New South Wales State Farmers Support Gene Altering

Sydney, July 18 (Bloomberg) -- Members of Australia's biggest state farm group, New South Wales Farmers, voted in favor of gene technology, saying the science will help them compete on the world market.

About 500 of the group's 1,500 farmers made the pilgrimage to their annual conference in Sydney to decide their state's farm policies. This year, they voted that research and controlled release of genetically modified crops should continue.

``The only way we can find out more about genetically modified crops is through research, so we must be able to do it,'' said Fiona Denyer, one of the majority of farmers who said the science offers production advantages over traditional crops.

Australia is currently the world's second biggest exporter of wheat, canola, barley and cotton. The nation has only one genetically modified agricultural crop, Monsanto Co.'s Ingard Cotton, which has swallowed a 30 percent market share since its introduction in 1996.

Genetically modified crops are the result of technology that implants genes to produce outcomes such as higher yields, insect, chemical, or drought resistance. Still, its detractors say these crops could cross-pollinate and create ``super weeds'' resistant to chemicals and able to withstand droughts and flood.

While the farmers voted in favor of allowing gene research to continue, the normally quiet and conservative group asked many questions before deciding. The vote by a show of hands was close. Protestors opposed to using gene technology also rallied outside the hotel where the meeting took place.

Worldwide there was about 100 million hectares of land planted to genetically modified crops in 1999, worth about $2.5 billion, Australia's commodity forecaster, Abare, said.

About 50 percent of the world's canola, 80 percent of corn, 70 percent of soybeans, and close to 40 percent of the world's cottonseed is genetically modified, it said. Most of these crops are grown in the U.S. and Canada, where farmers and many consumers have rushed to take advantage of the benefits gene technology offers.

Still, Australia sells to many countries where there is little consumer support for gene-altered crops.

These include Japan, the biggest single customer for Australian agricultural exports taking A$4 billion worth in 1998- 99, while the European Union took A$2.4 billion worth in 1998-99.

It's these markets that the farmers who voted against genetically modified crops at the New South Wales meeting, are concerned about.

``We need to give the customers what they want,'' said farmer Ray Unger. Australia should hold off on releasing of more genetically modified crops ``until the bus has settled and the smoke clears. That will take three years at least,'' he said.

The Australian parliament is currently considering passing regulations governing how and when research can take place.

Australia, along with New Zealand will also decide if foods made from genetically modified organisms need labeling. The Australian and New Zealand Food Authority, ANZFA, will make a decision on labeling on July 28.

Part of the debate is over determining what percent of a food product needs to be made from genetically modified organisms before it must be labeled. Australia's Prime Minister John Howard said those below 1 percent may not need special labeling.

The Australian Consumers Association said, though, all foods containing any genetically modified organism should be labeled.


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