GENE SCENE

In a major tracking study into public attitudes towards biotechnology and gene technology commissioned by Biotechnology Australia, 49 per cent of Australians stated that they would eat GM foods, which is the highest recorded finding to date, outranking those who said they would not eat GM foods (45 per cent). However, there was a decline in those who said that they would eat GM foods if they had been modified to taste better (51 to 43 per cent) and an increase in those who felt that GM foods are risky (63 to 73 per cent).

Many people are unsure whether fresh fruit and vegetables using GM technology are currently on the market (66 per cent) and, although there is confusion about the term 'genetically modified', there is a high belief that most foods currently sold in Australia are genetically modified in some manner.

A survey conducted by the International Food Information Council (lFIC) has found that 64 per cent of Americans believe that biotechnology will benefit their families in the next five years. Consumers anticipate benefits including: improved health and nutrition (39 per cent); improved quality, taste and variety of foods (33 per cent); reduced chemical and pesticide use on plants (21 per cent); reduced cost of food (9 per cent); and improved crops and crop yields (9 per cent).

Together, six studies appearing in Proceedings 01 the US National Academy 01 Sciences suggest that risks posed by current maize crops incorporating the Bacillus thuringiensis toxin gene to monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are not likely to be significant. The studies show that, while Bt pollen does have some toxic effects when fed to butterfly larvae, the pollen densities likely to be encountered in the field are too low to pose a risk to monarch levels.

At a briefing sponsored by the American Medical Association (AMA) researchers reviewed their progress toward using GM crops to create plant-produced vaccines and to remove allergies from food. Steve L. Tyler, of the University of Nebraska, argued that, although concerns have been raised over possible allergic reactions to novel proteins introduced into GM crops, with only a few hundred known plant allergens "the chances of introduced genes creating problems are very low". Instead, with only eight foods accounting for 90 per cent of allergies - including peanuts, soybeans and wheat - GM crops could be important in lowering allergic reactions in foods. Ongoing studies at Alabama A&M University, for example, are aimed at removing allergenic proteins from the peanut.

Regarding plant-based vaccines, Alexander Karasev, Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, said that, in the future, vaccines could be grown in GM plants, with the plants dried and pressed into traditional pill form. The process is currently being tested on a lettuce-based vaccine for Hepatitis B, a disease with 400 million carriers. Professor Karasev pointed out that Hepatitis B "is a good candidate for this technology, because we already have a good vaccine, but $450 for three vaccinations makes it too costly".