GENE SCENE by Paula fitzgerald, Agrifood Awareness Australia*

New study of environmental impacts of biotechnology-derived crops

The US based Council of Agricultural , Science and Technology (CAST) recently released a study summarising information on the environmental benefits of biotechnology-derived soybean, corn and cotton, in comparison with their conventional counterparts.

The authors concluded that biotechnology-derived crops pose no environmental concerns unique or different from those historically associated with conventionally bred varieties.

The study found that while the suitability of biotechnology-derived crops to different geographic areas depended on many economic, social and regional factors. There were a number of general conclusions that could be made about these crops.

  • Such crops provide insect, weed and disease management options that are consistent with improved environmental stewardship in developed and developing nations.
  • They can provide solutions to environmental and economic problems associated with conventional crops including production security (consistent yields), safety (worker, public and wildlife), and environmental benefits (soil, water and ecosystems).
  • They provide benefits through enhanced conservation of soil, water and beneficial insect populations and through improved water and air quality, although they should not be seen as the only solution for all farming situations.
  • When made available to small farmers in developing nations, they can help these farmers realise environmental benefits and reduce worker expOsure to pesticides.

(CAST is a non-profit organisation composed of scientific societies and many individual, student. company, non-profit and associate society members.)

Long road to GM paddock crops

'During the development of a GM crop, it undergoes extensive testing and assessment. What begins as a scientific idea takes 8-13 years to become a coinmercial reality. The crop will begin as a small plant in a laboratory; from here, it becomes several plants in a glasshouse. Following assessment in the glasshouse, the crop then progresses to a field trial, providing the Gene Technology Regulator is satisfied that it poses no unmanageable risk to human health or the environment.

The first field trial for a GM crop is often only the size of an average backyard or suburban vegetable patch. The trial assesses how the product will perform in its true environment. It may take a few years or seasons before a field trial is actually the size of a paddock.

For a field trial to go ahead, the product developer must have approval from the regulatory body. Field trials are under constant scrutiny by the regulatory body and are subject to random inspections. When this approval is granted, a number of conditions and field management guidelines may also be imposed by the Regulator. Breaches of these guidelines will see the product developer and those involved in the trials facing possible fines and legal,action.

As with conventional crops, field trials dictate Whether the crop will proceed to commercialisation.

Resource: - Field trials of genetically modilied crops (Factsheet 2)

Canadian farmer loses appeal

Percy Schmeiser, the Canadian canola farmer who recently toured Australia talking about his negative experience with GM canola, has lost his appeal against the court decision that found him guilty of infringing a patent on Monsanto's GM herbicide-tolerant canola because he grew the crop without a licence.

Schmeiser claimed that his conventional canola crop was contaminated with seed from a neighbouring GM crop and that canola seed had been carried onto his land by the wind, bees, grain trucks and farm equipment. It was noted during court proceedings that the nearest farm growing GM canola was around 10 km from the Schmeiser farm. Evidence put forward by expert witnesses during the trial stated that none of the contamination sources suggested by Schmeiser could reasonably explain the concentration or extent of the GM canola of a commercial quality evident from the results of the tests on his crop.

In June 2000, the Federal Court of Canada judge ruled that Schmeiser had planted canola seed saved from his 1997 crop, which he knew, or ought to have known, was herbicide-tolerant, and that he had knowingly reproduced the patented plants and cells by using this seed to plant his entire 1998 crop. Schmeiser was ordered to pay the court costs in excess of $150,000. The Canadian Federal Court of Appeal upheld this original ruling.

Further information:

Recently published in the Plant Journal:

Researchers at Leeds University in England have identified the wilting gene. The gene turns on and off the hormones that instruct a plant to start dying. The discovery could lead to plants being kept fresh for months after being cut, and it has implications for keeping vegetables fresh for longer periods. A tobacco plant used in one experiment thrived in a glass of water for six months after it was cut, and started to grow extra shoots.

An allergy-free peanut is the aim of scientists

at the us Department of Agriculture. There are seven proteins in peanuts that have been identified as key triggers of allergic reactions - two of these proteins cause 95 per cent of all reactions.Researchers are screening peanut plants, starting with 100 varieties (from a total of 14,000), with the hope of finding .varieties with low levels of the two mam allergy-causing proteins.

* Agrifood Awareness Australia is an industry initiative established to increase public awareness oj, and encourage informed debaJe about, gene technology. The organisatian is supported by four peak bodies, including the GRDC.