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GM wheat in the US

An Oregon State University scientist notified the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in May that some wheat volunteers found in a field were GM herbicide tolerant. The GM variety has been confirmed as the glyphosate-tolerant variety (MON71800), which Monsanto was authorised to trial in the US from 1998 to 2005. The last field trials of the GM wheat in Oregon occurred in 2001, and there were no field trials on the farm where the GM wheat was found.

No GM wheat varieties are approved for sale or commercial production in the US, Australia or anywhere else in the world.

An investigation is underway to determine how this happened. According to a US Government statement released in June: “[The] USDA has neither found nor been informed of anything that would indicate that this incident amounts to more than a single isolated incident in a single field on a single farm. All information collected so far shows no indication of the presence of genetically engineered (GE) wheat in commerce. Investigators are conducting a thorough review. They have interviewed the harvester, as well as the seed supplier; obtained samples of the wheat seed sold to the producer and other growers; and obtained samples of the producer’s wheat harvests. All of these samples tested negative for the presence of GE material. Investigators are continuing to conduct interviews with approximately 200 growers in the area.”

However, this GM wheat is not considered a food safety issue because the US Food and Drug Administration assessed the variety in 2004 and determined that it was as safe for food and animal feed as non-GM wheat currently on the market.

Major markets, such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan, have postponed imports of US white wheat as they continue to study information from US officials to determine what, if any, future action may be required.

Australia’s Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) recently issued a media release regarding the GM wheat found in the US. It states in part: “There is no evidence to suggest that this GM wheat has been imported into Australia. GM wheat has not been authorised to be grown commercially in Australia … and has not been approved for food use by Food Standards Australia New Zealand … The OGTR provides strict oversight of GM crop trials in Australia. The Gene Technology Regulator has issued 14 licences for limited and controlled field trials of GM wheat, and 11 of these licences are still current. Each trial is limited in size and duration … There has been no breach of containment for any GM wheat trials.”

Animal feed safety questioned

In June 2013, an animal feeding study undertaken by Dr Judy Carman and colleagues was published in the Journal of Organic Systems. The study looked at the health of 168 pigs fed a ‘typical diet’ containing soy and corn for about 23 weeks. Half of the pigs were fed widely used varieties of GM soy and GM corn, and the other half were fed an equivalent non-GM diet. According to the researchers: “the level of severe inflammation in stomachs was markedly higher in pigs fed the GM diet. Pigs on the GM diet were 2.6 times more likely to get severe stomach inflammation than control pigs.”

These results contradict more than 150 scientific studies conducted to evaluate the health effects of feeding animals GM crops. To date there has been no credible scientific evidence to suggest any detrimental impact on animals or on products, such as the meat, milk and eggs, derived from animals fed GM crops.

Australia’s food regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), and Australia’s gene technology regulatory agency, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR), have considered the findings and released statements.

The key points made by FSANZ are that the authors have not provided convincing evidence that stomach inflammation was present and that the stomach data, as presented, does not support the authors’ interpretation and conclusions because:

  • the authors have not proved that the statistically significant increase in uterine weight is attributable to the GM diet;
  • there are many deficiencies with the design, conduct and reporting of the study and these deficiencies are sufficient to invalidate the study conclusions; and
  • overall, the data presented in the paper is not convincing of adverse effects due to the GM diet, and provides no grounds for revising FSANZ’s conclusions about the safety of previously approved glyphosate-tolerant and insect-protected GM corn lines and glyphosate-tolerant GM soy lines.

The OGTR reached similar conclusions about the study and states: “There are many problems with the study design, execution, data analysis and reporting that severely limit its value … The information presented does not support the authors’ claims of a link between GM feed and stomach inflammation … Similarly, there is no basis for attributing differences in mean uterine weight to diet … Thus the data does not support the authors’ claims, and the publication does not bring into question previous regulatory assessments or approvals.”

Gene silencing to boost yields

Researchers from Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia, have been using ‘gene silencing’ to control root lesion nematodes (RLN), plant pathogens known to reduce yields in major crops such as wheat and barley, by 15 per cent or more.

Professor Mike Jones, from the university’s Plant Biotechnology Research Group based in the WA State Agricultural Biotechnology Centre, says RLN is a major pest of agricultural, horticultural and industrial crops, such as sugarcane. “They invade and damage plant roots, making the plants susceptible to water and nutrient stress,” he says.

“Not only do they rob host plants of essential nutrients while feeding, but they also create entry wounds that leave plant roots susceptible to attack by fungi and bacteria in the soil [and] nematode control strategies have often required the use of expensive and environmentally unfriendly chemicals.”

Professor Jones says gene silencing involved blocking the formation of proteins needed for nematodes to complete their life cycles. He says the method was highly targeted to ‘switch off’ specific genes, and was another example of the benefits of genetic modification.

CEO urges consideration of GM benefits

To keep a competitive edge in agricultural production and feed a growing global population, Australia needs to look further into GM foods, according to Alison Watkins, chief executive officer of GrainCorp.

Speaking at a Committee for the Economic Development of Australia forum in Sydney in May, Ms Watkins encouraged Australians to consider the benefits of GM technology in the face of potential global food shortages in the future.

“For Australia to protect our share of global trade, we have to grow our national crop size to 60 million tonnes. That’s about 50 per cent more than what we currently produce,” Ms Watkins said.

She said Australia did not have much more land available for grain growing in order to double its production by 2050, and the pressures of climate change were likely to make this target even more difficult to reach.

Australia, the US and India to collaborate on GM cereals

The Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG), in partnership with the US Agency for International Development and India’s Vibha Agrotech Ltd, has announced plans to collaboratively develop GM wheat and rice varieties with drought and salt-tolerance characteristics.

The ACPFG’s gene systems and technologies and the evaluation and rice transformation capabilities of Vibha are expected to allow researchers to fast-track the development of GM cereals. The research is part of the US Government’s global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future.

More information:

http://usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentidonly=true&contentid=2013/06/0127.xml
www.ogtr.gov.au/internet/ogtr/publishing.nsf/Content/fact-nonapproved-gmwheat2013-htm
www.organic-systems.org/journal/81/8106.pdf
www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/gmfood/Pages/Response-to-Dr-Carman’s-study.aspx
www.ogtr.gov.au/internet/ogtr/publishing.nsf/Content/fact-pigfeeding-htm
www.abca.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/ABCA_InfoPaper_4_v2.pdf
http://media.murdoch.edu.au/new-gene-silencing-set-to-boost-agricultural-yields

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