Chief Scientist opens AusBiotech’s Ag&Food Symposium

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AusBiotech’s Ag&Food Symposium opened Tuesday with a keynote address from Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel AO, on emerging technologies in agriculture and their acceptance.

Following are excerpts from his speech:

The phrase 'genetically modified’ has been kicked around many times – often, with the word ‘moratorium’ attached. But here is a list of words and phrases that have yet to be uttered or recorded even once: CRISPR; Gene editing; Gene drive.

That suggests to me that the vocabulary of the Parliament is well behind the frontier of the science. And I don’t know what conversations the politicians might be having in other quarters – but I do know that history won’t wait.

Of course, we might say that the silence thus far a good thing – if no-one’s talking about gene editing, at least no-one’s insisting that we ban it. But we know from past experience that progress in the absence of policy is just not sustainable!

Let’s face it, you don’t need to persuade politicians to ban something outright in order to frustrate its progress. A situation of legal uncertainty or public confusion is more than enough. It makes consumers nervous. It makes investors wary. And that means that good science – important science – goes undone.

It also sets the public conversation by default, to the starting position of fear.

  • Like the toxic run-off of pesticide and fertiliser to the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Like the 2 billion people who suffer from malnutrition today.
  • Like the fact that agriculture accounts for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.

And, of course, you don’t need to talk to a scientist, read the literature or grasp the facts to form an opinion. Just as you don’t need the evidence on your side to win a Twitter debate.

We have replayed those conversations many times. But I genuinely believe that we have an opportunity today to re-set them – just as advocates for new technologies have done before.

I think of IVF: once controversial and now so common that we tend to forget how violently we once disagreed.

Yes, it took long and patient explanation of the science… but in the end, it wasn’t the scientific data that turned the debate. It was the undeniable evidence living in our midst: happy families and healthy children. Tangible benefits sell technologies – it’s as simple as that.

To date, in contrast, most of the benefits of genetic modification have been hidden away from consumers. I think of:

  • The CSIRO cotton that cuts insecticide use on farms by up to 85 per cent.
  • Or the tomato with a longer shelf-life.

It is the farmer and the distributor who sees the gain. The consumer may benefit indirectly, if the price falls – but they won’t link that saving to the sticker that says ‘GM’.

The next wave of products can be different. To follow the success of IVF the next wave of products should present to the consumer as not just cheaper… but: Lower calorie; Allergen free; Or vitamin enhanced. And not just healthier – but kinder as well.

Imagine… if chickens produced only female offspring, and we didn’t have to cull all the healthy males! Most consumers already pay a premium for free-range eggs. Surely, we can be persuaded to support a better way of farming.

We simply need to see the benefits, in a tangible way; and feel confident that the science and the regulatory framework are sound.

As I read AusBiotech’s consistent message to Government, this organisation, and the sector it represents, are not asking Australians to take it on trust.

You are calling for good regulation – because you recognise that it is the socially responsible and the commercially prudent path.

And you have made that call in the knowledge that very few if any governments around the world have thus far confronted the issue proactively – or responded particularly well.

We have the opportunity to lead the way.

The Chief Scientist went on to note that the recent Productivity Commission Draft Report on the regulation of Australian agriculture has cited AusBiotech as an authority on the point that regulatory agencies in Australia are of unquestioned ability and integrity.

Dr Finkel finalised his speech with comment on the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA). “I look at those four strengths: research, reputation, regulation and representatives. And I say we [Australians] can be forgiven for big ambition!” he said.

It is big ambition that will ensure a strong showing for Ag Tech in the public policy discussions underway today.

Look across the NISA, and the opportunities add up.

  • The Research Infrastructure Roadmap
  • The CSIRO Innovation Fund.
  • The development of an impact measure for research
  • The new industry-focused PhDs
  • The Biomedical Translation Fund.

Take the last one I mentioned, the Biomedical Translation Fund. I am a strong advocate for that Fund, as I have said many times before.

But if we have a Biomedical Translation Fund… why not an Agricultural Biotech Translation Fund as well?

I’ll leave that one with you to think about its merits and who might be its advocates.

The Ag&Food Symposium was held in Brisbane, 2 – 3 August. Other keynote speakers included:

  • Martin Cole, Director, CSIRO Food & Nutrition Flagship
  • Matthew Cossey, Chief Executive Officer, CropLife Australia, 20 Years of GM Crops
  • Dr Mirjana Prica,Managing Director, Food & Agribusiness Growth Centre, Growth Centre Priorities

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