A global food scarcity crisis is looming, due to the effects of overpopulation, the exhaustion of agricultural lands, and climate change. A UN report last year revealed that food shortages over the next decade were inevitable, as the warming climate is reducing grain production. Scientists around the globe have been turning to genetic engineering, with its promise of increasing crop yields by around seven percent. But GM detractors claim the technology is untested and could lead to problems down the track, including detrimental effects to health, and the contamination of surrounding crops.
In South Australia, the state government has just trialled a new GM-free soil program that some are heralding as the future of agriculture. The New Horizons program has produced dramatic increases in crop yields of 50 to 100 percent and has even resulted in rises of up to 300 percent at some test sites. The program, which incorporates different techniques to improve soil quality, could potentially add $800 million to the state's economy.
But New Horizons has sparked debate in sectors of the state's agricultural industry, as the economic viability of implementing such a program is questioned. And concerns are also being raised over the state's 12 year long moratorium on GM technology, which certain farmers believe has a detrimental effect on the industry.
SA Agricultural Minister Leon Bignell said he was pleased with the results of the program, which prove "that New Horizons is the next revolution in agriculture."
"The state government established New Horizons because we wanted to overcome soil issues and significantly increase South Australia's agricultural production," Bignell told VICE. "Landholders want confidence in the techniques being used and the state government is continuing to work with them and answer their questions."
In November 2013, Bignell—who caused controversy last year when he attended an anti-GM rally —announced his government's decision to extend the statewide GM moratorium until September 2019. He said the ban was important in maintaining the state's reputation for producing premium food and wine. Last year, during the state election all major political parties supported the continuation of the moratorium.
Andrew Johnson, group executive director at the Department of Primary Industries and Regions SA, initiated the New Horizons program two years ago. It brings together the soil management techniques of clay incorporation, deep fertilisation and the incorporation of organic matter. "So if you combined it, we thought that we could get at least a 70 percent increase in productivity," he said. But initial expectations were not high enough, "over the last grain season, the results have shown a 100 percent increase in yield."
The trial, which involved growing wheat crops in sandy, low fertility soils, was undertaken at sites north of Port Lincoln on the Eyre Peninsula, near Karoonda in the Murray Mallee and near Naracoorte in the south-east of the state.
An analysis of how to finance the roll-out of the program is now underway. "It's not cheap. It's about $400-450 a hectare, in some areas that's nearly as much as what land costs, but if you can double production with no more inputs then you've got a significant impact without having to go and try to find more land," Johnson explained.
According to Darren Arney, chief executive of Grain Producers South Australia, the results of the program are impressive, though he doubts it could be economically feasible. "I would imagine that some of the clay and the addition of organic matter is not a cheap operation, so there'd be a fair bit of capital expenditure involved in that," he said.
Arney would be happy with the seven percent yield increase that could be achieved if the use of GM technology was allowed, especially as productivity increases over the last decade have been about 0.7 to one percent.
"The GM moratorium is supposed to be around a marketing advantage for a better price. The grower's aren't seeing it," Arney said. "We're yet to see the evidence of the advantage it provides."
A GM moratorium was brought into effect in most states around Australia in 2003, to delay the commercial release of GM canola. But unlike other states that overturned their moratorium in 2008, SA along with Tasmania maintained theirs.
"We'd like to see farmers have choice in whether they can grow them or not," Arney added. "In NSW you can have an organic crop, you can have a conventionally sown crop or you can have a GM crop. So we're just asking for the same choice."
But Bob Phelps, director of Gene Ethics, said the use of GM crops has not delivered what was promised, such as drought and salt tolerance and higher quality food. He says the number of farmers that actually want to see the ban lifted are a small minority, while there are a long list of companies who want the moratorium to remain, as they benefit from both local and export markets that buy their products at premium prices due to their GM-free status. "The Middle East in particular will absolutely not accept GM, it has zero tolerance for any genetically manipulated crops," he said.
As oil and phosphates—the major inputs for industrial agriculture—continue to run out, Phelps sees the change of focus towards water and soil management as more crucial than ever. "Bignell really is a visionary. His New Horizons project is looking 30 to 50 years in the future," he said.
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