GM Crops changing direction

Photo of Dr Van Ripley

By Brad Collis

[Photo: Dr Van Ripley: does not understand environmental groups supporting the status quo.]

Research into the next generation of GM grain technologies a shift away from production traits such as herbicide resistance to output traits such as human nutrition is on the increase in North America and Europe.

One of the world"s leading oilseed researchers, Dr Van Ripley from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada"s Saskatoon Research Centre, believes this shift over the coming decade might change consumer perceptions of transgenic crop technologies.

"Although this is a bit of a red herring, because there are significant benefits already from GM herbicide-tolerant crops," he says. "I still don"t understand environmental groups that continue to promote the status quo; the use of multiple chemical applications that have acknowledged environmental impacts."

Dr Ripley was responsible for the development of Canadian LibertyLink® transgenic oilseed varieties, and was in Australia in February to speak at the GRDC Research Updates.

He said the benefits of GM oilseed varieties was well established among Canadian growers despite the "datafree claims" that he says have been made by anti-GM visitors to Australia.

"GM canola, for example, now dominates the market in Canada, with 77 percent of the market in 2004."

However, Dr Ripley said the development of new GM traits was now slowing, partly in response to the politics surrounding GM technologies and partly because the existing use of GM technology was meeting immediate needs.

Instead, he sees the use of transgenics broadening into other crops and new uses.

For example, while the Canadian Wheat Board had rejected Roundup Ready® wheat because of its potentially detrimental impact on weed control in reduced tillage systems, he expected there might be a different response to developments such as GM fusarium-resistant wheat.

While acknowledging that GM crops were still under attack from lobby groups trying to stop commercial releases, Dr Ripley was optimistic that a wider use of GM technology with direct consumer benefits would eventually diminish consumer opposition.

He felt the future, however, was becoming clear through the work of scientific collaborations such as the Napus 2000 Project in Europe, which recently produced genetically modified linseed plants that accumulate very-long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA).

This breakthrough, in 2004, is regarded by scientists as showing how genetic engineering of agronomically important species can benefit human health and nutrition, and the environment.

PUFA, or essential fatty acids such as the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, are recognised as important components of a healthy human diet. Increased consumption has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and other health benefits, including protection against inflammatory diseases like arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, some cancers and the promotion of healthy brain and eye development in infants.

Developing transgenic crops that can produce these essential fatty acids is seen by some scientists as a way to resolve nutritional issues, and overcome the dangers of pollutants in fish and the depletion of world fisheries.

While crops such as canola, safflower and linseed already accumulate PUFA such as linoleic acid and alpha-linoleic acid and may metabolise in the body, the process is slow and inefficient compared to eating fish oils.

Dr Ripley said recently patented discoveries by Bioriginal Food & Science Corp in Canada of the enzymes responsible for the development of omega-3 fatty acids such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), could be a significant step towards transgenic grains becoming a new source of important nutrients for people.

He said the gene responsible for these enzymes can be cloned, enabling them to be introduced into oilseed varieties.

Dr Ripley said that while much of this research was in its early stages, it was important for the Australian grains industry to avoid falling behind in the use of transgenic technologies, and biotechnologies generally.

He said GM technologies would be crucial to developing grain varieties that were able to produce increased yields and grain quality under deteriorating environmental conditions.

In Australia, CSIRO researchers are also hoping to have linseed oil, soybean oil and canola oil join fish as providers of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.

The CSIRO"s "heart healthy grains" project is part of its Food Futures Flagship aimed at boosting Australia"s agrifoods sector and further lifting its international competitiveness.

Dr Allan Green, who is leading the team, says GM technology is the key to identifying and incorporating into grains the genes responsible for producing omega-3 fatty acids in the micro-algae that fish feed on.

Dr Green says that once this is achieved, the research could take two different paths. One would be omega-3 fatty acids in feedgrains to produce poultry, pig meat, lamb and beef rich in omega-3. The other path would be specially enriched omega-3 grain for human consumption.

He says that omega-3 fatty acids would be protected in grain, which would allow products like wholegrain bread to be a suitable delivery system.

For more information: Dr Van Ripley, ripleyv@agr.gc.ca