Australia needs to ride the GM wave

The ability to develop and enhance our food supply to improve nutrition, prevent disease and ensure food security, is closer than ever before.

The swell of scientific knowledge and technical ability has been building for many years, but only now are we at the point of realising the potential these technologies offer. Set to reap the benefits of that long preparation, if we don’t catch this wave soon, the opportunity may be lost.

The recent lifting of the moratoria on genetically modified canola crops in NSW and Victoria, along with increasing food prices and concern about the security of our food supply internationally, have brought the GM debate back into focus.

This debate is an important one for Australians because our country is facing critical challenges in the areas of climate change, sustainability and international competition. As one of the world leaders in many areas of GM crop research, Australia has the capability to harness this important tool as a key component of its future strategy.

The CSIRO supports biotechnology research, and particularly gene technologies, because it provides a great window of opportunity for Australia, with both conventional and GM plant breeding being some of the tools that will help us get closer to these goals.

There is no question that Australia is currently one of the top players internationally in terms of advanced genetic research, and we are about to become a significant player in canola, joining the US and Canada in harnessing the advantages of GM canola. Our research in the areas of wheat and barley is also among the most advanced in the world, and we are ideally placed to leverage from this scientific investment in our key crops.

However, we risk losing the significant expertise and the international position we have established in this area of science if, as a country, we do not soon sort out our path forward on GM.

Risks associated with GM

Based on the body of published scientific evidence, the arguments for promoting the use of GM foods are mounting every day. GM shares with any technology the opportunity for optimal use, sub-optimal use, and inappropriate use. Every day we are surrounded by technologies whose benefits and risks we acknowledge, understand, and manage as a matter of routine.

The process of GM breeding of food crops is at least as safe as other forms of traditional plant breeding. However, there is an important need to regulate use of the technology and, in this regard, Australia is well served by appropriate legislation and regulatory authorities.

The Gene Technology Act 2000 introduced a national scheme for the regulation of GM organisms in Australia. This Act protects the health and safety of Australians and the Australian environment by identifying risks posed by gene technology, and by managing those risks through regulating dealings with GM organisms. This function is carried out primarily by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator and Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).

Every GM food is extensively and independently tested for human safety, but no connection has been found between health problems and GM. In fact, GM crops undergo more testing than any other type of food crop, so one could argue they are even safer.

When it comes to peer reviewed and published examples of released GM food causing human health problems or environmental issues, there is not a body of evidence that has stood the tests of scientific rigour in being both repeatable and reproducible and published in key, internationally respected journals.

This lack of any tangible evidence against the use of GM technologies demonstrates two main points. First, there is an effective regulatory process in place to steer and guide the development and adaptation of GM foods. Second, it is in the best interests of companies utilising GM technologies to ensure any food or product produced does not cause harm. If it did, they would be removing any chance of recouping their significant research investment.

In my experience, the arguments against GM do not have a scientific basis, being mostly based on personal opinion that genetic engineering is against nature. My response is that those individuals will be able to choose to eat GM or non-GM food, and they should not hold the entire population and agricultural industry to ransom. <[

Australian attitudes to GM When it comes to public opinion on GM foods, the truth is that Australians are not as opposed as is often suggested, with research showing that about 20% of Australians hold a strong anti-GM position. The other 80% are either neutral or pro-GM. Research also shows that those in favour of GM are on the increase.

Opponents of GM often cite the role of multi-national companies in utilising and having patent rights to GM technologies as an argument against adoption. The recent ABARE report on GM canola demonstrates that we forego significant economic opportunities if we adopt a non-GM position solely in the belief that this will give Australia a protected position as a non-GM supplier.

Alternatively, because of the depth of our research investment, and its translation into key intellectual property positions, we are in a position to be key players in the utilisation of GM technology, protecting the opportunity for our farmers and processing industries to access and capture benefit from international investment in the technology.

Burying our heads in the sand by ignoring GM technology is a short-term, high-risk strategy that will undermine the competitiveness of our agrifood sector in the long term.

Future opportunity

There is increasing pressure on the production of grain crops from biofuels, climate change and feed for animal protein production. Australian science has a key role to play in securing future global food security. GM technology will be essential as one of the key solutions to the growing supply crisis.

Even in developed countries such as Australia and the US there will soon be a need to enhance food security as water, climate change and increased land use start to cause food production to reach its limit. The question is often posed on whether Australia wants to be a part of this future and harness the huge potential of GM, whether it can afford (economically, environmentallyor even socially) to turn its back on this key technology.

Moral arguments are often raised as a reason not to adopt GM foods. While the individual’s right to access non-GM food sources needs to be protected, as a society, we need to act on the basis that it would be highly remiss of us not to continue to develop and adopt GM technology in order to have the tools to overcome the major challenges confronting us.

GM technology has delivered demonstrated strong economic and environmental benefits without scientifically demonstrated negative impacts. If we fail to proceed with GM technology we will only succeed in putting Australian agriculture, and our economy, further behind the eight ball.

We need to adopt technology that is already available, and get to work on the next generation of novel GM foods.

Dr Matthew Morell is leader of the Future Grains, Grain Based Foods and Feed research program within CSIRO’s Food Futures National Research Flagship. This article was originally published in the ATSE Focus, August 2008.

Send this to a friend