Even in isolated, pristine Tasmania, pressure for GMO farming
Photo by REUTERS/David Gray Thousands of Black Angus bulls snort steam gently into the frigid early morning air at Tasmania's largest cattle feedlot as they jostle for space at a long grain trough.
The pitch black cattle, blending into their muddy surroundings and stretching as far as the eye can see, are being fattened up for the Japanese market where marbled Angus beef is in high demand.
These bulls at the feedlot owned by Japan's Aeon Co Ltd book an even higher premium, thanks to Tasmania's status as the only Australian state that bans genetically modified food crops and animal feed.
That moratorium has made Tasmania - an island the size of Ireland separated from Australia's mainland by 250 km (150 miles) of Bass Strait waters - a model of high-end, value-added agriculture production.
Tasmania's isolation and wilderness once made it a dumping ground for the British Empire's convicts. But these same qualities, and a small population of just over half a million people, make the island one of the cleanest places on earth.
Now, with fewer and fewer places in the world free from genetically modified farming and the innovations it brings, the pristine environment is under threat.
The state government says it is planning legislation to extend the ban on genetically modified farming when it expires later this year. But Tasmania's powerful poppy industry, the world's largest supplier of pharmaceutical grade opiates for painkillers, is strongly lobbying for the moratorium on genetically modified organisms (GMO) to be lifted.
Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Tasmanian Alkaloids, GlaxoSmithKline and Australia's privately-held TPI Enterprises, who share a A$120 million ($113 million) oligopoly, see a major threat looming as Victoria state on the mainland recently indicated it wanted to allow production of genetically modified poppies.
That throws open the prospect of tough competition and Tasmanian poppy farms losing out on cost-savings just as global demand for painkillers surges.
"There is a threat," said Tasmanian Alkaloids field operator Rick Rockliff, whose factory in the state's northwest processes around 80 percent of the world's thebaine poppies, the main ingredient in slow-release pain medication. "I would hope our government wouldn't sit on their hands and let that happen."
The road that Tasmania chooses will be critical as Australia seeks to fulfill lofty ambitions to become a "food bowl" for a rapidly growing middle-class in Asia.
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