Australia Will Promote Drought-Resistant Crops

Published March 1, 2008

Agricultural minister Tony Burke has announced Australia will promote the development of drought-resistant genetically modified (GM) wheat.

Burke said Prime Minister Kevin Rudd supports the idea of improving the drought tolerance of crops as an alternative to continuing the current system of insurance and financial disaster relief for Australian farmers. Such relief has cost the Australian government more than $3 billion since 2001.

Crops Suffering

Australia is in the middle of a seven-year drought that has left the nation with extremely low water availability in many areas. In early 2007 there were promising rains, but rainfall was relatively scarce later in the year.

The first-ever Australian field trials of genetically modified wheat will take place in Victoria this year. The trials will include 30 genetically modified wheat hybrids, each containing genes for drought tolerance derived from maize, thale cross, moss, or yeast.

To date, there is no known drought-tolerant wheat or other field crop with significant nutritional or food value.

Record of Success

“The jury is in as far as genetically modified crops go; they’ve been around for more than 10 years and there have been no adverse events,” National Farmers Federation of Australia spokesman Brett Heffernan told the French Press Agency.

Heffernan emphasized Australian farmers will support crops that thrive in high temperatures and little water.

Henry Miller, a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration official and currently a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said, “This proposed search for better drought tolerance by genetic modification enjoys a positive, longstanding consensus among scientists.

“Gene splicing is essentially an extension and refinement of earlier techniques for genetic plant modification,” Miller noted. “The use of genetically modified crops is worldwide and has reduced famine and hunger in the Third World.”

Government Roadblocks

Gregory Conko, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, noted Australia’s national government showed leadership in overcoming a patchwork of local roadblocks.

“In Australia, the provinces have generally been antagonistic to GM crops. Some provinces have imposed moratoriums on GM food crops, although GM cotton has been allowed in two provinces,” Conko said.

Conko agrees gene technology can benefit farmers and consumers.

“Everywhere in the world that they have been planted, bioengineered crops have benefited farmers, consumers, and the environment,” said Conko. “The only reason for hunger and malnutrition in the world at this point is politics and corrupt governments. The agricultural developments of the past 30 years have created a tremendous benefit.”

John Dale Dunn M.D., J.D. ([email protected]) is a member of the civilian emergency medicine faculty at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center, Fort Hood, Texas and a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute and the American Council on Science and Health.