Independent safety reviews will foster trust in GM technology

The topic of releasing genetically modified (GM) products into food and the environment is highly polarised. But are we making any progress with it?

The debate is now so vicious and impatient that to have any engagement is taken as permission by others to tell you that you are “pro” or “anti” everything that has to do with these products, even extending to accusations of your support for the science behind them.

But a 2013 report Where there is smoke, is there fire? Responding to the results of alarming studies on the safety of GMOs, by the Dutch Commission on Genetic Modification (COGEM), is an interesting divergence from the routine.

COGEM, a statutory advisory body of scientists created to provide advice to government on GM, makes nine major recommendations on how to better support the work of, and trust in, GMO safety regulators.

I am sceptical about some of the recommendations, and about singling out certain papers by name as “alarming”, while apparently neglecting that others might one day turn out to be wrongly overconfident about safety. Those caveats aside, three of its recommendations could be helpful for (re)building trust in regulation of biotechnology products.

Three key recommendations

I evaluate what I believe to be three important recommendations as a single “package” because only taken together could they hope to restore or improve public trust and reduce polarisation.

  1. carry out random repeat studies or supervised inspections of GMO safety studies by companies
  2. ensure in-house knowledge and competences in specific areas of science and science communication within the ministries
  3. promote scientific research into the safety of GMOs by making it more attractive for researchers to carry out counter-studies and repeat studies (for example through the provision of funding and access to research materials)

There are two ways that the capacity for repeating or overseeing industry studies could be developed. One way is in the regulatory agency itself, the other in the scientific community.

Regardless of the strategy chosen, the cost should be borne by the party that expects to make the profit and without creating any sense of entitlement for meeting those costs.

Many people mistrust the science demonstrating the safety of GM technology. Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND


The capacity for independently repeating GMO safety studies is rare or extinct in most countries. As COGEM correctly states in its report:

The regulator, such as Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) or New Zealand’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), does not demonstrate the safety of the products it regulates. It endorses (or rejects) the claims of safety made by those developing the products. That makes the recommendation to carry out random repeat studies for GM products a significant departure from what happens now.

If the regulator were to carry out such studies as part of the risk assessment, it would mean that “in-house knowledge and competences” were not just based on ability to evaluate scientific studies, but extended to the design, conduct and defence of experiments capable of challenging or critically confirming the safety studies now solely supplied by those seeking regulatory approval.

Building the capacity for risk assessment

In complying with the recommendations, governments might choose instead to outsource the science to public sector laboratories. That way any study – whether it was evidence of safety or of harm – could be put to the test.

In doing so, they would contribute to the third COGEM recommendation which is to build capacity in the wider scientific community to conduct such studies.

If this were the strategy chosen, then the testing laboratories could neither benefit from the product under test nor from finding a harm. They also need to be protected from legal challenges by developers.

Those who would be conducting these experiments must have the reasonable expectation of a productive career regardless of what they may find. This is more problematic than it might seem.

Many funding bodies have mixed the objectives of science and innovation through intellectual property licensing. Even where non-commercial public-minded science is funded, it is at levels that a research scientist cannot count on to continuously support his or her work.

The COGEM recommendation exposes a systemic erosion of public capacity to independently challenge or affirm commercial science.

To enact the third recommendation is potentially revolutionary in that it requires substantive rethinking of how we support the non-entrepreneurial but creative, spirited, dedicated, ambitious and accomplished scientist and the institution in which they work.

Different standards of evidence review

Different standards of evidence gathering are applied to scientific and regulatory work. These are acknowledged by COGEM, but not explicitly evaluated. That is an important omission for a report seeking to find ways forward in regulation of controversial technological products.

Domitille Parent/Flickr, CC BY-NC

The common high standard of peer-review in research is blind (or anonymous) peer review. The characteristics of a blind system are that the authors must convince an impartial editor that they have fully and properly addressed criticisms made by expert peers who are free to be frank because their identity is protected.

The standard practice used by regulators on their own decisions is to place themselves in the position of editor, choosing who will review their findings and whether, or how, to respond to any criticisms.

The standard practice used to approve new technological products is different still, as COGEM’s report explains:

Applications for marketing authorisation of GM crops also contain unpublished and non-peer-reviewed information, which suggests that different criteria apply to different stakeholders […] the studies submitted in support of permit applications also undergo a type of review in the form of appraisals by the competent authorities and advisory bodies.

The regulator does act as a sort of referee of applications because it can ask for more information or call for new experiments within the limits of the regulator’s governing legislation.

Nevertheless, this and other similar review systems in common use are less stringent types of review than most research journals use. This is because the reviewer is not anonymous (and therefore not fully protected) and the materials needed to replicate the developer’s experiments are not automatically available to those wanting to verify their findings. Where such materials are made available, it is by ad hoc and limited arrangements based on where you live or where you work.

Standards of decision-making

An irony in the way these different peer-review systems are applied is that the less potential impact a decision is likely to have on the general public the greater the stringency of review.

Scientific papers published in journals have no legal standing. They cannot compel someone to do, sell or use something. In contrast, regulatory decisions determine what products and potential harms and benefits people will experience from products.

In its report, COGEM states that:

In the natural sciences a single publication is usually insufficient to convince other scientists of the validity of a claim.

Yet unpublished work from developers are used to make regulatory decisions that affect what we put in our bodies.

COGEM also observes that it “is not possible to determine immediately whether the results [of an ‘alarming study’] are valid or not, and so the value of the results will have to be investigated”.

Likewise, it is not possible to determine immediately whether the results of a “reassuring study” are valid or not without further investigation and replication. This double standard is routine for regulators.

Recommendations needed to address underlying issues of distrust

Adopting these three COGEM recommendations, and implementing them fastidiously, would significantly build the trust relationship between society, government and private enterprise.

The COGEM recommendations might be criticised for being heavy-handed and bureaucratic. Implementation may select for ever more clever ways to subvert the system. Alternatively, implementation may cause a transition toward a developer-regulator interface that delivers the desired trust.

COGEM’s standing may help governments to rethink how they are regulating new products. They will have to resist considerable pressure from those who would prefer both reduced regulation on new technologies and less accountability. I believe that good regulation can pay for itself in public safety, sector confidence and public trust.

Nothing less ambitious than enthusiastic and uncompromised implementation of these key recommendations is likely to advance both trust in new technologies and ensure the creation of good technologies. If the COGEM strategy worked for GM, which invokes such passion in so many, then it would likely work for many kinds of new technologies and products.

The Conversation

Jack Heinemann receives funding mainly from government funding bodies. He also has accepted some funding from for-profit, philanthropic and NGO sources. He works in a public university, does research using genetic engineering and has a research interest in the safety of GMOs.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Kale’s superfood status leads to worldwide shortage

The ever increasing popularity of kale has resulted in a worldwide shortage according to one of the world’s largest seed suppliers.

Tony Hubbard from Netherlands based Bejo Seeds says that he has seen individual seed varieties increase in popularity of the years, but nothing compares to the boom in demand for kale, ABC News reports.

"You could describe it as embarrassing to us, but it's just one of those things that's happened on a global basis," said Hubbard.

"It's caught us out well and truly, we put our hands up to that."

The head of Coles supermarkets fresh produce division, Brad Gorman said that the popularity of the cruciferous vegetable has taken the supermarket by surprise.

"Kale's growth has been off the charts. It is by far our fastest growing product," he said.

"Kale's been (popular) for three years and for a product to be growing at this rate after that amount of time I think is almost unprecedented."


Canola spraying places bee colonies at risk, AHBIC

The recent outbreak of a western yellow virus in Australian canola crops could have serious flow on effect on the nation’s bee industry.

To combat the outbreak, canola growers have been spraying their crops with chemicals that according to the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council (AHBIC), are toxic to bees. The council issued a warning last night, encouraging beekeepers to move their hives away from canola, the Weekly Times Reports.

According to AHBIC executive director Trevor Weatherhead, the spraying is occurring in South Australia, Victoria and possibly NSW.

“It’s a widespread issue and we want beekeepers to know if their bees are within the 10km radius of canola they should shift them quick smart,” AHBIC executive director Trevor Weatherhead said.

Ballarat Beekeeper, Gavin Jamieson said that the impact of fewer bee colonies will be felt on crops around the nation.

“Almond trees flower in late July and last year there were 125,000 hives placed in orchards around Mildura,” said Jamieson.

“The almond industry is in real danger if these bees are killed because there are no almonds without bees.”

A recent study published in the Royal Society Journal found that bees have the capacity to significantly contribute to food security as the pollination process increases crop shelf life, quality and yield.

Queensland based professor of agriculture ecology, Helen Wallace told ABC News that pollination is incredibly important to the future of Australian agriculture.

"One thing we don't tend to do very much in Australian agriculture is we don't manage bees very well," said Wallace.

"I think we've got a long way to go, we're doing a big catch-up. I think we're starting to realise the importance of it, but again, I don't think there's been a lot of work done."


Crowdfunding pays off for Wakefield Grange

The first two weeks of the Wakefield Grange Nose to Tail Pozible crowdfunding campaign have proved to be very successful.

With 18 supporters coming forward to pledge funds, Wakefield Grange has reached over 10 percent of the $30,000 target with seven weeks to go in the campaign.

The campaign aims to raise enough funds to establish an on-site commercial kitchen and curing room, in which Sophie and Nathen Wakefield will produce a wide range of house-cured smallgoods and farm fresh charcuterie products.

The creation of a commercial kitchen and curing room will mean that the Wakefield’s will be able to utilise secondary cuts of meat and offal in their smallgoods and charcuterie, an important aspect of their whole-animal approach.

As well as producing their own range of meat products, the commercial kitchen will be available to lease by other primary producers who want to sell their wares to the public, and will also be used for a variety of on-farm education events.

If Wakefield Grange raises the $30,000, it will become the first agricultural business in South Australia to crowdfund successfully.

“There is a real passion in South Australia for genuine farm-fresh produce and for affordable, premium quality meat that has been produced sustainably,” Sophie Wakefield said, “and in extending further the ranges of meat products that we provide, we hope to be able to meet this growing demand.”

In recognition of their support, Wakefield Grange is offering funders a range of tempting rewards, ranging from fresh meat, smallgoods and charcuterie products, to butchery classes, farmgate shop vouchers and tickets to on-farm events.

The campaign runs until 19 August 2014, to make a pledge click here.


Craig Mostyn Group snaps up Jade Tiger Abalone

Australia’s largest abalone farm, Victorian based Jade Tiger Abalone has been sold to Western Australian food and agriculture based business, Craig Mostyn Group.

The purchase is said to be part of a $20m investment aimed at premium seafood markets in Asia and marks CMG’s first investment in aquaculture.

CMG successfully outbid a number of Chinese investors for the abalone farm which now sells over 95 percent of its product live to Japan, Hong Kong and China.

CMG’s CEO David Lock said that a sophisticated selective breeding program developed in conjunction with the CSIRO has seen productivity increase by 30 percent, and that the company plans to double its current output of 200,000 tonnes of abalone per year to 400,000 tonnes annually by 2017 with increased exports to China, Singapore and Hong Kong, The West Australian reports.

"Based on what we have seen, the science behind this abalone farm is far and away the best of any in Australia," Lock told the West Australian.

"Effectively, the business was a high-tech start-up that recently became commercially viable. It was the perfect time for us to step in and bring our expertise in marketing into Asia.

"We believe aquaculture offers great growth potential in Australia, specifically in the production of high-quality and high-value seafood."

The purchase of Jade Tiger Abalone adds to the company’s expanding seafood portfolio. The company spent $5 million late last year acquiring Tasmanian lobster businesses operating in Bicheno and Dover – which also happen to handle abalone – providing CMG with an introduction into the abalone industry.

"We started exporting live wild-caught abalone and understanding that business," Mr Lock said. "I haven't always been a proponent of the Asia food story being the saviour of Australian primary production but I am a strong believer in the niche market for the high-quality, high-value products that Asia wants and abalone is absolutely one of those."



Because we can, does it mean we should? The ethics of GM foods

In this fourth instalment of GM in Australia – a series looking at the facts, ethics, regulations and research into genetically modified crops – Christopher Mayes examines ethical issues surrounding GM foods.

Food is cultural, social and deeply personal, so it’s no surprise that modifications to the way food is produced, distributed and consumed often lead to ethical debates.

Developments in the genetic modification (GM) of foods and crops has resulted in a raft of controversies.

Ethics can help here. While science determines whether we can safely modify the genetic makeup of certain organisms, ethics asks whether we should.

Ethics tries to move beyond factual statements about what is, to evaluative statements about the way we should act towards ourselves, each other and the environment we inhabit. But things are not always so clear-cut.

Three areas of ethics can help frame some of the concerns with GM food and crops: virtue, moral status and consequences.

Virtues vs vices

Ethics of GM foods can be developed by looking at virtue or character. Does the activity of engaging in the development of GM foods and crops erode virtues while producing vices? Or is GM technology a prudent use of knowledge for humanitarian goals?

Character or virtue-based arguments are seen in the case of golden rice – a rice strain modified to contain beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A.

According to the World Health Organisation more than 250 million preschool age children are vitamin A deficient (VAD), and two million deaths and more than half a million cases of blindness are attributed to VAD. The developers of golden rice say it will supply 60% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A.


But global outrage ensued after group of Filipino farmers destroyed a test crop of golden rice. There has been little recognition of the Sisyphean struggle of farmers in countries such as the Philippines, Bangladesh and India, yet these farmers have been described as anti-science Luddites and contributing to the deaths of children.

Critics of golden rice such as Wendell Berry and Vandana Shiva argue that GM technology is a solution offered by industrial agriculture to address problems created by industrial agriculture.

Golden rice is a techno-scientific fix to structural problems created by some of the very companies that may profit from GM crops.

Although golden rice is a non-profit initiative, Shiva argues that it is a trojan horse to give GM crops a humanitarian face.

According to opponents such as Shiva, golden rice and GM crops not only pose negative consequences for farmers, environment and the global poor, but represent vices of greed, arrogance and dominance. Rather than humbly working with and caring for the natural environment, industrial and technological interventions seek to master, profit and control.

Morality of nature

There are also concerns about the moral status of the organism itself – does the modification of an organism’s genetic makeup represent a wrong to the dignity or integrity to the organism?

This position depends on arguments that nature has dignity and interests beyond those of its human inhabitants. Such arguments are not readily accepted due to their metaphysical or theological overtones and dependence on essentialist idea of nature.

Appeals to nature can led to what British philosopher G.E. Moore described as the naturalistic fallacy – the idea that we can derive moral statements from facts of nature. Examples include:

  • raw milk is good because it’s natural
  • standing desks are good because we weren’t meant to sit
  • genetically modified crops are wrong because they’re unnatural.

Perhaps we aren’t so concerned about the essential dignity of rice or wheat, but what about GM pigs that glow in the dark, featherless chickens, cows that produce human milk or the integrity of an ecosystem? Although the arguments are relatively the same, in discussing GM animals, the idea of a natural integrity or dignity seems more compelling.

Weighing up consequences

The most common way of framing the ethics of GM foods is to ask: do GM foods and crops present negative or harmful consequences for individuals, populations or the environment? Answers to this question vary according to context.

Most scientists argue that GM foods are safe to eat and will not harm consumer health.


Yep, all good. Bart/Flickr, CC BY-NC

While critics maintain that long-term health effects are uncertain, they contend that even if GM foods are safe to eat other harmful consequences should be considered, such as the impact of patenting laws on farmers and research integrity, or the risk of GM crops contaminating other crops or escaping into the wild.

Debates over consequences tend to avoid the question of whether there is something inherently objectionable about GM foods and crops. So long as there is appropriate management of risks, then theoretically, there is no ethical problem.

It is unlikely these issues will be resolved any time soon – and likely that new ones will be added – but one area that can be worked on is discourse ethics.

Describing opponents of golden rice, even those that destroy test crops, as committing crimes against humanity or those in favour as pursing economic self-interest does little to move the debate forward.

Until productive discourse is established, barriers between opposing views will only strengthen.

Further reading:
GM techniques: from the field to the laboratory (and back again)
Setting the standards: who regulates Australian GM food?
Safety first – assessing the health risks of GM foods

The Conversation

Christopher Mayes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Safety first – assessing the health risks of GM foods

In this third instalment of GM in Australia – a series looking at the facts, ethics, regulations and research into genetically modified crops – Ashley Ng explains how GM foods are determined safe to eat.

Genetically modified (GM) foods require strict assessment before they can be considered safe for human consumption.

In Australia, GM foods are regulated under Standards 1.5.2 – Food produced using Gene Technology, which covers the sale and use of food and the labelling of food produced using gene technology.

Its schedule lists the permitted foods produced using gene technology that can be sold in Australia and New Zealand.

Foods produced using gene technology are prohibited from sale in Australia and New Zealand unless they have undergone strenuous pre-market assessment and been approved by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).

FSANZ identifies new or altered hazards associated with the food as a result of the genetic modification. It assesses whether there is risk associated with any identified hazards under the intended conditions of use, and determine if any new conditions are needed to enable safe use of the food.

Joel G Goodman/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

GM food approval in Australia

The only GM foods which have been approved for sale in Australia after a case-by-case analysis are specific GM varieties of canola, corn, cotton, lucerne, potato, rice, soybean and sugarbeet.

It also assesses any altered composition or nutritional value introduced by genetic modification to the organism.

While FSANZ doesn’t conduct its own laboratory tests, its assessments are based on safety data provided by the applicant generated according to quality assurance guidelines on internationally accepted protocols consistent with Good Laboratory Practice:

  • Case-by-case consideration of GM foods is necessary because the key issues requiring consideration in a safety assessment will often depend on the type of food being evaluated and the nature of the genetic modification
  • FSANZ assesses intended (related to the particular genetic modification made) and unintended effects (such as toxicity to the edible part of the plant, or unexpected allergenicity) of the GM
  • Comparisons with conventional foods having an acceptable standard of safety.

FSANZ also uses other sources such as scientific literature, including evaluation of animal feeding studies where available, independent scientists, other regulatory bodies and importantly, the general community who can tender written submissions for currently open assessments.

These case-by-case safety assessments are publicly accessible.

FSANZ is aligned with the principles established by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation Food Standards Program (FAOWHOFSP) and the Codex Alimentarius committee.


GMO food crops are more thoroughly tested than any non-GMO products in the history of agriculture.

GM foods undergo more rigorous pre-market assessment than any other food sold in Australia. As new flood and drought-resistant GM crops and organisms become available, it can be expected that the number of approval applications will increase.

From the aspect of food safety assessment, a stringent process is currently in place that includes invitation for public comment.

As this process can reject GM food applications or impose conditions on their use in the interests of public health, the safety, nutritional and societal impacts of any new GM foods will continue to be assessed before these GM products should appear, appropriately labelled, on our shelves.

Further reading:
GM techniques: from the field to the laboratory (and back again)
Setting the standards: who regulates Australian GM food?
Because we can, does it mean we should? The ethics of GM foods

The Conversation

Ashley Ng receives funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council. He is affiliated with the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Royal College of Pathologists Australasia. He has previously received research funding from the Leukaemia Foundation of Australia and Cure Cancer Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Setting the standards: who regulates Australian GM food?

In this second instalment of GM in Australia – a series looking at the facts, ethics, regulations and research into genetically modified crops – David Tribe walks us through the bodies responsible for GM policy and oversight.

In the past, new crops were introduced into the food supply without any formal scientific evaluation. Humans learned by trial and error how to safely prepare foods such as cassava and potato, even though they can be toxic.

With the advent of crop genetic engineering in the 1980s, public controversy and intense public scrutiny over genetically modified (GM) foods meant that the trial and error method of discovering whether new GM foods were safe became unacceptable.

Scientific safety assessment of new GM foods as well as government regulation of their introduction was introduced in many countries.

In Australia, this occurred during the major policy reform of all Australian food safety regulation, through the revision of the national Food Standards Code (1994-2002).

During this period, safety assessment of GM foods became the responsibility of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). Section 1.5.2 of the Food Standards Code defines the requirements for the compulsory pre-market assessment and labelling of foods produced by gene technology.

Comparative safety assessment for new whole foods

Food scientists carrying out GM food safety assessments realised that unintended variation in potentially toxic non-nutrient plant chemicals was a possible source of hazard in new GM crop varieties.


United Soybean Board/Flickr, CC BY


The presence of thousands of potentially toxic natural substances in plant foods meant that the safety assessment of GM foods had to be done by different procedures than those that had worked well with food additives and synthetic pesticides.

Regulators realised that if the hundreds of thousands of natural substances present in plant foods – such as soybeans or maize – were subjected to the same standards used with food additives and synthetic pesticides, all food – GM or non-GM – would fail regulatory standards.

A solution to this quandary was developed. Relative safety of GM foods is assessed by systematically looking for all the chemical differences that can be found between:

  • a GM food and
  • an otherwise comparable non-GM food that can be presumed to be already safe because of its history of safe use.

If no meaningful differences are detectable in a new crop variety, the GM food can be assumed to be at least as safe as its non-GM counterpart.

The standards agency FSANZ provides many further details of how safety assessment of GM foods is carried out, before they are allowed to enter the commercial marketplace.

Box 4.1 from their introductory booklet on the topic gives the main features of the process.



Who’s involved in setting standards?

Most GM crops are commodities that are extensively traded on world markets, such as maize, soybeans and canola. These have to meet food and regulatory standards in several different jurisdictions (such as in the US, the EU, Japan and China).

In practice, traded GM commodities have to pass regulatory scrutiny in counties to which they are exported. The safety assessment frameworks in these different trading countries have a substantial degree of consistency.

The UN forum Codex Alimentarius Commission is the major international intergovernmental forum in which this safety framework was developed.

Codex has established international guidelines for the safety assessment of foods derived from modern biotechnology. The Australian protocols for the pre-market safety assessment of GM foods are congruous with Codex principles.

Codex emphasises the use of sound scientific evidence for food risk assessment, and the separation of risk policy and risk management from scientific risk assessment. In Australia, the management of GM food safety follows these principles.

Food regulatory policy and political oversight are decided by an Australian intergovernmental board called the Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation.

GM safety assessment and food standards development are carried out by FSANZ.

In establishing standards and evaluating pre-market applications for the commercialisation of GM foods, FSANZ interacts with other agencies – in particular the Gene Technology Regulator, whose responsibilities include licensing the deliberate environmental release of genetically modified organisms.

Genetically modified foods have now been in the marketplace for nearly two decades without any harmful effects identified.

The absence of any evidence pointing to the lack of food safety in the recent farmer court case in Western Australia (fought over the unintended presence of genetically modified canola plants on another farmer’s property), underlines the overall conclusion that there is no credible evidence of any food safety risk with the GM foods that have been approved so far.

More tangible problems of food safety – such as the mould toxins that can ruin staple grains and cause cancer in developing countries should now get more attention.

Further reading:
GM techniques: from the field to the laboratory (and back again)

The Conversation

David Tribe does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article except the University of Melbourne, where he is paid for teaching research and community outreach by a standard salary arrangement with the University, and not-for-profit outreach organisations Academics Review and Biology Fortified Inc. where he is a non-paid board-member. He has no relevant affiliations that might entail a conflict of interest in scientific analysis.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

GM techniques: from the field to the laboratory

Welcome to GM in Australia, a series looking at the facts, ethics, regulations and research into genetically modified crops. In this first instalment, Peter Langridge describes two GM techniques: selective breeding and genetic engineering.

Genetic modification (GM) sounds very laboratory-based – people in white coats inserting and deleting genes – but the vast majority of GM work was completed in the field through selective breeding.

Early Middle Eastern farmers collected grain from natural grasslands, but they needed to time their harvest very carefully. If they were too early the grain wouldn’t store well, and if they were too late the grain would spread over the ground making collection difficult.

At some stage, one of these early farmers must have noticed that some heads remained fixed on their stems even after the grain was fully dry. He obviously didn’t understand this at the time, but these were plants with a mutation in the genes controlling seed dispersal.

Farmers began preferentially choosing plants with this useful mutation and planting them, perhaps the first case of breeding and selecting for a novel trait.

Exploiting genetic variation


Gregor Mendel. Wikimedia, CC BY


Systematic breeding really began in the early 1900s when scientists rediscovered Silesian monk Gregor Mendel’s groundbreaking work on genetic inheritance in peas.

Breeding involves utilising genetic variation to produce new combinations of genes and gene variants. A breeder will cross two different lines and then select offspring that have improved performance.

Breeders are always looking for new sources of variation, normally from within the elite germplasm pool – that is, within established varieties. Many important traits, such as disease resistance, are controlled by single genes and can be crossed into elite lines, with only the resistant offspring selected.

But for many crops the level of diversity available within the elite germplasm pool is very narrow and breeders must look further afield for novel variation. This search led breeders to explore land races (varieties grown by traditional farmers) and even wild relatives (undomesticated progenitors of our modern crops).

In many cases crosses between the wild relatives and modern lines will not produce normal seeds, but the embryos can often be isolated from the developing seed and grown in sterile tissue culture to produce viable, fertile plants.

This technique, called embryo rescue, has been widely used and many modern cultivars contain genes from wild relatives.


danbruell/Flickr, CC BY-ND


The normal number of genes present in a crop plant is around 30,000 to 40,000 – the same as for humans. In making the crosses all 30,000 genes from the wild relative are introduced but the breeder may only want one gene.

The genes are linked along chromosomes with each chromosome carrying several thousand genes. The breeders need to break up the chromosomes from the wild relative into small fragments so that only the desired region is transferred – a process called chromosome engineering.

This can take several decades of work, making the use of wide crosses technically difficult and slow. Breeders want other methods of generating useful variation.

Engineering mutations

In the 1950s the idea of inducing mutations became an important technique for creating new variation. This involved using ionising radiation, such as X or gamma rays, or chemical mutagens.

These techniques produce random damage to the genetic information in the plant by changing the DNA directly or knocking out segments of the genome (the genetic make-up). Most mutations are deleterious, and the mutagenesis usually generates many thousands of unwanted changes, so the clean-up can be slow.

After exposing the plants to the mutagen, the breeders need to select for the beneficial mutations and remove the deleterious mutations.

Scientifically the ideal solution would be to be able to take a gene from any source and introduce it into your crop plant to change the plant’s characteristics. This would allow breeders to use variation from diverse sources and make changes just one gene at a time without the extensive collateral damage done by mutagenesis or wide crosses. This is what genetic engineering offers.



Enter the lab coats …

The first genetically engineered crops were produced in the 1980s and, as in all areas of science, the technology continues to advance. The most widely used method today takes advantage of a natural DNA transfer mechanism.

Several groups of soil bacteria are able to engineer plants for their own benefit. These bacteria transfer a segment of their genome into the plant’s genome so that the transformed plant cells will proliferate and produce compounds that only the bacteria can use. In this way the bacteria control the plant development to produce nutrients for the bacteria.

The mechanisms for this type of natural genetic engineering are now well understood, allowing scientists to change the DNA segment transferred so that the genes causing altered plant growth are removed and new genes inserted.

How does this work practically? In a laboratory the scientist will design and build a DNA sequence containing specific sequences that delineate the region of DNA to be transferred (the left and right borders). They then insert the gene of interest and usually a selectable marker, such as resistance to a herbicide.


Agrobacterium tumefaciens attaching to a plant cell. Wikimedia, CC BY


This construct is then introduced into a bacteria called Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which readily takes up DNA. The bacteria are then applied to growing plant tissues in sterile culture.

After a period the bacteria are removed and the plant tissues placed onto media containing the herbicide. Only the plant cells that have been transformed (those that took up the construct from the bacterium) are able to grow and divide.

These cells are allowed to multiply and divide until they produce plants, which are taken out of sterile culture to a glasshouse where they can grow to maturity. The genes that have been transferred will now be included in the genetic make-up of the plant.

Different species and even varieties will differ in their ability to take up DNA from the bacterium and to regenerate normal plants. Where in the genome the new DNA inserts is usually random but will preferentially occur in regions containing active genes.

Extensive growth trails and evaluation are needed to ensure that the transgenic or genetically engineered plant behaves as expected.

… and back to the field

In Australia all aspects of genetic engineering research are closely regulated. The researcher, organisation and facilities used must all be licensed and meet tight standards.

Before a field trial can be grown, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) conducts a detailed risk assessment of the genes used, the reasons for the trial, and the design and management of the trial site.

The OGTR have issued 103 licenses for field trials covering 14 different crops. In Australia 37 genetically engineered crops have been approved for commercial cultivation for seven different species, but only GM cotton (eight different events) and canola (three events) are grown to any great extent.


BASF – The Chemical Company/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND


The resistance to GM crops in many parts of the world has encouraged scientists to look for alternative techniques for making targeted changes to the genetic make-up of crops and other organisms.

For example, a new technique called “genome editing” allows us to make specific changes to native genes within the plant that are essentially identical to the changes induced by mutagenesis but at only one site rather than all over the genome. Mutagenesis is widely used and is not subject to regulation – will the same apply to genome editing?

There are other developments that are also challenging the community’s views on new technologies. How will people feel about GM crops where a native gene has been isolated, changed and re-inserted (a process known as cisgenics)?

What about using GM rootstocks engineered for resistance to root diseases, but grafted with non-GM scion so that they produce non-GM apples or avocados?

These questions are now challenging the regulators since the first examples are starting to become available.

The Conversation

Peter Langridge receives research funding from Pioneer/Dupont, the Australian Research Council, the Grains Research and Development Corporation, the South Australian Government, Australia/India Strategic Research Fund and the US AID program . He provides advice to several public sector research organisation in Europe, North America and to international agricultural aid programs.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

SPC’s anti-dumping case director consults for Italian importers

Fruit and vegetable processor, SPC Ardmona says that the future of the business could be at risk after discovering that a federal government case director that worked with the company during anti-dumping commission hearings has left to consult for rival Italian tomato importers.

SPC Ardmona lodged an application with the antidumping commission on 10 July 2013, alleging that Italian tomatoes were being exported to Australia from Italy at margins that constituted dumping, resulting in material injury to local producers and reduced profitability/ lower sales volume for the business.  

The processor said it was shocked to find out that its case director, John Bracic has now set up a consultancy business offering “rare and invaluable” services for Italian tomato importers in their appeal with the anti-dumping review, The Australian reports.

Managing Director of SPCA, Peter Kelly said that Bracic was privy to confidential information during throughout the hearings that have taken place.

“He was the one we gave our confidential information to,” Kelly said. “I hit the roof. He’s appealing a case where he was the case director.

“He’s criticising his own work, finding fault with his previous work for the Australian people. Now we’ve got to go back and compete against the guy who has inside knowledge. I find it very frustrating.

“…In my company it would be completely unethical to move like that to a competitor and take the information that is in my head,” Kelly told The Australian.

Despite a 100m investment plan from Coca Cola Amatil and the Victorian government, SPCA say that they are still struggling to compete with cheap imported product.

Bracic, who left the Anti-Dumping Comission after 14 years of service rejected Kelly’s claim that he was “criticising his own work”.

“These are not my views, they are the views of my clients. This is not me criticising my own work. Whether I agree or not is irrelevant. I don’t have to believe it, I write it up for them and give advice about their chances of success,” Bracic told The Australian.

A spokesman for the Department of Industry said that while there is “no general legal impediment” for former employees of the public service to work in fields related to their previous employment, the Crimes Act, the Criminal Code and the Customs Administration Act prevented disclosure of protected information.


Beating the drought and the duopoly: Impi Citrus

South Australia's seven year drought meant little more than shorter showers and watering the garden at night for most of the state. But for fruit growers and packers like Impi Citrus, it must have seemed like the end of the world.

The Murray River stopped flowing, gathering in tepid pools, and all the while slim water allowances were getting slimmer. The Cant family, owners and operators of Impi since 1969, decided that rather than dwindle and die, it was time for drastic action.

Ben Cant, son of owners Bronwyn and Jim, is a driving force in much of the overhaul that was to come.
"It was a family decision we made, but yeah, it was a punt. I think every day in horticulture is a punt really. We used the drought as an opportunity to reduce plantings," Ben says.

This meant pulling out almost half of their 25,000-tree fruit orchard in 2005. Their older trees were using more water and producing less fruit as the Australian dollar skyrocketed to record exchange rates, killing exports for the Riverland growers.

2006 marked a new beginning for the business, but one filled with risk. They sold off some of their land to fund a major replanting of young trees, which use less water than old ones. The trade off is that the young trees are still years away from producing.

"You take your best educated guess," says Ben, "you say it might take five to seven years for the trees to reach maturity, and we think droughts usually go for five to seven years."

The replanting allowed for the Cants to diversify their offering.  Previously focused on low-value Valencia oranges, which mature early and mostly end up in juice, Impi planted late-maturing Navel oranges. It matched up with high demand they'd see toward the end of the season.

"We've tried to spread our risk a little bit. As a grower we have a fairly balanced portfolio. We have Navel oranges that go for export, Valencia for juice. Then there's mandarins and grapefruit for the domestic market," Ben explains.

"We cross supply to all of those markets, but the bulk of the supply of those commodities is targeted to particular markets."

Those targeted markets are very important, because, as Ben says, "citrus is principally export driven." Most of their premium, value-added products take off to Asia and beyond, and Australia produces much more citrus than they consume – just like the wine industry.

For growers, this can be a boon – or a disaster if they're unprepared for the issues outside of their control that come with it.

"What can happen is, farmers get dragged in to an agri-political issue. We even get worried about the Japanese whaling thing, because Japan is Australia's largest market for citrus.

"We do a little bit of export, but only enough to keep a toe in the door. It just means that, from a business perspective, should things turn south with Japan or wherever, we're supplying several different markets and our business doesn't come to a standstill."

Their domestic operations have been the focus of a huge infrastructure rethink and investment. The Cants have put millions of dollars in to a new packhouse and new technology to go with it.

"Our old packhouse was the original on the property. There were all sorts of issues, like getting staff there because it's half an hour out of the nearest town. It's on the end of the power network so it can be very unreliable power in poor weather.

"Although most of the fruit was from our own farm, we started packing for another grower and that meant bringing fruit on to the property that could compromise the biosecurity of our own orchard."

"We even get worried about the Japanese whaling thing, because Japan is Australia's largest market for citrus."

For Impi, it's much cleaner and safer to do everything off-site. It also means they have ample storage space and they're now right next to the freight network, meaning they have three shipping companies within a stone's throw.

Ben has led the charge on retooling the packhouse to be a state of the art, largely automated facility.
The first of their gadgets is a million dollar citrus-sorter, a rig of cameras that takes 21 photos of each fruit, constructing a 3D model of the blemishes and colour variations that make up its grade. It can do this for 40 fruit a second.

"It reduces the number of people visually sorting the fruit. Although the internal quality is all the same, citrus is graded on appearance. The machine we have now, it's industry standard – but it's the best in the industry."

"We probably have about $2.5 million worth of processing and packaging equipment in our packhouse. All in the effort to do things as efficiently as possible, to automate as much as we can."

There's one last and very significant area where Impi pushed ahead of the pack. In a prescient move, Impi anticipated the now-realised supremacy of Coles and Woolworths in the domestic market.

"We saw this cultural shift and the rise of the duopoly occurring in the Australian retail market. There was a bit of fear in the industry, a lot of packers and shippers were hesitant about working with them and wanted to maintain the ways of the past, the tried and true ways," Ben explains.

"We figured, well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. You might as well be at the front of the queue."

Their domestic supply chain was turned on its head. Previously Impi had worked with 10 or more agents around the country, around two in each capital city. While it wasn't bad business when supply was more distributed, it quickly became inefficient in the duopoly market created by the big chains.

"We decided to partner with one agent who is effectively a category manager for the chain stores. When we can't supply fruit, they'll source it from other packers as well. We're kind of like a primary supplier to them.

"What we're able to do is negotiate a better brokerage rate, or sales rate commission in to the supermarket, because we're using one company for all of the transactions instead of six."

For Impi, it results in a much more direct relationship with the retailer, which completely changes their method of picking, processing and shipping.

In the past, selling through agents meant overnight or two-night shipping to most capital cities. Rather than it sitting in the market for another day or two waiting for buyers to commit, it ships directly to Woolworths or Coles, resulting in a fresher product that looks better and can be on shelves for longer.

"There's no stretch or slack in the supply chain. It's much tighter," Ben says.

"We figured, well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. You might as well be at the front of the queue."

Wholesalers can't store and speculate on Impi fruit anymore, which is good for their rate. But it also means there's a lot more work for Impi, as they now customise their picking and harvest program based on weekly orders direct from the retailers.

"You're running on a knife edge," Ben says, "Every week when you get the program, bang, you've got to get the harvest sorted within a day or two and start the picking program."

In some ways this results in big risks – if Impi loses a day or more of picking to rain they can be in trouble – but it also means they're only picking and packing products to order. No more sustaining a loss on fruit that doesn't get sold.

"That makes a big difference," Ben emphasises.

The process of innovating and changing hasn't stopped for Impi. Out of the drought and the bad times, they could easily settle in to their current routine, lie back on their investments and coast. But the Cants aren't like that. Impi Citrus is looking forward.

Ben explains that they're more than happy nurturing their domestic customers in what seems to be a saturated market. Now they're turning their eyes East.

"China is huge, we've barely even scratched the surface. Japan is our largest export market now. And there's the free-trade agreement with Korea that's just about to be signed off by both parliaments."

Korea is the United States' largest market for citrus. Being counter-seasonal to Australia, Ben and Impi see that as a void that can be filled. In 10 years’ time the tariff will reduce to zero, and the market will be open suddenly.

"It really is a case of how many trees we can get in the ground."


SPC Ardmona’s road plan blocked by council

The much publicised $100m upgrade to SPC Ardmona’s Shepparton plant could be in jeopardy after councillors denied the fruit processor exclusive access to a road that is allegedly crucial to the project.

A special meeting was called yesterday after the council received over 1000 submissions from locals over the road closure.

Four out of six Shepparton councillors voted against the processor having exclusive access to the road, an outcome that Mayor Jenny Houlihan, who was in favour of the road closure, said could impact on SPCA’s future, The Weekly Times reports.

“Personally, I am very, very concerned that SPC might no longer invest in Shepparton,” she said.

“SPC is still vulnerable. I believe it may now make a decision on its future investment here.”

A statement from the company labelled the decision as “a blow for SPC and for the community”, emphasising that it had done “everything it (could)” to address the concerns of the locals including committing to handing back the avenue if the processor were to close, and committing $1m to “implement traffic solutions”.

“SPC has always maintained that the closure of the avenue is crucial to our ability to undertake major changes… to enable us to succeed in the face of intensifying global competition,” the statement read.

The road in question stretches for 400m and links Shepparton’s west to its CBD. The road is reported to be used by 8000 vehicles per day and also has a number of local businesses scattered along it.

Deputy mayor Dennis Patterson, who was against the closure, said that while the health of SPCA is highly important, it shouldn’t be at the expense of other businesses dotted along the road.

“We can’t afford to lose SPC, but we can’t afford to lose other businesses,” he said.

“Whether it be an underpass, overpass, a deviation — there is middle ground and it’s important we find it.”


AUSVEG writes to Jamie Oliver over Woolworths campaign

Following reports last week that supermarket giant Woolworths has been passing the costs of its Jamie Oliver campaign onto Australian growers, AUSVEG has written to the celebrity chef, requesting that he ask the retailer to give refunds to the farmers who have contributed to the campaign.

Late last week, AUSVEG, the peak industry body for vegetable and potato growers, released a statement urging the ACCC to investigate the behaviour of Woolworths who are allegedly seeking enormous contributions from Australia’s horticulturalists to pay for their instore Jamie Oliver campaign.

According to AUSVEG, Woolworths are demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars from individual growers around Australia to fund their new campaign in the form of a new 40c per crate charge on top of the 2.5 – 5 per cent fee growers are already required to pay Woolworths for them to market and promote their produce.

In addition, AUSVEG allege that Australian growers are being given no undertaking from Woolworths on what return they will see from the additional funds they are being asked to provide to fund the promotion.

“We have now taken the step of writing to Mr Oliver to ask that he intervenes and pleads with Woolworths to refund this money to Australian vegetable growers,” said AUSVEG public affairs manager William Churchill.

“We have no issue with Mr Oliver, but for Woolworths to ask hard working Australian growers to stump up this additional money is unreasonable, unfair and un-Australian.”

Churchill says that AUSVEG is not opposed to the campaign per se, but says that the cost should not be at the expense of Australian farmers.

“AUSVEG’s primary concern is that financially-stretched Australian vegetable growers are being unfairly pressured in to contributing to a marketing campaign for a company, which in February posted a $1.32 billion net profit.”

“Clearly this campaign could be funded from Woolworth’s own coffers, without having to further squeeze Aussie growers.”


Marrone Bio Innovations and DSM Food Specialties sign collaborative research agreement

Marrone Bio Innovations (MBI) and DSM Food Specialties have signed an agreement involving the early stage research of several biological active ingredients with the aim of improving crop production and food safety within the supply chain.

The collaborative research project will see MBI and DSM exchange microorganisms from their libraries in order for their respective research teams to screen for biological activity in their specific areas of interest. DSM’s interest lies within applications for its food ingredients business, and MBI’s interest is centres around crop protection and plant health.

Dr. Alison Stewart, MBI Sr. VP of Research & Development and Chief Technology Officer, said that the agreement plays to both MBI’s and DSM’s strengths, and will provide a host of  benefits for each business.

“This agreement takes advantage of each company’s strength in its core competencies. DSM Food Specialties is a world leader in fermentation and enzyme technology and is the ideal partner for exploring new applications of microbial strains for food safety and other food ingredient applications,” says Stewart.

“Conversely, MBI has an industry-leading screening and development process to identify and commercialize candidates for crop protection and plant health applications. I believe we can expect viable development candidates to emerge from our collective research.”

Ruth Donners, Innovation Manager, Food and Crop Protection for DSM, said that the agreement is a great example of how new advances in research can be maximized through collaboration.

“Both DSM and MBI have focused sets of skills that will be utilized in finding new applications for active ingredients the companies may not have accessed otherwise,” says Donners. “Each of our teams conducting the research in which they specialize will give us the best opportunity for success.” 


GM of Laucke Flour Mills’ wins milling industry award

General Manager of Laucke Flour Mills, Peter Cobb has been recognised as an industry leader by taking out the Australian Technical Millers Association’s Milling Industry Young Achiever Award.

The award recognises leadership and achievement in the Australian manufacturing milling industry by young people under the age of 35.

As part of the award, Cobb will undertake a personalised overseas milling industry study tour in 2015 across North America and Europe where he will learn about emerging market trends and best practice within the international milling industry.

“This award provides me with a unique opportunity to reinforce Laucke Flour Mills’ leadership role within the Australian milling industry and will allow me to act internationally as both an industry and Laucke ambassador and leader,” said Cobb.

“I am looking forward to the opportunity to research international flour markets and visit leading flour millers across North America and Europe as part of the tour, and provide the Australian milling industry and Laucke with guidance on international milling best practice and emerging market trends and opportunities.”


Organic farmer loses GM canola case

Western Australian organic farmer, Steve Marsh has lost a landmark court case against his neighbour and former friend, Michael Baxter for allegedly contaminating his property with genetically modified canola.

Marsh alleged that he lost his organic certification on more than half of his farm after GM canola blew onto his land from Baxter’s neighbouring property.

Following a three week hearing, Justice Kenneth Martin ruled in favour of Baxter, stating that although Marsh and his wife bought two causes of action against their neighbour – common law negligence involving the breach of duty to ensure that the GM seeds were contained on his property, and the tort of private nuisance – they only claimed financial damages, WAToday reports.

"They did not claim to have suffered any physical damage or injury to themselves, to their animals or to their land at Eagle Rest," said Justice Martin.

"GM canola only posed a risk of transferring genetic material if a canola seed germinated in the Eagles Rest soil … and then later cross-fertilised through its pollen being exchanged with another compatible species," Justice Martin said.

"There was no evidence at the trial of any genetic transference risks posed by the RR (roundup ready) canola swathes blown into Eagle Rest at the end of 2010.

"The Marshes had never grown canola upon Eagle Rest."

Justice Martin also noted that the Marshes’ could not prove that there has been “any reasonable interference” by Baxter, and that Baxter had employed industry standard harvest methodology when planting his GM seeds.

"Mr Baxter was not to be held responsible as a broadacre farmer merely for growing a lawful GM crop and choosing to adopt a harvest methodology (swathing), which was entirely orthodox in its implementation," he said.

"Nor could Mr Baxter be held responsible, in law, for the reactions to the incursion of the Marshes' organic certification body, NCO, which in the circumstances presented to be an unjustifiable reaction to what occurred."

It has not yet been confirmed if the Marshes’ will appeal the decision.

Adding GST to fresh food is a recipe for poor health

Recent calls by Australian government ministers and senior officials to broaden the goods and services tax (GST) base to include fresh fruit and vegetables would make the population’s diet go from bad to worse.

The latest Australian Health Survey results show less than 7% of the Australian population meet the recommended intake of vegetables (five serves per day for adults), and just over half (54%) meet the recommended serves of fruit (two serves per day for adults).

In contrast, a staggering 35% of the nation’s total energy consumed is from “discretionary foods” – foods considered to be of little nutritional value that tend to be high in saturated fat, sugar and salt, or alcohol.

Indeed, the poor diet of the population is now the biggest contributor to disease and illness in Australia – even more than smoking. And the main driver of the problem is the ever-increasing supply of cheap, tasty, high-calorie foods that are heavily marketed and widely available.

As other countries consider ways to combat the problem, the Australian government seems to be discussing options that will make it worse.

Effects of adding GST to fresh food

Price is one of the most important factors that consumers take into account when deciding what to buy. Taste is the other main consideration.

Fresh fruit and vegetables are currently exempt from GST, which means there’s an incentive to buy them rather than less healthy processed food.

Recent estimates show that if the 10% GST were applied to fresh fruit and vegetables, their overall consumption would decrease by about 5%.

When the long-term effects of this change are modelled, this would result in an additional 90,000 cases of heart disease, stroke and cancer each year, increasing health-care costs by around $1 billion.


Consumption of ‘discretionary foods’ may increase with the removal of the GST exemption on fruits and vegetables. Flickr: Muy Yum, CC BY-NC-ND


The effects are likely to be felt strongest by people with low incomes. This group tends to spend a large proportion of its income on food and already has poorer health outcomes.

Global actions in this area

A move to increase taxes on fresh fruit and vegetables would fly in the face of global recommendations to improve poor health. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends governments consider different economic tools (such as taxes and subsidies) to improve the affordability of healthier foods and discourage the consumption of less healthy options.

Several countries have recently adopted new taxes on unhealthy foods in line with these recommendations. From this year, Mexico has introduced a 10% tax on sugary drinks and a 5% tax on unhealthy snack foods. And Hungary has introduced a tax on unhealthy foods.

Estimates show that if Australia were to increase taxes on unhealthy food by 10%, this would greatly benefit health and result in substantial cost savings to the government.

Evidence indicates the revenue generated from a tax on unhealthy foods should be used to subsidise fruit and vegetables in order to get even better health outcomes.

Public health set to decline

Australia has long been recognised as a public health leader for its preventive health actions and, in particular, its efforts to reduce tobacco use.

But this reputation is set to decline with the massive cuts to preventive health in the latest budget.

If the country were to increase taxes on fruit and vegetables, it would undermine the reductions in chronic disease that have resulted from national success in tackling smoking.

It would also place the country at the bottom end of the list of countries taking globally recommended actions to improve population nutrition.

The question of how best to approach Australia’s rising health care, education and social welfare costs is clearly an important one. But we need to consider the ramifications of potential solutions on short- and long-term economic, social, environmental and health outcomes.

The Conversation

Gary Sacks receives funding from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Illegal worker crackdown could lead to fruit and veg price hike

Following recent raids of illegal workers across farms in Western Australia, supplies of fruit and vegetables are starting to dwindle, leading to potential price rises across the state.

Fruit and vegetable fields in the Carabooda area north of Wanneroo are reported to have been sitting idle for days as growers struggle to find replacement workers for 190 illegal farm workers who have been taken into custody over the past week, The West reports.

"It's not just the people who have been detained – other foreigners who are allowed to work are not turning up because they are fearful and don't really know what is happening," said a leading WA wholesale who asked to remain anonymous.

The wholesaler said that crops of Asian vegetables were down by 75 percent and that other popular crops such as broccoli and lettuce were down by 30 percent. They also stressed that the shortage in produce will inevitably lead to higher prices which could be felt by consumers over the next few months.

Carabooda avocado grower and former liberal MP Mal Washer said that he has only ever employed legal workers on his farm despite illegal workers costing 2.5 times less on average.

He said that farms that have relied on illegal labour over extended periods will most probably find it difficult to stay in business.

"Your number one cost is your labour cost and if we get a rise in costs they (supermarkets) are not that keen on letting us pass it on to them," said Washer.

"We [the growers] are price takers."


Australian farmers to invest in growth

Australian farmers are planning to invest in infrastructure, technology and education in the next 12 months, according to the Commonwealth Bank Agri Insights report.

The research shows 31 percent of farmers will increase investment in fixed infrastructure and 11 percent in plant and equipment. On the financial side, 41 percent of farmers are intending to increase investment in farm inputs and 14 percent will invest more in farm technology and innovation, while 15 percent will increase investment in further education and training.

Geoff Wearne, executive general manager of regional and agribusiness banking, Commonwealth Bank, said farmers are focused on improving operations to increase productivity and profitability.

"Australian farmers are optimising their operations by upgrading infrastructure and equipment, adopting new farm technologies to increase production efficiencies and increasing their focus on education and training. The overall trend indicates farmers are investing on-farm to improve sustainability and drive growth, with a lesser focus on expanding into new landholdings and off-farm investments," Wearne said.

"We know that irrigation reserves are low in some areas, which will drive a short term contraction in cotton, and seasonal conditions for beef have been very difficult. Survey responses were influenced by these recent conditions but we're confident the long-term outlook for beef and cotton remains positive."

Regional highlights

  • Tasmanian farmers (seveN percent) are the most likely to invest in land acquisition over the next year.
  • Tasmanian (17 percent) and South Australian (17 percent) farmers have the strongest intentions to invest in plant and equipment over the next year.
  • South Australian (20 percent) and Victorian (17 percent) farmers have stronger intentions to invest off-farm than farmers in other states.
  • Intentions to increase investment in education and skills are strongest in South Australia (21 percent).

Australian manfacturers win as Abbott promotes Chinese trade deals

Australian manufacturers are set to benefit from a reported 20 deals that have been signed as a result of prime minister Tony Abbott’s recent Australian trade promotional visit to China.

The deals consisted of 13 commercial agreements, and another seven agreements which are ‘significant’ in nature. Victorian dairy company, Pactum Dairy Group was one of the success stories of the trip, signing a contract to supply 25 million liters of milk annually to Bright Dairy of China, the Weekly Times reports.

Trade minister Andrew Robb said that the Australian trade promotion – which took around 600 Australian companies to Shanghai and other regional cities – has provided a solid platform for Australian manufacturers to develop strong business relationships.

“Even more importantly, there are also the intangibles,” said Robb. “We built trust. We built relationships.

“And undoubtedly we built momentum in the free-trade negotiations — both by showing the strong commercial ties between our countries and the political will for an agreement.”

According to an analysis by Austrade, the combined commercial value of the 20 agreements is estimated to be worth $894m, with an additional $57m generated in separate agreements which encourages Chinese investment in Australian companies.