GM contamination – it’s not worth the risk

Blog post by Dr. Janet Cotter, senior scientist for Greenpeace International in the United Kingdom with over ten years’ experience analysing the risks of genetic modification. Dr. Cotter will be visiting Australia from the 16th til the 26th of October.

© Ulrich Baatz / Greenpeace

The growing of genetically modified (GM) crops is something that Greenpeace has long opposed, due to the risks posed to both human health and the environment, and unwanted contamination of our food due to the difficulties of controlling the spread of these crops.

Open-air experiments cannot be contained

This year, news emerged that chemical and pharmaceutical giant Bayer has been forced to make massive payouts after conventional US rice crops were contaminated by Bayer’s experimental GM rice in 2006. As a result, Bayer has agreed to a US $750 million settlement for US 11,000 farmers.[1] Then, in March of this year, a court ordered Bayer to pay US $137 million in damages to Riceland, a rice export company, for loss of sales to the EU.[2]

Back in 2006, Bayer’s experimental herbicide-tolerant and GM “Liberty Link” rice (tolerant to herbicides such as Basta, or Liberty) was found to have contaminated conventional US long-grain rice – including rice for export. Shipments of supposedly non-GM rice, tested and found to be positive for GM rice, were turned back from regions such including the EU, costing companies millions of dollars and prompting lawsuits in the US.

Gambling with human health

But why does this contamination matter, and why should we be worried about traces of experimental GM crops in our food? This does matter and we should worry, because GM experimental crops have, by definition, undergone little or no safety testing to determine their possible impacts on either the environment or human health.

The GM wheat currently being trialed in Australia is modified using a technique called RNA interference.  This is very new science about which we are making discoveries all the time.[3] It is not possible to properly control for health risks under these circumstances.

Risking Australia’s wheat industry

So what’s to stop contamination of Australia’s $4.7 wheat industry by experimental GM wheat trials currently being conducted across the Australia? Nothing.

The majority of contamination cases are caused by human error. In fact, over 60% of the breaches of gene security licenses logged with the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) have been due to human error during field experiments.[4] More than a dozen of these incidences occurred during small scale and supposedly ‘contained’ trials, like those currently being conducted in Australia’s wheat belt.

Who is going to pay? Who will clean it up?

Farmers are paying the price. Last year, Steve Marsh’s organic wheat farm in Western Australia was contaminated resulting in the loss of his organic certification and lucrative premiums for his crops.[5] Early this year, Bob Mackley’s non-GM farm in Victoria was flooded by his neighbour’s GM canola during unseasonably heavy rains.  A few weeks ago, a number of farmers in Williams, WA were being exposed to contamination following a truck spill of over 15 tonnes of GM canola. [6] These farmers have established contracts to supply non-GM grain to Japanese buyers that could come under threat as a result of the spill.

The only way to protect our food and environment is to stop releasing GM crops into the environment – and this has to include field trials.

Take action: Email the PM and tell her you won’t swallow GM bread



[2] Fox, J.L. 2011. Bayer’s GM rice defeat. Nature Biotechnology (News) 29: 473.

[3] See for example, a recent article in Cell Research about how micro RNAs can be taken up by the human body when eaten and affect gene expression. Zhang, L., et al (2011) “Exogenous plant MIR168a specifically targets mammalian LDLRAP1: evidence of cross-kingdom regulation by microRNA” Cell Research advance online publication 20 September 2011; doi: 10.1038/cr.2011.158

[4] Based on data compiled from OGTR annual and quarterly reports as published here:

[5] ABC News, 13 January 2011

[6] ABC News, 10 August 2011