Genetically modified crops have failed to deliver the economic benefits
promised to US farmers and could pose similar problems if adopted in Australia,
a former US government bureaucrat has warned.
Australia could lose agricultural export dollars, and farmers could
find themselves using more herbicides to control weeds and being sued by other
farmers for crop contamination if they chose to grow genetically engineered
crops, said Charles Benbrook, who worked as an agricultural adviser
to the Carter, Reagan and Clinton administrations.
Dr Benbrook is touring Australia to warn government ministers and farmers about
what he believes are the problems with the first decade of genetically modified
crops in the US. His tour is sponsored by GeneEthics, a group campaigning against
the release of genetically modified contaminated material.
"Across the south-eastern US, where soybean and cotton farmers have relied
almost exclusively on [genetic engineering] technology for several years, the
system is on the brink of collapse, the volume of herbicides used is setting
new records and farmers' profit margins are shrinking," he said.
Most genetically modified crops are designed so farmers can spray their fields
with herbicide, killing weeds but not the crop.
Dr Benbrook said the widespread use of genetically modified crops initially
led to a drop in the herbicides US farmers used. But farmers with such crops
were now using more weed chemicals than were conventional farmers.
"The increase is getting bigger as weeds become more resistant. It has
definitely not been an economic boon for farmers," he said, adding that
resistance in some markets, such as Europe, to genetically modified products
had damaged US agricultural exports.
"What I am urging agricultural leaders and politicians to do is learn
from the lessons in the US."
But Dr Ian Edwards, a spokesman for the biotechnology industry body AusBiotech,
accused Dr Benbrook of "cherry picking" his statistics to suit his
argument. "To blame GM crops for weed resistance has no basis in science."
Weed resistance to herbicides had developed because farmers misused or over-used
the chemicals, he said.
He said farmers could always change the type of herbicide they used to avoid
problems, although he conceded there was a chance weeds would eventually become
resistant to the new herbicide.