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US expert says GM the way forward

NORTH and South American farmers are increasingly “welcoming” genetically-modified technology as part of the next wave of agricultural innovation and Australian farmers should know about it, according to US agricultural economist, Dr William Wilson.

The North Dakota State University professor of agribusiness and applied economics said American farmers were making use of GM technologies to keep ahead of the cost-price squeeze.

“Yes, we have large areas of good soils in climates that allow us to grow a wide range of broadacre crops,” he said.

“But, we also have droughts, floods, pestilence, activists, consumers and governments to deal with.”

Professor Wilson said American farmers were using multiple varieties of GM cotton, corn, soybeans and canola to ward off insects and provide alternative weed controls.

“New varieties with “stacked traits” – where all these benefits are available in one variety – are being commercialised by the research and development people,” he said.

“This is real agricultural innovation. Simply, GM varieties accelerate farm output and financial return for least risk.”

The area planted to GM varieties carrying traits for herbicide tolerance and insect resistance has increased dramatically in the United States since the early 1990s.

Professor Wilson said wheat areas in the US were declining as the returns for corn and soybeans increased.

“Even Kansas – the “wheat state” – now produces more corn than wheat, and North Dakota wheat farmers are switching to GM soybean, corn and canola,” he said.

“Where innovation is not adopted, farm businesses stall and go backwards, irrespective of how much government assistance is provided.”

Professor Wilson said there was hard economic data on the costs of not having access to GM technology.

“I have calculated that a drought-tolerance trait in corn and/or soybeans (available in about six years) will result in an A$22/tonne opportunity cost for wheat production on the same land,” he said.

“That is, the market will need to pay another A$22/t for wheat to match the returns from corn or soy with this trait.

“New traits, such as second-generation HT (herbicide tolerant) GM soybeans, will push the opportunity cost out to near A$55/t.”

Professor Wilson said the value being placed on the role of GM technology was evident by the level of investment private enterprise had made.

“From 1990 to 2009, major companies have collectively spent US$45 billion on crop protection research and development, with each allocating significant sums to GM work,” he said.

“Clearly, this scale of investment wouldn’t occur if the benefits of GM varieties didn’t exceed their research and development costs, and if farmers didn’t choose to use GM varieties.”

At the other end of the supply chain, Professor Wilson said US customers were comfortable with GM technology.

A recent International Food Industry Centre report found 95 per cent of consumers would not take any actions because of concerns they might have about food produced using biotechnology, and among the remaining 5pc who would take action, only half would alter their purchasing behaviour.

Between 70 and 80pc of food products in the US contain biotech ingredients.

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