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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee
Grains Research and Development Corporation

Grains Research and Development Corporation


ACTING CHAIR: Welcome, officers from Grains Research and Development Corporations.

Senator SIEWERT: I think I will start off where I left off with the department when I was asking questions about the liability. Have you looked at issues around liability on contamination of conventional crops by GM crops? Have you done any further work beyond what the department has or has not done?

Mr Harvey : Not that I am aware of. I am not quite sure of the context of your question. I did not hear the earlier question.

Senator SIEWERT: It was stemming from questions we were asking around the Steve Marsh case; however, I was not specifically asking about that. What I was asking about was any work the department had done to look at those issues around liability. Given that the GRDC has been funding work on GM crops, have you looked at that side of the process around what happens, as has happened, if conventional crops are contaminated and it has economic impacts on those particular growers that are contaminated?

Mr Harvey : I understand your question now. As you know, GRDC is involved in doing research and development. Certainly from time to time we will investigate and use GM technologies. In a lot of cases we actually use it as a proof of concept, so we will often look at a gene in terms of its impact on a plant in a research phase and then we will look for a natural variant of that gene within the natural population which we can select so that we can actually produce a non-GM product. From a research point of view we look at the liability associated with researching GMs and we certainly abide and make sure our partners abide by all the OGTR regulations. It is a consideration we take on when we are doing the research and when we are selecting a research partner, to make sure that they do have the facilities that are at the correct standard and that the risks of any sort of contamination are absolutely minimised in the research phase.

Senator SIEWERT: I am wondering if you look at the bigger picture, particularly for the side where you are actually researching GM crops if they get to the point of commercial release, whether you have done any work around that particular side of the process?

Mr Harvey : To date GRDC has not been involved in a commercial release of a GM product but certainly the large biotech companies that have been involved in that look at that very carefully and very seriously. Part of their strategy is always to make sure that they get their events deregulated in a whole range of different countries and marketplaces to minimise that risk of unintended contamination.

Senator SIEWERT: Did you say to get it deregulated?

Mr Harvey : That is correct. It is to get it registered in our marketplaces.

Senator SIEWERT: To get what registered?

Mr Harvey : When you have a GM event it needs to be deregulated in the market in which that product is going to be sold. They do a lot of work to make sure that is done well.

Senator SIEWERT: When you talk about deregulated, do you mean that would enable the export or import of the particular product that has been contaminated? Is that what you mean?

Mr Harvey : When, for example, a GM canola is exported to another country there need to be approvals gained in that country to allow that to be imported.

Senator SIEWERT: Could you take on notice to provide me with an updated list of the GM work that you are currently funding?

Mr Harvey : I certainly can.

Senator SIEWERT: Do you do an assessment of the uptake of GM crops amongst farmers?

Mr Harvey : We have done some work looking at the uptake of canola and looking at the impact of GM canola, its benefits and its costs in a farming systems context.

Senator SIEWERT: How long ago did you do that?

Mr Harvey : That work has been done over a number of years and it is due for release Friday week, 7 March.

Senator SIEWERT: Have you done any other crops?

Mr Harvey : Not to my knowledge. I would need to check and confirm that.

Senator SIEWERT: If you could take that on notice it would be appreciated.

Mr Harvey : Yes.

Senator SIEWERT: As part of that analysis have you carried out an economic analysis?

Mr Harvey : We have looked at the economic, social and agronomic impacts of the technology.

Senator SIEWERT: Just for canola?

Mr Harvey : GM canola. We have looked at it in the terms of GM canola versus non-GM canola.

Senator SIEWERT: The economic analysis that you have done is just limited to that particular crops?

Mr Harvey : The economic and the agronomic, social and environmental.

Senator SIEWERT: Have you done the costs and benefits in looking at the impacts on, for example, organic crops? I know we then get into the issue around contamination.

Mr Harvey : We have looked at the issue in that report of coexistence.

Senator SIEWERT: How do you describe 'coexistence'?

Mr Harvey : GM and non-GM being able to exist in the same landscape.

Senator SIEWERT: Does that include—and I am thinking of some particular organisations that think in order for organic to coexist that the certification of what is organic needs to change?

Mr Harvey : There is certainly an issue around adventitious presence. It would be a practical solution if there were some consideration of what would be a reasonable and acceptable adventitious presence.

Senator SIEWERT: So in order to facilitate GM organics has to change? Have you done a survey to see what consumers think about a potential change of what is organic?

Mr Harvey : We certainly have not done a survey of consumers in terms of how they perceive organic. We have not done that, to the best of my knowledge. What was the first part of your question?

Senator SIEWERT: Is that the only way that the GRDC sees that there could be coexistence: organics accepting some level of contamination?

Mr Harvey : That would certainly be a practical solution.

Senator Colbeck: I will just say that from my interaction with people in the organic sector that not all of them oppose GM and see GM as possibly part of their regime, so I think the term 'contamination' might also be a little provocative in that sense. Not all people involved in the organic sector are anti-GM; I think that probably needs to be part of the conversation.

Senator SIEWERT: There are a lot that are.

Senator Colbeck: Yes, but there are quite a few also who are not.

Senator SIEWERT: Perhaps we need to change the definition rather than changing what the standards are for organics. Maybe we can have a different process or different name for that.

Senator Colbeck: It becomes a philosophical perspective as much as anything else.

Senator SIEWERT: That is right. That is what is important to consumers too, so that they know what is in their food. I will come back to that question around whether there has been any work done about what consumers would like to see in organic food?

Mr Harvey : I am not aware of any research that we have done in that regard. I am sure that there has been research done but I am not aware of us actually supporting that research.

Senator SIEWERT: It may be that the question that I am asking is not the appropriate question first off, given that you may not do any research with consumers on other crops, either. Have you done any consumer research?

Mr Harvey : About 60 to 70 per cent of the grain crop is actually exported. A lot of that goes up into Asian markets but also over into the Middle East. We obviously take a very strong interest in what those markets expect from Australian grain and the quality attributes that they want from Australian grain. We have a program; one of our themes is meeting market requirements. Obviously we want to make sure that our growers are producing the right product for the various markets that Australian grain goes to, so we do quite a lot of work in that regard. We are also involved in promoting to the Australian community the health benefits associated with both grain and pulse crops.

Senator SIEWERT: So far that has not included that area around (a) whether people want organic food and (b) what they think about the standards of organic food, including GMOs?

Mr Harvey : As I said earlier, I am not aware of us actually supporting any of that consumer research that you refer to.

Senator SIEWERT: What about in your export markets? Has any of your work looked at that issue?

Mr Harvey : To the best of my knowledge, no. We have not looked at consumer preferences for organic versus non-organic. We have looked much more at the quality attributes that those markets are looking for from Australian grain which tend to be more around the performance of wheat, for example, in their manufacturing processes.

Senator SIEWERT: What is the time frame for the completion of the review that Marsden Jacobs is doing that was recently announced?

Mr Harvey : They are looking at having a report back to the steering committee by the end of June this year.

Senator SIEWERT: What is the scope of that? Is there a terms of reference? I have a general piece about it but I do not have the terms of reference for it?

Mr Harvey : The first thing I should say is—and it may be more appropriate for the department to answer this question rather than myself—that this is a review which has been steered by a steering committee that is made up of industry and also our two key stakeholders, industry and government. It has arisen out of the fact that we have been around now more than 20 years. The question is whether the current governance structure, as in the legal structure under which we operate, still appropriate? It has been appropriate for the last 20 years but is it the most appropriate structure for us going forward? It is an independent committee. It is made up of industry and government. They are guiding the process.

ACTING CHAIR: Do you have many more questions?

Senator SIEWERT: I would like to finish that particular area. So the review is essentially around governance and looking into the future?

Mr Harvey : Exactly. If you look over the history of the RDCs when they started in 1991, all of the 15 RDCs were statutory authorities within government and I think currently we have four or five that are still statutory authorities within government. The others have moved to other models.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you.

ACTING CHAIR: Senator Back.

Senator BACK: My questions are in the Inspector General of Biosecurity.

ACTING CHAIR: Have you swapped?

Senator BACK: No.

ACTING CHAIR: Senator Back, I apologise because Senator O'Sullivan is starting to look like you. Senator O'Sullivan.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Would you provide an update on the issue of herbicide resistance and the work that has been undertaken in this area?

Mr Harvey : When we talk to growers around Australia probably number one of the top three issues is herbicide resistance. That is about the fact that the herbicides that used to work well now do not work as well as they used to so it is becoming more difficult to control certain weeds. We have been investing in a program based in Western Australia with Professor Powells at the University of WA and a network of scientists right across Australia to give growers practical, short-term and longer-term solutions to how they control herbicide resistance.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: With herbicide resistance—and please excuse my ignorance for a second—what is the timeline of the build-up of resistance to a point where herbicides are not effective enough to be economically used?

Mr Harvey : That varies enormously depending on the farming system that is in place, how often and how herbicides are used, and in particular how they are rotated—the different types of herbicide but also different types of herbicides in combination with different farming practices like tillage or, for example, like removing the straw and the seed bank from the paddock after harvest. In some cases we have got what we call a Harrington Seed Destructor where we actually bash the seed so that it can no longer germinate to remove it from the paddock. There is a whole range of management practices that can significantly prolong the effective life of those herbicides.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Whilst I accept that the answer to my next question would be that it is horses for courses, but as a percentage is herbicide management in farming practice one of the most significant outputs?

Mr Harvey : I would say that certainly in Western Australia it would be one of the top three issues that growers grapple with.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Coming back to the question of the work that you are undertaking in this area, is there a specific program?

Mr Harvey : We have the Australian Herbicide Resistance program which is based out of the University of Western Australia led by Professor Stephen Powells. It is a nationally coordinated program. It is coordinating a whole range of solutions to herbicide resistance.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Could you please advise the committee of how effective the 2012 Farm Gross Margin and Enterprise Planning Guide has been with the system for farmers and producers?

Mr Harvey : I am not specifically aware of the product that you are referring to. I presume it was one of our publications in Western Australia. Is that correct?

Senator O'SULLIVAN: I do not know if it is specific to Western Australia.

Mr Harvey : We support a whole range of business management activities, including a whole series of workshops across Australia. A very successful one was held in Merredin about two weeks ago. We expected and planned for about 100 growers to turn up. We had 180 growers turn up and we worked through the whole structure of their business and how they can make more profit out of farming, which is obviously the name of the game.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Excellent work! Are you familiar with the water use efficiency initiative that went for five years and ended last year?

Mr Harvey : Yes.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Are you able to advise the committee on the outcome of that initiative?

Mr Harvey : My understanding is that the initiative was working with grower groups right across Australia—researchers and growers. It looked at exploring a whole range in which growers could actually improve their profitability by improving their water use efficiency. The program had a very ambitious target of achieving a 10 per cent increase in water use efficiency. I believe that program is coming close to its conclusion. I would need to take on notice exactly whether we achieved that 10 per cent, but I know that we had very successful outcomes and very practical changes on-farm as a consequence of the practices that were developed by those growers and researchers in partnership.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: When would you expect the final data to be available in terms of the assessment of the program?

Mr Harvey : I would need to take that on notice.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Could you do that?

Mr Harvey : Yes.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: I understand that you have recently released a comprehensive series of farm business management accounting fact sheets that have been well received and we applaud the work in that regard. Are there any other plans or initiatives, particularly with respect to business related fact sheets, that you are currently developing or other aids or initiatives to help farmers improve their business operations?

Mr Harvey : At the moment we are having our most success with the farm business management workshops. The one that I referred to at Merredin is one of a series that we have held particularly in South Australia and in the eastern states. That more interactive process of actually getting growers together with experts and with advisers seems to be particularly effective in terms of growers learning new skills, so at the moment our intention is to continue that program.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Thank you very much for your response.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you to Grains Research and Development Corporation. We will call the Interim Inspector General of Biosecurity.