GENE SCENE by Paula fitzgerald, Agrifood Awareness Australia*

CSIRO Plant Industry Chief Jim Peacock: 30 billion meals with GM ingredients eaten in the last six years, and no reports of adverse health or environmental effects

GMOs and gene technology in Australia: food for thought

JIM PEACOCK, President of the Australian Academy of Science and Chief of CSIRO Plant Industry, recently delivered a National Press Club address titled 'GMOs, Gene Technology and the Troubles with Food'.

The address focused on Australia's current contradictory situation with genetically modified (GM) crops - where we have at the same time a resounding gene technology, success story in the cotton industry and one of the most comprehensive gene technology regulatory systems in the world, and the current situation with moratoriums on GM crops imposed in five states and one territory.

GM cotton, a model example for Australia

Genetically modified insect-resistant cotton has been grown in Australia since 1996. It has been credited as the saviour of an industry under threat from pests, and with transforming the industry into a sustainable and profitable earner.

cotton industry hoping for a 90 per cent reduction in pesticide applications

By inserting an insect-resistance gene into the cotton, pesticide applications were reduced by 60 per cent. With the introduction of cotton varieties with two insecticide genes in the coming season, the industry is hoping for a 90 per cent reduction in pesticide applications.

Dr Peacock believes that for a number of reasons GM cotton is a model for the successfull entry of a new technology into Australian agriculture:

  • The industry recognised the need to be more sustainable and less dependent on chemicals because of pest resistance issues and negative environmental effects.
  • A public research body, CSIRO, was involved in the development of the cotton, putting a Monsanto gene into Australian-bred varieties.
  • The GM cotton seed was sold by a non-profit farmer cooperative seed company.
  • When purchasing a licence to grow GM cotton, farmers had to agree to implement management practices to minimise resistant pests developing and ensure the viability and success of the technology into the future.
  • Farmers were extensively involved in field trials of the GM varieties.
  • Global markets for the lint and the seed were assured prior to commercial production/approval.
  • Extensive communication ensured community awareness of the crop.
  • The regulatory bodies in Australia examined every potential hazard of the crop.

GM crops in Australia today

In examining today's negative landscape in relation to GM crops, Dr Peacock said that market access concerns surrounding GM canola appeared to be the major issue. This is an issue with no factual basis, as shown by Canada's experience in the world market with its canola crop, which is 85 per cent GM. He said that blame must be shared between politicians, the media, activist groups and scientists.

Politicians have been pressured regarding pollen flow, crop segregation and other market matters, but according to Dr Peacock it seems political manoeuvring is behind some of the current moratoriums, with some states selling themselves as biotechnology champions for future industry while rejecting the use of GM crops.

By deliberately raising public concerns with messages not supported by fact, the media and activist groups must accept some blame, according to Dr Peacock. Scientists have also contributed to the problem by not effectively helping the public understand the implications of this technology.

GM crops and food

Dr Peacock described those who claim GM foods are potentially harmful as mischievous and misleading. He calculated that at least 30 billion meals containing GM ingredients have been eaten in the last six years, without any reports of adverse health or environmental effects.

He also outlined the case for GM crops in feeding a growing world population, and their potential use in developing preventative medicines for problems in western societies related to food, for example cardiovascular disease, diabetes, colon cancer and obesity.

The developing world

According to Dr Peacock, the current food supply will need to double in order to feed the population of the next 30-40 years. In the past year, 800 million people did not have enough food to eat and six million children under five died because of malnourishment.

In subsistence farming, one pest event can wipe out half of a family's food supply for a year. The addition of one disease-resistant or insect-resistant gene to crops in the developing world could mean the difference between keeping a family away from starvation, and allowing them access to health care and education for their children.

According to Dr Peacock, governments around the world need to accelerate publicly funded research programs concerned with food production, so that knowledge of the genes of crop plants can be shared with the developing world and capacity-building partnerships between countries can be ensured.

Australia - where to from here?

Dr Peacock believes that, unlike the GM cotton experience, the GM canola jigsaw has not seen all of the pieces come together, but that it should be possible for issues such as market access to be resolved within the next one or two seasons.

Dr Peacock told the audience that Australia has an ethical obligation to explore the benefits of GM food. In concluding his presentation, he said GM crops present big opportunities in Australia and, by getting the facts straight about these crops, he believed Australia's political masters will see that, as far as biotechnology is concerned, we can have our cake, and we can safely eat it too.

The full transcript of Dr Peacock's presentation is available at: www.science.org.au/

GM canola about to make Oz commercial debut

AUSTRALIA'S GENE Technology Regulator, Sue Meek, approved the commercial release of Australia's first genetically modified (GM) canola variety at the end of July.

In assessing GM crops for commercial release, Dr Meek's role is to ensure they do not create unmanageable risks in relation to human health and environmental safety. On approving Bayer CropScience's InVigor® GM canola for commercial release, Dr Meek said. "In Vigor® canola posed no greater risk to human health or the environment than conventional canola".

In Vigor® canola is a hybrid variety tolerant to the herbicide Liberty®. It has been trialed under limited and controlled conditions in Australia since 1997, and it is already approved for food use in Australia. Bayer CropScience claims that InVigor® varieties offer growers· a 10-15 per cent yield improvement, reduced need for pre-emergent herbicide applications and more weed control options.

The decision to issue the licence was made after extensive consultation, as required by law, with all levels of government, including relevant councils, Ministers and agencies, the public, and scientific and technical experts.

Moratoriums and 'freezes' on GM crops by most canola-growing state governments, largely because of marketing issues, plus commercial approval too late in the season, mean that no GM canola will be planted commercially this year, although field trials will continue. Bayer CropScience has indicated that it will continue to work with farmers, industry groups and governments to ensure an orderly commercial roll-out of In Vigor® canola in the future.

For more information: www.ogtr.gov.auwww.bayercropscience.com.au

European Union opens doors but tightens GMO label laws

EUROPEAN UNION legislation to trace, label and market genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food and feed products is in place. These laws open the door for further GM food and crop approvals in the EU which have been on hold since 1996.

Key features of the EU proposal in rebition to traceability include:

  • systems to identify sources of GM products
  • businesses transmitting and retaining information at each stage of the supply chain in relation to GM products
  • sampling and testing methods.

Here's how the proposed EU labelling laws differ from those in Australia.

  • All foods produced from GMOs will require a label stating they are derived from GM crops, whether they contain any genetic material in their final form or not. In Australia, highly refined products such as oil derived from GM crops do not require GM labelling because they are identical to oil from non-GM crops, and it is impossible for a test to detennine whether oil is from a GM or non-GM crop.
  • The EU has set a threshold Of 0.9 per cent for the accidental presence of GM content in a non-GM food. In Australia, this threshold is 1 per cent.
  • All GM animal feed will need to be labelled in the EU, and this is not the case in Australia.

For more information: http://europa.eu.int/rapid/start/cgi/guesten.ksh?p_action.gettxt=gt&doc=IP/03/935101RAPID&lg=EN&display=

* Agrifood Awareness Australia Limited is an industry initiative established to increase public awareness of, and encourage informed debate about, gene technology.

The organisation is supported by three peak bodies, including the GRDC.