Opponents of the scheme fear that GM grasses could contaminate neighbouring properties and that existing labelling requirements would not allow consumers to identify products made from cows fed on the modified rye.
Greg Paynter, of the Organic Federation of Australia, said the role of GM grasses in the food chain was “a sleeping giant”.
“We’ll have humans consuming milk from cows that have been consuming genetically modified material. We just don’t know what effects we might have to deal with in the future.
“They’re talking about scientific testing but the natural processes and ecosystems have been tested over 3 billion years.”
Ben Copeman, general manager of the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia, said while organic producers had to follow strict labelling requirements, the same rules did not apply to products with GM crops in their food chain, potentially leaving consumers unaware. Mr Copeman also said many of Australia’s important grain customers, such as Japan, China and Korea, did not want GM in their food chains and had zero tolerance to GM contamination.
While GM rye is unlikely to be available until 2020, a long-term research project into the potential benefits of the grass has moved to its next stage, including looking at regulatory requirements, after more than six years spent developing new varieties of pasture.
News of the work at the Dairy Futures Co-operative Research Centre follows controversy over a landmark WA Supreme Court ruling in May, that dismissed an organic farmer’s claim that his land had been contaminated by GM canola grown by his neighbour, a conventional farmer.
Wendy and Peter Wallace, organic farmers in Ellinbank, near Warragul, who are concerned over trials of genetically modified rye grass.
Kojonup organic farmer Steve Marsh this week announced he would appeal against the court’s ruling. The original case centred on Mr Marsh’s bid to sue neighbour Michael Baxter, alleging he had lost organic certification for more than half his farm after GM canola drifted onto his land from Mr Baxter’s property.
NASAA, which withdrew Mr Marsh’s organic certification, welcomed the appeal, saying both conventional and organic farmers had the right to grow crops without contamination from GM materials.
“The original decision has the potential to affect the vast majority of Australia’s conventional growers who choose not to grow GM as well as certified organic farmers,” Mr Copeman said. “On behalf of all organic producers and consumers, NASAA has drawn a line in the sand on the issue of GM in the organic food chain because our markets demand a zero tolerance of GM. In addition, both farmers and consumers have the right to choose what they grow and what they eat.”
The subject of GM modified food and crops in Australia continues to spark debate. There are 0.7 million hectares of GM cotton and canola grown in Australia, with canola the biggest GM crop in Victoria. But there are moratoriums on all GM crops in the ACT and Tasmania and limited bans in the other states.
Paula Fitzgerald, manager of biotechnology and strategic initiatives at Dairy Australia, and the Dairy Futures CRC spokeswoman, said GM rye grass would not be commercially available before 2020, with a huge amount of scientific work and industry considerations to be worked through.
Earlier this year, a report on the work of the CRC, which is jointly funded by the Victorian government and industry body Dairy Australia, was published in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal.
“Up to date we have been developing these new rye grass varieties and assessing whether they are high energy. From there the work would have to go through a number of other stages in terms of regulatory approval and more trials,” she said.
Ms Fitzgerald said GM rye grass could mean an extra $250-300 dollars per hectare of value to farmers, by delivering higher milk yields. She said there had been a lot of interest in the pasture and its potential to help dairy farmers meet growing demand from Asia.
Concern over GM crops often centres on the likelihood of GM materials spreading to nearby farms and this is of particular concern with rye grass, which can be carried on pollen and therefore spreads across a far larger area. But Ms Fitzgerald said this issue had been carefully considered with GM canola, particularly the potential for it to be carried with pollen, and it had been resolved to the regulator’s satisfaction.
She said as work on GM rye grass progressed there would be “a dialogue” with the dairy industry over its effect on the whole supply chain.
Organic honey producer David Seymour, who sources honey from 16 farms in Victoria, said any contact with GM rye grass would put him out of business.
Mr Seymour said that to maintain his organic certification there had to be no “adverse farming activities” within a five kilometre radius.
Dairy Australia is already working hard to win the public relations battle over GM crops, with recent reports in regional media about DA’s bid to develop “farming heroes” – individuals who would help spread a positive message about GM crops among local farming communities.