Labor’s new political realignment: to the Greens

With moves to lift South Australia’s ban on genetically-modified crops looking doomed, Caroline Rhodes argues that Labor and the smaller parties are acting against both evidence and the state’s economic interests.

Nov 27, 2019, updated Nov 27, 2019
A canola field: grain producers point to research showing the GM crop ban has cost SA canola growers $33 million. Supplied image

A canola field: grain producers point to research showing the GM crop ban has cost SA canola growers $33 million. Supplied image

Just last week we saw InDaily’s Tom Richardson writing of a “political realignment” between Labor and the governing Liberals.

This week we’ve seen a new realignment in South Australian politics – only this time it’s between Labor and the Greens, and concerning policy, not politics.

December 1 was supposed to herald the end of SA’s longstanding ban on genetically modified (GM) crops. Only now it won’t, following a vote tonight in the Legislative Council.

In October, the Government introduced new regulations that would remove SA’s longstanding moratorium on GM crops from the mainland. But this isn’t to be, as Labor has made the choice to outsource its policy-making to anti-GM activist Mark Parnell. In doing so, it’s also thrown out the literal rule book when it comes to regulatory process.

In 2004, the Rann Labor Government put a temporary ban on GM crops until the health, safety and marketing effects of such crops could be determined. The legislation gave the minister the power to create GM zones, subject to formal public consultation. The legislation was passed, and a state-wide moratorium declared by the Minister under the regulatory powers in the Act.

Fifteen years later following a series of ad-hoc extensions to the sunset clause, SA remains the only mainland state where a ban remains. The industry has shown it can properly separate GM and non-GM crops interstate, while talented researchers, scarce funding, and scientific trials have been lost to SA, culminating in an open letter from five eminent scientists joining grain producers to call for the end of this draconian law.

Earlier this year an independent review by Emeritus Professor Kym Anderson found the moratorium has cost SA’s canola growers $33 million and untold agronomic benefits, with this penalty set to increase as new varieties become available.

Politicians are intervening in the $1.7 billion business of grain production based on anti-GM ideology.

The review also found there was no price premium for South Australian grain, except for a niche market on Kangaroo Island. So, if there’s no evidence of marketing advantage, why maintain a moratorium for marketing purposes?

That question was directly answered by the Marshall Government earlier this year, when it moved to restrict the ban on GM crops to Kangaroo Island from December using the power under Labor’s 2004 Act.

At the very last moment, Labor has decided that it doesn’t want the new Government to use the same powers it once wielded, following an intervention from former minister Leon Bignell who now resides on the backbench.

Labor are hiding behind a strawman’s argument about regulatory process, but that doesn’t change the fact that the State Government is precisely following the intent of the Act, as introduced by the former Rann Government in 2004.

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Growers find this political intervention in their business incredibly frustrating, not least because it deals a cruel blow in the middle of harvest.

It’s also puzzling that the same people who believe in the science of climate change are rejecting the science of GM crops. Despite sitting on Parliament’s GM Select Committee, Parnell also refuses to accept that his back-of-the-envelope calculations on a GM marketing advantage are wrong.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, SA Best is also running with the process argument and is insisting the Government can’t use powers given to it by Labor’s Act.  The truth is they have not established a policy position on GM crops and have been absent from the debate until the eleventh hour.

Grain Producers SA has consistently argued that the moratorium offers nothing in the way of trade and marketing benefits to the majority of agricultural producers in SA, and only removes the option of growing GM crops that we know to be safe and effective.

Why would farmers put their own livelihood at risk by choosing crops that aren’t suited to their farm business? Politicians are intervening in the $1.7 billion business of grain production based on anti-GM ideology.

While tonight’s vote is unfortunately a foregone conclusion, Labor, the Greens, and SA Best all have the opportunity to consider what’s more important in the long-term – this state’s economic success, or their strawman arguments.

Not only will SA’s grain growers and research scientists again lose out to politics, but Labor will have set a devastating precedent for its future policy development and the way government uses regulation.

Caroline Rhodes is Chief Executive Officer of Grain Producers SA.

Disclosure: She is a member of the Liberal Party.

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