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
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
"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.
Already the world's third largest exporter of beef and the No.4
wheat exporter, Australia is eyeing agriculture as a key economic
driver as a decade-long mining investment boom that brought the
country riches wanes.
But critics warn that it is in danger of failing at the farm gate
due to the country's harsh, drought-prone climate and a lack of
investment in agricultural innovation.
In Tasmania, the accent is on high-value crops and cattle for
The state's niche producers are supplying everything from off-season
wasabi and lavender teddy bears to fresh salmon and live abalone and
see this as the future, rather than low value, bulk commodities. Its
wine industry is thriving as climate change pressures major
producers to move from traditional grape-growing regions on the
mainland to Tasmania's cooler climes.
These products attract a premium because of the GMO ban - the
state's honey brings in prices of at least 40 percent more than
mainland honey - according to the Safe Food Foundation.
Tasmania Feedlot Pty Ltd in Powranna is home to between 6,000 and
11,000 Angus cattle all year round. The animals are beefed up over a
period of five to six months before large cuts are shipped frozen to
"They're looking for a very safe product, and a very consistent
product," said the feedlot's Managing Director Andrew Thompson of
the company's Japanese buyers.
"GM is one of the main factors, along with no use of hormone growth
promotants," he added. "We've got this great reputation of being
safe and clean and I think we've got to enhance that into the
[to top of second column]
The use of GMOs was outlawed in Tasmania more than a decade ago,
after genetically altered canola escaped from crops at secret trials
around the state.
The state government says it plans to introduce legislation later
this year to extend the ban, which expires in November. But it has
left the door open a crack, retaining exemptions for scientific
trials of GM crops and refusing to rule out lifting the ban in the
That's left Tasmania's organic farmers nervously eyeing a recent
landmark court case in Western Australia. Farmer Steve Marsh
unsuccessfully sued his neighbor, blaming him for losing his licence
as an organic grower after Monsanto GMO canola seed heads blew on to
Marsh is appealing the ruling, a process that could take up to a
year to be finalised. Tasmania's fear of contamination is reflected
in its strict food importation rules. Visitors arriving from the
mainland are required to dispose of any foodstuffs before leaving
The island's isolation and its small population were the main
reasons the federal government granted an exclusive licence to
Tasmania to grow opium poppies for legal commercial production half
a century ago.
The arrangement has proved a boon for growers, with U.N. figures
showing demand for pain relief more than tripled between 1993 and
2012 to the equivalent of 14 billion doses. Demand is expected to
rise further in coming decades as the middle-class, particularly in
But Tasmania's efforts to secure a further five-year ban on other
states growing poppies for commercial production have fallen on deaf
ears as the federal government considers Victoria's bid.
Tasmania's poppy farmers say expanding production across Australia
will leave them at a handicap if the GMO ban in the state remains.
"It will make it more attractive to grow in Victoria," said
Tasmanian Alkaloids' Rockliff. His company developed a trial GMO
poppy several years ago that was unaffected by a common herbicide
used to kill weeds, a development that would cut growers' costs and
time in the field if able to be used commercially.
"From that perspective, GMO is really interesting and it will
eventually happen in Tasmania," he said.
Many others are fervently hoping that Rockliff is wrong.
"I think the key is that Tasmania will never have the scale to
produce enormous crops of grain or fruit for example, so why push
for advantages that only work for scale?," said Tasmania Feedlot's
Thompson. "Perhaps we're better to push for advantages that work for
our particular image, of being grown in this island state and being
clean and green and safe."
(Editing by Lincoln Feast and Raju Gopalakrishnan)
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