBiotech, an industry lobby group, saidd the SA ban was a sire national conference in Adelaide.

"South Australia is out of step with the other states except Tasmania and it should consider the issue on the science and the benefits rather than the electoral comfort because very often people have a fear of new technology because of ignorance," she told The Weekly Times

"Tasmania’s position is a marketing one in that being GM-free may help them in the marketplace, but South Australia’s position is more ideological.

"The negatives are that if SA companies want partners to help invest in new technology then those partners will more likely join with firms in the other states, and also the large increase in the use of costly and unsafe chemicals to cope with increasing pest and fungal infections."

What do you think? Would you use genetically modified food in your products? Or would you shy away from these “untested” technology?

image: Daily Mail UK