You are in site section: History & ideas

Genetically modified food and farming

Genetically modified food and farming

Bethaney Turner is a researcher who explores relationships between people and food, from community gardens to global debates about food security. Here, Bethaney reflects on objects from the National Museum's collection that are associated with the relatively recent, sometimes controversial, introduction of genetically modified canola varieties into Australian farming systems.

Reflections on a new technology

These seed vessels, a sack and a bucket are at first glance, nothing out of the ordinary. The containers would not look out of place in the sheds of commercial-scale food producing farms across Australia. Upon closer inspection the significance of these objects and the seeds they held, is etched on their plastic skins. Nestled inside these vessels were Roundup Ready hybrid canola seeds, part of Australia’s first GM food crop, which has changed the landscape of canola production across the nation.

Pictured left is a yellow bucket labelled 'Pacific Seeds Hybrid Canola Planting Seed'.  Pictured right is a sack labelled 'Pioneer Hybrid Canola Seed, Technology that Yields'.
Pacific Seeds ‘Hybrid Canola Planting Seed’ bucket and Pioneer ‘Hybrid Canola Seed’ sack, National Museum of Australia.

Canola seed from Chile via Canada

The contents of the seed sack and bucket arrived from Chile via Canada to be sown on a farm near the town of Young in southern New South Wales in 2008, the year that Australian farmers were first allowed by government regulators to sow GM canola varieties.  The GM component of the seeds was produced using technology owned and patented by Monsanto, one of the world’s largest biotechnology agribusinesses and pioneers in GM seed production. The unique hybrid strains were produced through careful breeding by the respective seed companies — Pacific Seeds in the case of the bucket and Pioneer (DuPont Pioneer) in regards to the sack.

The seed sack declares that this is ‘technology that yields’, but only if the instructions in the fine print relating to the ‘use restrictions, limitation of warranty and liability; other terms’ are followed. The vessels make clear the seed is only to be used with the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup), with a red label on the sack warning that: ‘accidental application of incompatible herbicides to this variety could result in total crop loss.’

‘Roundup Ready Technology’ tag from Pioneer ‘Hybrid Canola Seed’ sack.
‘Roundup Ready Technology’ tag from Pioneer ‘Hybrid Canola Seed’ sack, National Museum of Australia.

Single use seed

As GM hybrid canola seeds grow in popularity among Australian farmers, similar containers may stack up in farm sheds across the nation. These are seeds that must be purchased each year, rather than saved and re-sown. Open pollination overrides the careful breeding and selection of traits that produce the unique qualities of the hybrids and Roundup Ready seed is protected by a Monsanto patent which requires users to sign a ‘Monsanto technology use agreement’ which, as explained on the back of the bucket:

authorises the use of these seeds in Australia for the production of a single commercial crop of grain for processing only. Resale or transfer of this seed or supply or use of its progeny (saved seed) to anyone including the Purchaser for planting is strictly prohibited.

If the agreements are signed, and the conditions adhered to, the companies promise improved outcomes over conventional seed including the capacity to override the climatic and ecological conditions of the particular places the seeds are to be sown. The wording on the seed bucket asserts that the Roundup Ready hybrid canola has ‘better drought tolerance’ as well as providing ‘ultimate flexibility’ by offering farmers the opportunity to ‘plant our high performance hybrid varieties in places you couldn’t before’.

Conditions of sale and use label on Pacific Seeds 'Hybrid Canola Planting Seed' bucket.
Conditions of sale and use label on Pacific Seeds 'Hybrid Canola Planting Seed' bucket, National Museum of Australia.
Explore this image in detail

Abstraction of place

These declarations seem to deny the relevance of place and the particularities of changing climatic and ecological conditions that may impact on yield. Contained within these vessels is the promise of a technology that openly declares its abstraction from place, having been successfully designed to perform in a wider range of conditions and climates.

The generic terms of use detailed in swathes of text lack any reference to local environmental and climatic conditions. The possibility of crop failure is only canvassed in relation to the use of incorrect herbicides. 'Nature' and non-human elements are presented as not only controlled and controllable, but also as irrelevant.

The abstraction of place and disregard for local conditions has combined with a perceived lack of information to fuel scepticism about GM among many, including amongst some farmers. This scepticism is despite the historical pursuit of scientific best practice and the reality of technological innovation being a hallmark of Australian agriculture since the 19th century.

Farming as practical science

Farming has been known as 'practical science' with Australian agricultural show societies embracing the motto 'practice with science' in the 19th and early 20th centuries.[1] However, prior to the Green Revolution of the 1940s to the 1970s, the historical pursuit of increasing yield through improved agricultural techniques was often grounded in place, developed in response to local conditions, for example, the development of the stump-jump plough and the building of irrigation systems in the Murray-Darling Basin. While these may have been anthropocentric attempts to directly combat conditions, forcing nature to yield to human demands, these early efforts recognized and responded to the particularity of place and its broader ecological elements.

A yellow crop in the foreground, with a treed hill as a backdrop.
Canola crop, New South Wales. Photo: Lannon Harley.

Diana Boyer's art and the importance of place

One farmer who resisted the move to GM farming is Diana Boyer, who lived and worked on a farm with her husband Norman and their family in Binalong, not far from the town of Young in southern New South Wales. Trained as a botanical artist in her native Argentina before escaping the nation’s political conflict in 1980 to settle in Australia, Diana marked the passage of time, the effects of climate change and the impact of the growing of GM food stuffs on the Binalong landscape and the animals and humans that inhabit this space through a series of annotated sketchbooks and numerous artworks.

Diana’s  artworks centre on her rising awareness of the intense particularities and peculiarities of place and the ensuing struggles that farmers face. The watercolour landscape sketches of Diana Boyer suggest flow, movement and a land that constantly escapes from her attempts at representation as quick brush strokes are made and words jotted down.

In the works reproduced here, the daily struggle for farmers to remain viable in times of climatic uncertainty, and in particular through drought, are shown to have been only worsened by the newly added burden of dealing with the introduction of GM food crops and the associated difficulties and cost of preventing cross-contamination with GM crops at all steps of food producing processes.

Artwork by Diana Boyer.
'Regulations for all rural workers involved in the cropping cycle of a GMO' watercolour by Diana Boyer, part one, Diana Boyer collection, National Museum of Australia.
Explore this image in detail

Changing climatic conditions

Diana, a migrant making a new life in a new land, connected these local rural experiences to global experiences of climate change and economic infrastructure whereby the control and marketing of seed by international agribusinesses deeply impacts on the options available to small-scale, local producers in their locales. Diana’s works do not seem to represent a fear of change, but instead a careful documenting of its effects.

While Diana and her family found political stability in Australia, this was in stark contrast to the shifting climatic conditions which required regular alterations to the daily rhythms and practices of humans and non-humans on their farm, ranging from earlier rising to feed animals in extreme heat, to reduced shower times due to lack of water. Replanting herself in a new land led to careful observation and interaction with the ecological specificity of her new locale and the need to shift and change in accordance with the demands of the changing conditions.

Diana's efforts to resist GM crops seems to be embedded in this deep respect for changing conditions and the need for humans to understand their role in its cause. In these images, GM crops represent another form of anthropocentric blindness, where the ecological specificity and interconnectedness of life is silenced through the decisions of economic elites. The promises of generic success in all locations emblazoned on the GM seed containers divorces the seed, the very stuff of life, from the broader ecological web in which we are all constituted.

Artwork by Diana Boyer.
'Regulations for all rural workers involved in the cropping cycle of a GMO' watercolour by Diana Boyer, part two, Diana Boyer collection, National Museum of Australia.
Explore this image in detail

About the author

Bethany Turner

Bethaney Turner is a researcher and lecturer in the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra.

She explores relationships between people and food, from community gardens to global debates about food security.

In 2012, Bethaney spent six months as a visiting fellow at the National Museum of Australia, researching collections related to histories and cultures of food production.


Notes

[1] Anderson, K, 'White Natures: Sydney's Royal Agricultural Show in Post-Humanist Perspective', Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, volume 28, issue 4, December 2003, pp. 422-441.