Reflections on my visit to Australia

Blogpost by Dr. Janet Cotter, Senior Scientist, Greenpeace International

© Greenpeace / Michael Amendolia

I recently visited Australia to examine the situation with genetically modified (GM) crops. I was stunned by what a beautiful country Australia is and wondered why anyone would want to grow GM crops here. Australia has very little to gain and much to lose by growing GM crops.

What are the risks of GM crops?

There are many risks with GM crops. There are those associated with the trait, such as herbicide tolerance or insect resistant. There are both environmental and health risks. Fundamentally it’s the insertion of genes into the genome of an organism that can give rise to unexpected and unpredictable effects. This can cause many effects. Of significance, it can alter the protein profile – for examples producing new proteins or modifying existing ones. This is important, as most allergens (the compounds that cause allergies in us) are proteins

The more we know about how genes and genomes function, we more we realise how complex and tightly controlled their operation is. GM crops belong to an outdated and over-simplistic concept of how genes function. For example, the “new generation” of GM crops include those that employ a process known as RNAi (interfering RNA). This includes CSIRO’s GM wheat for altered starch composition. Recent scientific publications suggest that some of these small RNAs (produced by genes or DNA), might not degrade on cooking and eating as previously thought, but could be taken up into our bodies via food. The evidence further suggests they could affect gene expression in humans. It’s too early to know what the full implications are, but it demonstrates quite clearly that we don’t have a full picture of how genes or DNA and their products that occur naturally in the food we eat affect us. Using genetic modification to introduce new and novel gene products into our food means we just don’t know if GM foods are safe to eat.

GM contamination of conventional crops will happen

There’s a real risk that experimental field trials of GM wheat in Australia could contaminate Australia’s lucrative wheat industry. Not only does this pose a risk to human health, but it should be of large concern to Australian farmers. Contamination happens, and it’s expensive. There are now several cases of GM contamination from experimental field trials. Many, if not most of these contamination cases tend to be from human error, mix-ups or mistakes, rather than cross-pollination. This means that even if cross-pollination is unlikely (wheat for example is self-pollinating), contamination is still a significant risk.

The experiences with canola contamination that farmers are already having in Australia are very distressing. There are many studies from North America confirming that GM canola can escape and form “feral” populations (introduced plants growing wild without cultivation) along roadside verges. These feral populations can act as a reservoir of GM genes that contaminate conventional canola (1). Japan, which doesn’t grow conventional canola, has feral populations of GM canola around the sea ports and roadsides just from spillages of imports (2). GM simply cannot be controlled.

GM crops aren’t needed

Several times I was asked “but don’t we need GM crops to feed the world”? The answer is no. GM crops are not designed to give greater yield than conventional crops. Currently, they are designed to be resistant to toxic herbicides such as Round-Up, or contain the pesticide itself.

Desired crop traits tend to be complex traits such as drought and salinity tolerance. These complex traits are better suited to non-GM breeding techniques such as Marker Assisted Selection (MAS) or “smart” breeding. MAS utilises our knowledge of DNA and genomes to produce complex traits using conventional breeding, and without producing a GM crop. Solutions to sustainable agriculture are needed but GM crops are not part of that solution.

I hope farmers and consumers say “No!” to GM wheat. GM crops aren’t wanted in many parts of the world. The majority of GM crops are isolated to the Americas and European consumers  simply don’t want to eat GM. There is a large demand for GM-free commodities. Growing GM crops in Australia risks contaminating Australia’s exports and losing important trade markets.

Why would you take the risk?

(1)  Schafer, M.G., Ross, A.A., Londo, J.P., Burdick, C.A., Lee, E.H., Travers, S.E., Van de Water, P.K. & Sagers, C.L. 2011. The establishment of genetically engineered canola populations in the U.S. PLoS ONE 6: e25736. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025736.

Knispel, A.L & McLachlan, S.M. 2010 Landscape-scale distribution and persistence of genetically modified oilseed rape (Brassica napus) in Manitoba, Canada. Environmental  Science Pollution Research 17: 13–25.

(2) Saji, H., Nakajima, N., Aono, M., Tamaoki, M., Kubo, A., Wakiyama, S., Hatase, Y & Nagatsu, M. 2005. Monitoring the escape of transgenic oilseed rape around Japanese ports and roadsides. Environmental Biosafety Research. 4: 217–222.

  • Janet

    I would appreciate your thoughts about the following discussion points.

    Fundamentally it’s the insertion of genes into the genome of an organism that can give rise to unexpected and unpredictable effects. This can cause many effects. Of significance, it can alter the protein profile – for examples producing new proteins or modifying existing ones.

    Conventional breeding methods such as mutagenesis and plant embryo rescue can do the same the same thing, so why not talk about them? Also, we have two varieties of conventionally-bred herbicide-tolerant canola grown in Australia that carry many of the same environmental risks as the GM variety. One of them has the same ability to cross-pollinate and potentially cause the herbicide-tolerant trait to pass to these non-tolerant varieties. So again, why not mention them.

    Using genetic modification to introduce new and novel gene products into our food means we just don’t know if GM foods are safe to eat.
    Do we know if our conventionally-bred food is safe? Each year we release new varieties of crops bred by mutagenesis and other modern non-GM breeding methods that cause unpredictable changes and mutations in the DNA. Such changes could cause an increase in naturally occurring allergens or toxins, or introduce unknown genes that are toxic, allergenic or anti-nutrients. So there are risks to conventional breeding as well.

    There’s a real risk that experimental field trials of GM wheat in Australia could contaminate Australia’s lucrative wheat industry. Not only does this pose a risk to human health…
    What evidence is there that it poses a health risk? It might, but I have yet to see any robust, peer-reviewed evidence that it does, especially considering the research has yet to reach the stage where they need to determine this.

    Re: Feral populations of canola: Yes canola does escape and grow along roadsides and any area where canola seed is transported or stored. Nobody has ever suggested it wouldn’t, but what is the significance of this – leaving aside the concern that it will mingle with non-GM seed that will be consumed by humans? It isn’t an environmental problem, at least no more than conventional canola. Without continual resupply from transport seed, canola will only survive about 4 generations at most before dying out. And there has been considerable research to show this. Canola will only grow in cleared or disturbed areas, it rarely establishes in natural bushland.

    Several times I was asked “but don’t we need GM crops to feed the world”? The answer is no.
    Of course this is the case. No scientist or plant breeder is suggesting GM technologies are necessary to feed the world. To them it is one of many tools at their disposal to help solve plant breeding problems. And yes in complex traits such as the abiotic stresses (especially drought) other plant breeding technologies may prove to be more useful, which is why plant breeders choose the most useful tool, or try a combination of plant breeding technologies to see which will work best.

    There is no such thing as zero risk and there is uncertainty and risk in both the GM technologies and conventional plant breeding. How acceptable those risks are will be different for everyone, and if the growing body of evidence is correct most of those perceived risks for the GM technologies have little to do with the science and are largely values-based along the lines of concern over corporatisation of the food supply, loss of empowerment re: choice, the concept of naturalness, etc

    Jason Major
    Manager, TechNyou, University of Melbourne

  • Valerie lack

    Thank you Dr Cotter, on a concise and informative report. You have put the point for nonuse of GM products,extremely well. Most people I know, don’t want GM products grown anywhere in the world, we particularly don’t want these products grown here in Australia.
    Australia has already been compromised by infiltration of foreign Flora and Fauna. This is a country which accepts alien species well and then these species become pests. We have seen this over and over again.
    Most of us the ordinary citizens, feel helpless in the face of the push for the almighty dollar, at the expense of all else, there is a day coming when we will rue the day we put GM products in the ground here. We will also rue the day when we slashed and burned the mighty trees in forests and jungles and when we raped the earth of coal, gas and oil.

  • Brother Bernardine

    Most informative!

    We really need to publically debate this GM problem and be consulted as a nation if we want to take the GM line or not.

    Please keep us informed of developments in GM and how it changes the world as we know it…

  • Graham

    I would like to bring to your attention a number of licence breaches relating to GM field trials conducted by the Department of Primary Industries Victoria in Hamilton, Victoria. This information does no appear to be common knowledge and I have concerns that it never will be, I have heard this information from people working within DPI but have no evidence myself of the breaches. The most recent breach was the growth/flowering of non-GM canola within the exclusion zone of a GM canola trial. This is the latest in a number of breaches that are often not reported to OGTR as the people concerned at DPI appear think that are above the law. Other examples have been the growth/flowering of ryegrass plants within the buffer zone of a GM ryegrass field trial; and rabbits and kangaroos entering the trial site to feed on the GM plants. GM plants need to be throuoghly assessed and organisations like DPI do not help to convince the general public through their shoddy and poorly planned experiments.

    I beleive OGTR are also to blame as they have never conducted a thorough inspection/audit of the trials, probably as they are located in rural areas away from the major cities. I beleive organisations like Greenpeace are essential watchdogs in maintaining a robust regulatory framework.

  • Janet Cotter

    Dear Jason

    Thank-you for your very detailed reply. Following are some clarifications of what we mean in the blog:
    1) Fundamentals. You discuss that mutagenesis and plant embryo rescue can give rise to unexpected and unpredictable effects. However, as we stated, it’s the insertion of DNA into a genome that can give rise to producing new proteins or modifying existing ones. Neither mutagenesis and plant embryo rescue actually insert DNA, so do not cause these effects to the same extent. That is what makes genetic engineering different from other biotechnologies. It’s this aspect of DNA insertion that gives rise to food safety concerns.

    2) No amount of testing can ever tell us that GM foods are safe to eat because GM crops are prone to unexpected and unpredictable effects. Regarding robust, peer-reviewed research on health risks, there are several papers of interest. One is the CSIRO study (1) of the gene from a bean inserted into a pea that unexpectedly gave rise to allergenic effects in mice, and another on the new discovery (2) that small RNAs may be taken up into the human body via the food we eat. These small RNAs could affect gene expression in the human body. In particular, the latter applies to the CSIRRO’s GM wheat as that is engineered to create such small RNAs. But importantly, the question arises as to who is doing the research, especially long-term research.? A recent review of studies assessing GM food safety (3) found “An equilibrium in the number research groups suggesting, on the basis of their studies, that a number of varieties of GM products (mainly maize and soybeans) are as safe and nutritious as the respective conventional non-GM plant, and those raising still serious concerns, was currently observed.” And that “most of the studies demonstrating that GM foods are as nutritional and safe as those obtained by conventional breeding, have been performed by biotechnology companies or associates, which are also responsible of commercializing these GM plants.”

    3) Regarding feral canola, the point here is not so much that it would establish in natural ecosystems, but that it would establish within the agricultural landscape, e.g. along roads. These feral populations can act as a reservoirs of GM genes that can contaminate conventional and organic canola. This is a very real concern for farmers and consumers.
    I hope this helps to clarify the scientific points made in the blog. To Greenpeace, GM crops simply aren’t necessary, nor wanted. The types of GM crops available currently, e.g. herbicide-tolerant canola simply continue the current destructive model of industrial agriculture. What is needed is research into more ecological forms of agriculture that conserve and protect Australia’s precious natural resources.

    (1) Prescott, V.E., Campbell, P.M., Moore, A., Mattes, J., Rothenberg, M.E., Foster, P.S., Higgins, T.J.V. & Hogan, S.P. 2005. Transgenic expression of bean alpha-amylase inhibitor in peas results in altered structure and immunogenicity. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 53: 9023 – 9030.
    (2) Zhang et al. 2011. Exogenous plant MIR168a specifically targets mammalian LDLRAP1: evidence of cross-kingdom regulation by microRNA. Cell Research doi:10.1038/cr.2011.158 (advance online publication 20September 2011)
    (3) Domingo, J.L. & Bordonaba, J.G. 2011. A literature review on the safety assessment of genetically modified plants. Environment International 37: 734–742.

  • Elsa Evers

    Hi Graham,

    Thanks for sharing that interesting information. As you point out, it is very hard to contain GM crops, even during field trials with crops that haven’t been authorised for human consumption or as safe in the environment. This is exactly why Greenpeace believes that genetically modified crops should not be allowed outside the lab. There are various cases from around the world where experimental GM crops have widely contaminated the food chain , as detailed in this fact sheet.

    You also point out that many contamination and security breaches go unreported. Gene Ethics have a GM contamination map here, that show the reported OGTR breaches here: Many of the contamination incidences occur as a result of human error.

    If you would like to send us more information, or encourage your friends to report OGTR breaches, you can email us at . Greenpeace will keep all information anonymous and investigate the issue further.

    Also, if you would like to conduct your own GM testing, we are offering free GM test-kits (for all approved varieties of GM).

    Greenpeace Communications Officer

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