Luddites Running the Show

Worth A Look, Agriculture, Frontier Centre

Biotechnology may offer huge benefits, but Australia is increasingly choosing to follow the Luddites and to let the revolution pass us by.

Last month all political parties in NSW promised to ban new GM crops. Indeed the National Party—historically the party of farmers—proposed the most stringent ban. This followed decisions in Tasmania, Western Australia, and South Australia to put in place similar bans.

Why is Australia with its large, lightly subsidized, export oriented, and innovative rural sector deciding to ban the most promising advance in agricultural technology in a generation?

Certainly not as a result of scientific evidence, which overwhelmingly supports the technology and considers it safe.

The only GM crop currently grown commercially in Australia—Bt-cotton—has brought a 50 per cent reduction in pesticide use. This has translated into lower costs and higher profits as well as a huge reduction in environmental impact. A new variety of Bt-cotton is being tested which offers an even larger reduction in pesticide use and costs, yet it will be banned in the main cotton growing state—NSW.

GM canola, currently being considered for commercial release in Australia, has been a roaring success overseas. In Canada around 85 per cent of farmers have adopted GM varieties. They have done so because it pays, providing on average a 30 per cent higher return than non-GM varieties. The varieties face no price discount. In the six years since the GM varieties were introduced, Canadian canola production has increased by 30 per cent. Exports are also higher and in Japan are up by 50 per cent.

Two local varieties of GM canola are ready for release in Australia. These varieties had been through years of rigorous testing. Yesterday, the Gene Technology Regulator appointed by state and federal governments gave both GM canola varieties a clear bill of health.

The explanation for the collective flight from technology, evidence and rational decision-making is the influence of new class of Luddites. Like their 19th century predecessors, the modern day Luddites seek to save the world from modernity. Unlike their predecessors, however, the neo-Luddites are well-funded, well organized and have special privileges.

Funding has been important to the neo-Luddites’ success. According to The Wall Street Journal the European Union has over the last five years pumped around $300 million into international NGOs in an effort to stop the adoption of GM food around the world.

Australian companies are also plying the Luddites with cash in an effort to inhibit competition or to promote their niche in the market. Many anti-biotech advocates make their livelihood from the organic industry and therefore have commercial incentives to demonize modern agriculture. On top of this, most anti-biotech organizations are subsidized by governments. The result is that there is more money to be made from demonizing than promoting ag-biotech.

Fear and uncertainty have also played an important role. The technology is novel and complex. While the regulators and proponents of biotech have concentrated on dealing with these complexities, the Luddites have focused on seeding fear with an endless series of scare campaigns. They have also been successful in demanding the impossible—that is, certainty in an inherently uncertain world.

The key to their success, however, has been their ability to masquerade as angels. They have captured the do-good institutions representing the environment, consumers, and the poor—and with this the community’s respect. They have been able to distort and falsify with impunity. They have been allowed to demonize a technology that offers so much to the very causes they purport to support, including a better environment, without being held to account. They are also being allowed to pursue their own financial interest in the name of the public interest.

Given the success, money, fear and special treatment of the Luddites, politicians and farmers are starting to offer them support.
What is the future? Well, look at Europe. It has shown the way with similar bans and, as a result, investment in biotechnology research of all types has declined by 60 per cent, its research industry is fleeing to North America and its agricultural sector is going backwards.

One thing is for certain: if the Luddites do save us from modernity, the environment and farmers will be the biggest losers.

Institute for Public Affairs