Tasmania has banned genetically modified food for 18 years — this scientist wants that changed

Professor Sergey Shebala spends a lot of time thinking about how the world’s growing population is going to be fed.

Key points

  • The Tasmanian Government is reviewing its 18-year long moratorium on GMOs
  • A UTAS scientist says lifting the ban would allow the development of more resilient crops
  • Some farmers fear dispensing with the ban will end Tasmania’s market advantage as a GMO-free supplier

The award-winning University of Tasmania plant scientist’s research is aimed at making crops more resilient to environmental stresses and pests, but he is feeling hamstrung without access to genetic modification.

“We have nearly exhausted all the possibilities to improve plant resilience to major stresses,” he said.

“We need to feed more people every day. The United Nations estimates [the world will have] 9.6 billion people by 2050, so we need to increase crop production to feed them all, and it’s not sustainable with existing agricultural practice.”

Tasmania is the only state to have a blanket ban on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which has been in place since 2001 after genetically altered canola escaped from trial crops at secret sites around the state.

The Tasmanian Government is now reviewing its 18-year moratorium on GMOs, which ends in November, and is calling for public submissions.

Professor Shebala said his application of GMO technology would speed up natural processes in plants, making them more resilient to climate change.

One project he is working on is modifying rice plants to grow more successfully in salt water, given many developing countries have a lack of fresh water.

“We already do selections and we modify organisms but it takes too long, so basically what genetic engineering does is just save us time,” he said.

But with climate change pressures increasing, Professor Shebala said scientists did not have the luxury of time.

“What nature did over several centuries, we do either in 10 or 15 years in classical conventional breeding, or in one year by editing a few amino acid sequences in a gene,” he said.

Professor Shebala said he believed Tasmania had a moral obligation to do its bit to ensure there was enough food to go around as the world’s population continues to grow.

“We are going into more and more harsh climate conditions, we go from severe flooding to drought stress,” he said.

“What we are doing by keeping the [GMO] ban [in Tasmania] is delaying the time when we say we cannot afford it anymore, and we need to invest in these technologies … to save farmers money and to prevent the collapse of farms.”

‘Once you lose it, you can’t get it back’

The Premier’s Department said previous reviews into the GMO ban had found “no reason to change Tasmania’s moratorium” and the “Liberal Government has strongly supported this position”.

In a statement, a spokesperson said Tasmania had made “a significant investment in a promoting our brand attributes, including our GMO-free status, through key marketing and industry development activities, most recently including the trade mission to Japan”.

The Minister for Primary Industries, Guy Barnett, recently said there were many advantages to keeping the ban.

“May I make it very clear, the Government has supported the continuation of the moratorium since 2001, many of the advantages relate to the Tasmanian brand,” he said.

Fruit and honey industries say being able to brand their products GMO-free gives them a huge marketing advantage because many consumers believe GMO products are dangerous.

Stuart Burgess from Fruit Growers Tasmania said his sector was worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the state, and revenue would fall if the ban was lifted.

“It is an extremely important issue for the fruit sector,” he said.

“Fundamentally, our sector is continuing to grow and develop right across cherries, apples and berries.

“With only 520,000 mouths to feed in Tasmania, export is our focus, and our premium status is critically important for that.

“Clean and green is great, but the moratorium on GMO is also critical for fruit growers.”

Mr Burgess attended a recent trade mission to Japan with Premier Will Hodgman, and said being able to have a marketing “point of difference” was critical.

“Once you lose it, you can’t get it back,” he said.

‘Look beyond personal gain’

Northern Tasmanian farmer Angus Lyne grows poppies, potatoes, wheat and canola, and while he acknowledged GMOs were a complex issue, he was keen to see the ban lifted.

“We probably would look at growing GMO canola if it was lifted, and that would be a saving in herbicide applications and help with chemical resistance,” he said.

Like Professor Shebala, Mr Lyne was interested in what GMO technology could provide to deal with global hunger.

“If we can have an advantage for world food supply and environmental wins, I really think people need to look beyond personal gain,” he said.

But honey grower Peter Norris was vehemently against lifting the GMO ban.

“It would have a serious impact on us — a lot of our export markets are very anti-GMO, and until you can change world opinion on GMOs then we don’t want it here in Tasmania,” he said.

“If any modified pollens end up in our honey, particularly in the EU market, [the market’s] gone. They don’t want any of it at all.

“We’re a niche producer and we need to keep it that way. We can’t compete on a large scale because we’re such a small island.”