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New documentary aims to rebalance GM debate

Can science and fact win out over emotion and gut feel? The new movie Food Evolution, screened in Canberra this week, aims to level that playing field in the GM debate.

Farmers have been influencing the genetic make-up of plants and animals for generations. In agriculture it’s known as selective breeding, and includes choosing plants and animals with the most desirable characteristics (e.g. disease resistance, high yield, good meat quality) for breeding into the next generation.

While this has been going on for generations, the techniques farmers use today are more cutting edge and less familiar to the uninitiated. For example, it is now possible to make a copy of a particular gene from the cells of a plant or animal and insert that copy into the cells of another organism to induce a desired trait.

As we know, food products derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are labelled ‘GM foods’ and there is no doubt that this term carries a level of baggage among consumers.

All of the GM foods approved globally to date are from GM plants, for example corn plants with a gene that makes them resistant to insect attack, or soybeans with a modified fatty acid content that makes the oil better suited for frying. Plants that use less water to grow have also been developed so they are more suitable for changing climatic conditions. These traits are incredibly useful and important to farmers.

The responsible and strategic application of gene technology within Australian production systems thus far has resulted in significant benefits for Australian farmers
Tony Mahar, Chief Executive, National Farmers' Federation

Given the nature of the concerns and potential risks, all GM food sold in Australia has to be approved as safe to eat by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). Regulators rightly take a cautious approach when assessing their safety for human consumption. To date, there has not been any safety concerns identified with any of the GM foods assessed.

This was the main topic of conversation and debate at a screening of the movie Food Evolution I attended in Canberra this week.

The movie produced by Academy Award-nominated director Scott Hamilton Kennedy is set amidst a brutally polarized debate marked by fear, distrust and confusion: the controversy surrounding GMOs and food.

Traveling from Hawaiian papaya groves, to banana farms in Uganda to the cornfields of Iowa, Food Evolution wrestles with the emotions and the evidence driving one of the most heated arguments of our time.

The movie presents a positive and optimistic perspective of GM and asked the critical question: how do we make the best decisions and continue to feed and clothe ourselves amongst the conflict and confusion of the modern GM debate.

The audience at ANU here in Canberra was largely converts to the science (given the screening was organised by scientists that was partly expected) but I was also expecting some spirited discussion in the panel session that I took part in following the screening around competition in the market, consumer attitudes and myths of GM.

There was a show of hands or more correctly sheets of coloured paper at the end of the night responding to the question of "Are you in favour of GM?" and the results were mildly surprising (green means yes!).

The audience at this week's Food Evolution screening cast their verdicts on GM.

As part of our work on policies such as GM, this week we made a submission to the third review of the National Gene Technology Scheme. The NFF position on GM recognises its potential as a valuable tool within agricultural production systems.

The responsible and strategic application of gene technology within Australian production systems thus far has resulted in significant benefits for Australian farmers, the environment, consumers and the Australian economy as a whole.

The agricultural sector is in the midst of pervasive to the way we farm. Technological and scientific developments have been increasingly vital to an industry facing harsher climatic conditions and striving to remain competitive in tough global markets.

Farmers globally are adopting gene technology due to the enormous advantages this technology offers, including improved productivity and profitability, as well as a lighter environmental footprint (such as reducing use of pesticides and herbicides and maximising water efficiency).

This discussion on this critical issue will go on and we need to have credible evidence and data to underpin the discussion. No doubt emotion and gut feel will continue to plague this debate, but science must be the bedrock of the discussion.

Tony Mahar is the Chief Executive of the National Farmers' Federation.

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