Seven million extra field passes — quantifying the costs of a GMO ban


A professor from the University of Saskatchewan and his Master’s student are causing quite a stir ‘Down Under’ due to some startling revelations contained in a paper published by the two earlier this year.

The paper explores the economic and environmental consequences of a moratorium that effectively banned all use of genetically modified (GM) canola in Australia from 2004 till 2010.

A description, though brief, of the impact of the six year moratorium is quite sobering. “We estimated the economic loss to Australian farmers was just under one half billion dollars, Australian,” says Dr. Stuart Smyth, associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan. “We estimated there were seven million additional field passes to have to do land work, which burned over eight million litres worth of diesel fuel, and resulted in about 24 million kilograms of additional greenhouse gasses.”

I recently spoke with Smyth, shortly after his trip to Australia where he had delivered several talks on just how damaging to the environment— and the bottom line — the moratorium had been.

Opponents of biotechnology will often cite greed as the only reason these novel plants are brought forward for commercialization. This completely obscures the tremendous environmental benefits of this kind of scientific innovation, Smyth says. The audiences in Australia were interested in the economic benefits, “but they were really interested to learn what some of the environmental benefits were from Canadian farmer experiences after a decade, and now 20 years’ worth of GM canola production — what farmers here are recognizing as environmental benefits.”

Smyth explains that the invitation to Australia was the result of the hard work of one of his master’s students, Scott Biden. “We published a paper in January from his thesis and he looked at the cost of the moratorium that Australia had put on GM canola,” he says. Although this was work about Australia, very little work had been done on this topic in Australia, so audiences were anxious to hear from Smyth.

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Smyth holds the Industry Funded Research Chair in the Department of Bioresource Policy, Business and Economics in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the U of S. The chair was established recently (2014) and Smyth is the only one to hold it to this point.

The position was created in response to the realization regulatory hurdles were becoming harder and harder to clear for new scientific innovations. As Smyth says, the industry saw that, “The real constriction point in the commercialization of new crop varieties is at the regulatory level, and that is why they were interested in funding a new research position that would examine the costs and the impacts that regulations have on agriculture.”

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