General Mills sees double digit growth in Victoria as COVID-19 bites

As Australian states and territories experience different stages of COVID-19 lockdowns, consumer needs have also fluctuated.

General Mills has been at the centre of COVID-19 changes, first experiencing the increased demand of stockpiling at the beginning of the pandemic in April and now navigating the different needs around Australia as states and territories head to a “COVID normal”.

Victoria’s continued lockdown has seen General Mills experience stable growth in Victoria, up 17 per cent on last year, compared to the company’s national figure of 14 per cent for the 21 weeks ending 2 August 2020.

However, in Queensland and New South Wales, where COVID-19 restrictions have eased, General Mills has seen sales settle closer to business as usual levels.

General Mills Managing Director Peter Everett said the top priority for General Mills is to support the community through whatever stage they’re in.

“What we’ve noticed in Victoria is continued growth across our home-cooked meal brands, such as Old El Paso and Latina Fresh, as restaurants and cafes remain closed to in-house dining and more Victorians cook at home,” Mr Everett said.

“At General Mills, we’re always trying to find ways to help our customers which has led us to create the Old El Paso Tortilla Pockets as a “mess-free” way for families to enjoy Old El Paso and give parents one less thing to worry about as the restrictions continue.”

“As the country transitions to a COVID normal, General Mills will continue to adapt to the different challenges that might develop to meet our customers changing needs,” Mr Everett said.

While product mix and meeting demand are important for General Mills, they believe food companies have a responsibility to give back and ensure all members of society can enjoy the basic necessity of food, particularly in the current context.

They have demonstrated this through their recent announcement of a model that is unique to Foodbank Australia, with General Mills’ Rooty Hill plant in Western Sydney producing on average 10,000 dedicated meals of Latina ™ Fresh ricotta and spinach agnolotti each month, for the next year, for people in need.

“We take our responsibility to help Australia through this pandemic seriously, which can be seen across our product offering and through our partnership with Foodbank Australia,” Mr Everett said.

This comes as the General Mills Foundation has granted a further $100,000 USD (Approx. $137,500 AUD) to Foodbank Australia to help respond to the significant increase in community need for food staples due to the pandemic.

What consumers want in GM food labeling is simpler than you think

The fast-approaching July 1, 2016, deadline for Vermont’s new labeling law – and a new federal proposal that would set a national system for disclosure – for genetically modified (GM) food has provoked a range of responses from food manufacturers while reigniting debate about the need to balance the weight of scientific evidence against consumer demand for transparency. At the center of the debate lay questions of trust in science and how the ways we communicate risk serve to increase or decrease that trust.

On the industry side, in January, Campbell declared support for mandatory labeling for products containing GM ingredients, and in March, General Mills announced its own intent to voluntarily label GM food products. Other big players, such as chocolatier Mars, have made similar announcements. With Vermont’s labeling law looming, General Mills and others have appeared to focus their efforts on arguing for a nationwide approach to GM food labeling.

Perhaps not coincidentally, General Mills’ announcement came only days after the failed efforts by the U.S. House and some members of the U.S. Senate to ban states from requiring mandatory GM food labeling. Specifically, the House bill would have prohibited states from requiring GM food labeling on the basis that informing them is not “necessary to protect public health and safety or to prevent the label from being false or misleading.” The Senate bill sought to establish voluntary labeling standards for GM foods, an effort that ultimately expired due to lack of needed support.

As the debate over GM food labeling continues to rage, it’s worth looking at the reasons consumers support or oppose labeling. A body of communication research, including a recent study we co-authored, suggests that consumers’ views on GM foods reflect their values and how information about labeling is communicated to them more than the actual science.

Shouldn’t latest science settle it?

The fault lines over GM food labeling at this point are well-established.

On the one hand, labeling proponents argue that consumers have the right to know what is in the food they purchase so as to avoid possible health risks associated with GM ingredients. Others argue that labeling gives consumers the ability to avoid GM ingredients as a larger ideological statement about agro-food industry.

More generally, one could say that resistance to labeling flies against consumer demand in an age when experts admonish us to read nutrition labels to watch our sugar intake and avoid certain types of fats. Also, not telling people makes it look like there is something that the food manufacturers are hiding, which can damage the trust consumers place in them.

Campbell’s is one food company that has come out in support of labeling genetically modified ingredients in foods, despite the fact that scientific reviews do not show any harm to human health.
scjn/flickr, CC BY-NC

On the other hand, labeling opponents point to a lack of scientific evidence that GM ingredients are harmful to public health or the environment and argue that labeling will present an unnecessary financial burden on food manufacturers. Others note that consumers who wish to avoid food with GM ingredients already have the option to purchase organic food products, which provide non-GM options.

Regarding the balance of scientific evidence on safety, a recently released National Academies of Sciences (NAS) report would seem to lay to rest the issue. Its exhaustive review of over 900 scientific publications found, among other things, no solid findings showing a difference between the health risks of eating genetically engineered or conventionally bred food ingredients.

It is doubtful, however, that the NAS report will entirely remove public doubt about the risks or demands for labeling.

Research on public risk perceptions shows that it is not only the objective scientific assessment of risk that matters but also the subjective qualities of risk. These include whether people have control over their exposure to potential risks and whether they believe the risks are well-understood by scientists. Trust in the risk managers is also key, and people want to have a voice in decisions that ultimately affect them.

Value of consumer involvement

In terms of risk perceptions, results from a 2015 Pew Center study found that 57 percent of Americans did not believe that GM foods are safe. The Pew study found that 67 percent do not believe that scientists yet have a clear understanding of the public health implications of GM foods. Indeed, the Pew study found that the strongest predictor of believing that GM foods are safe is whether people believe scientists have a clear understanding of the risks.

In comparison, 88 percent of scientists with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) believed GM foods to be safe.

Some may see this opinion divide as evidence of an irrational public. We see it as evidence of communication processes that have paid inadequate attention to how consumers’ values affect risk-based decision making.

Rather than having a voice in the decisions, consumers are mostly asked to trust the experts, typically a faceless government institution or regulatory body. This can lead to a disconnect in what scientists and consumers consider the relevant facts in a decision.

Our own research, recently published in the Journal of Risk Research, found that people are much more supportive of a labeling decision (regardless of the outcome) when they were told that food companies had considered public input before making their decision. Therefore, recounting consumers’ influence in GM labeling decisions is an important factor on how people support the decisions.

Examples show how some organizations are recognizing the importance of conveying this information. In the press release accompanying the recent NAS report, Committee Chair Fred Gould offered this statement: that the committee “focused on listening carefully and responding thoughtfully to members of the public who have concerns about GE crops and foods….”

Similarly, Campbell’s President and Chief Executive Officer Denise Morrison said in a New York Times article about the food manufacturer’s labeling decision, “We’ve always believed consumers have a right to know what’s in their food…. We know that 92 percent of Americans support G.M.O. labeling, and transparency is a critical part of our purpose.”

Examining the effect of these statements remain questions for future research. Our previous work would suggest, however, that underscoring how public input was considered may likely lead to greater support for the NAS conclusions or Campbell’s decision, even if people do not wholly endorse the outcomes.

Although transparency is not a cure-all, including people in the decision-making process and providing information about how an organization reached its decision can lead to greater decision acceptance.

To this end, incorporating consumers’ values in decisions that affect them, such as what ingredients manufacturers put in their food products, and communicating that back to the public can go a long way toward building trust and bridging the gaps between scientific and public understanding of risk.

The Conversation

Katherine McComas, Professor of Communication, Cornell University; Graham Dixon, Assistant Professor of Science and Risk Communication, Washington State University, and John Besley, Associate Professor of Advertising and Public Relations, Michigan State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

All our food is ‘genetically modified’ in some way – where do you draw the line?

by .

In the past week you’ve probably eaten crops that wouldn’t exist in nature, or that have evolved extra genes to reach freakish sizes. You’ve probably eaten “cloned” food and you may have even eaten plants whose ancestors were once deliberately blasted with radiation. And you could have bought all this without leaving the “organic” section of your local supermarket.

Anti-GM dogma is obscuring the real debate over what level of genetic manipulation society deems acceptable. Genetically-modified food is often regarded as something you’re either for or against, with no real middle ground.

Yet it is misleading to consider GM technology a binary decision, and blanket bans like those in many European countries are only likely to further stifle debate. After all, very little of our food is truly “natural” and even the most basic crops are the result of some form of human manipulation.

Between organic foods and tobacco engineered to glow in the dark lie a broad spectrum of “modifications” worthy of consideration. All of these different technologies are sometimes lumped together under “GM”. But where would you draw the line?

  1. (Un)natural selection

Think of carrots, corn or watermelons – all foods you might eat without much consideration. Yet when compared to their wild ancestors, even the “organic” varieties are almost unrecognisable.

Domestication generally involves selecting for beneficial traits, such as high yield. Over time, many generations of selection can substantially alter a plant’s genetic makeup. Man-made selection is capable of generating forms that are extremely unlikely to occur in nature.

  1. Genome duplications

Unknowing selection by our ancestors also involved a genetic process we only discovered relatively recently. Whereas humans have half a set of chromosomes (structures that package and organise your genetic information) from each parent, some organisms can have two or more complete duplicate sets of chromosomes. This “polyploidy” is widespread in plants and often results in exaggerated traits such as fruit size, thought to be the result of multiple gene copies.

Without realising, many crops have been unintentionally bred to a higher level of ploidy (entirely naturally) as things like large fruit or vigorous growth are often desirable. Ginger and apples are triploid for example, while potatoes and cabbage are tetraploid. Some strawberry varieties are even octoploid, meaning they have eight sets of chromosomes compared to just two in humans.

  1. Plant cloning

It’s a word that tends to conjure up some discomfort – no one really wants to eat “cloned” food. Yet asexual reproduction is the core strategy for many plants in nature, and farmers have utilised it for centuries to perfect their crops.

Once a plant with desirable characteristics is found – a particularly tasty and durable banana, for instance – cloning allows us to grow identical replicates. This could be entirely natural with a cutting or runner, or artificially-induced with plant hormones. Domestic bananas have long since lost the seeds that allowed their wild ancestors to reproduce – if you eat a banana today, you’re eating a clone.

  1. Induced mutations

Selection – both human and natural – operates on genetic variation within a species. If a trait or characteristic never occurs, then it cannot be selected for. In order to generate greater variation for conventional breeding, scientists in the 1920s began to expose seeds to chemicals or radiation.

Unlike more modern GM technologies, this “mutational breeding” is largely untargeted and generates mutations at random. Most will be useless, but some will be desirable. More than 1,800 cultivars of crop and ornamental plants including varieties of wheat, rice, cotton and peanuts have been developed and released in more than 50 countries. Mutational breeding is credited for spurring the “green revolution” in the 20th century.

Many common foods such as red grapefruits and varieties of pasta wheat are a result of this approach and, surprisingly, these can still be sold as certified “organic”.

  1. GM screening

GM technology doesn’t have to involve any direct manipulation of plants or species. It can be instead used to screen for traits such as disease susceptibility or to identify which “natural” cross is likely to produce the greatest yield or best outcome.

Genetic technology has allowed researchers to identify in advance which ash trees are likely to be susceptible to ash dieback disease, for instance. Future forests could be grown from these resistant trees. We might call this “genomics-informed” human selection.

  1. Cisgenic and transgenic

This is what most people mean when they refer to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – genes being artificially inserted into a different plant to improve yield, tolerance to heat or drought, to produce better drugs or even to add a vitamin. Under conventional breeding, such changes might take decades. Added genes provide a shortcut.

Cisgenic simply means the gene inserted (or moved, or duplicated) comes from the same or a very closely related species. Inserting genes from unrelated species (transgenic) is substantially more challenging – this is the only technique in our spectrum of GM technology that can produce an organism that could not occur naturally. Yet the case for it might still be compelling.

Since the 1990s several crops have been engineered with a gene from the soil bacteriaBacillus thuringiensis. This bacteria gives “Bt corn” and other engineered crops resistance to certain pests, and acts as an appealing alternative to pesticide use.

This technology remains the most controversial as there are concerns that resistance genes could “escape” and jump to other species, or be unfit for human consumption. While unlikely – many fail safe approaches are designed to prevent this – it is of course possible.

Where do you stand?

All of these methods continue to be used. Even transgenic crops are now widely cultivated around the world, and have been for more than a decade. They are closely scrutinised and rightly so, but the promise of this technology means that it surely deserves improved scientific literacy among the public if it is to reach it’s full potential.

And let’s be clear, with global population set to hit nine billion by 2050 and the increasingly greater strain on the environment, GMOs have the potential to improve health, increase yields and reduce our impact. However uncomfortable they might make us, they deserve a sensible and informed debate.


 is a PhD student in Conservation Genetics, Queen Mary University of London.

This article first appeared on the Conversation. You can read the original here.

Disease resistant chickpeas set to boom overseas

The Australian chickpea industry is set for a comeback after researchers developed two new chickpea varieties.

Researchers at the University of Western Australia (UWA) say two new chickpeas will ‘take the Indian market by storm”, and help the industry recover after it was devastated in 1999 by a fungal disease.

The Ambar and Neelam varieties were commercially released this month, with their names chosen to appeal to the export market. The new varieties have taken their names from the Hindi words for “amber” and “blue sapphire”.

According to UWA’s website, Western Australia’s chickpea industry grew rapidly from the mid-1990s and rose to be a 70,000 hectare, grain legume crop until the fungal disease, ascochyta blight, crippled the industry 13 years ago.

Developers of the new varieties, UWA Professors Tanveer Khan and Kadambot Siddique, have confirmed the chickpea’s resistance to ascochyta blight in other parts of Australia and India. This should mean a cut in production costs for farmers as little to no fungicide needs to be used.

"These two new ascochyta resistant varieties should play a pivotal role in rejuvenating the chickpea industry," Professor Siddique said.


GM food labels do not act as a warning to consumers: study

There is an economic and political battle taking place in America over the labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods. In 2015, 19 US states considered GM food labeling legislation and three States, Connecticut, Maine and Vermont have passed mandatory GM labeling laws.

The US House on July 23 passed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling bill (HR 1599), which will move to the Senate and, if passed, will prohibit both state-level legislation regarding GM labels and the labeling of products that contain GM ingredients.

Proponents of HR 1599 argue that GM labels will act as a warning. Another reason people oppose labeling is that they say scientific evidence has shown GM foods are safe.

Opponents of this legislation call it the DARK (Denying Americans the Right to Know) Act. Food and biotechnology companies reported more than US$60 million in anti-GM labeling lobby expenditures in 2014, almost three times what was spent in 2013.

As an applied economist who studies the economics of information and consumer choice, I wondered what the evidence was regarding the labels-as-warnings argument.

It turned out that there is scant, if any scientific evidence to show that GM food labels will act as warning labels. Surveys of people in Vermont show that people are unlikely to see GMO labels as an indicator of a dangerous or inferior product. And for some people, the label can actually build trust in the technology.

The Vermont situation

In the US, there have been only two published studies about whether GM labels will serve as warning labels. Neither study provides strong evidence that GM labels will signal a warning to consumers.
A 2014 study on GMO labeling concluded, “any (negative) signaling effects, should they exist, are likely to be small.“ Another in 2008 found that labels are likely to affect consumers' views toward GM-labeled food with the caveat that their results are based on consumer beliefs that a labeling law is in effect, not whether they support such a law or the existence of a law.

In Vermont, where a GM labeling law will go into effect in July 2016, we have been collecting information from citizens for over 15 years about their attitudes, beliefs and intentions toward GM technology and products derived from it. We have five years of data (2003, 2004, 2008, 2014 and 2015) where questions about both support for and opposition to GM were asked. We also have information on whether and what kind of labeling citizens prefer.

These questions were asked as part of the annual Vermonter Poll administered by the University of Vermont’s Center for Rural Studies.

The Vermonter Poll is a representative statewide poll that includes questions about a variety of issues important to consumers, ranging from employment and health care to agriculture and community development. We analyzed the data from 2,102 respondents to better understand whether labels change people’s preferences toward GM foods or whether they provide information which provides a basis for choosing products to purchase.

Labels help consumers make choices. In some products, consumers cannot determine whether a product contains an attribute or quality they prefer by looking or handling it, which is the case with GM foods. Research shows it is for these kinds of goods that labels play a more important role in choice.

The data

I presented the results of the study at the annual conference of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association in San Francisco on July 27.

On average, across all five years of the study, 60% of Vermonters reported being opposed to the use of GMO technology in food production and 89% desire labeling of food products containing GMO ingredients. These numbers have been increasing slightly since 2003. In 2015, the percentages were 63% and 92%.

The study focuses on the relationship between two primary questions: whether Vermonters are opposed to GMOs in commercially available food products; and if respondents thought products containing GMOs should be labeled.

When analyzed in a way that accounts for the possibility that labels influence opposition, we found no evidence that GMO labeling would act as warning labels and scare consumers away from buying products with GMO ingredients.

Results also found that for some demographic groups, GM labels decrease opposition toward GM technology. For people with less education, who live in single-parent households and those earning the highest incomes, a GM label builds more trust in GM technology.

Opponents to labeling often refer to consumers' lack of education on the issue as a reason not to label. In addition, two studies have shown that higher income households and households with children have been found to be more willing to pay for labeling. Households with children may also be more risk-averse regarding foods.

Men are the least opposed demographic overall. The analysis found that for men and people living in middle-income households, desiring a GM label increases opposition. For all of these demographic characteristics, the change in opposition toward GMOs was not larger than three percentage points in the positive or negative direction.

Overall, we found that supporting labeling (including after Vermont’s labeling law was passed) has no direct impact on opposition to GM foods. This conclusion is not what I had expected and runs counter to the reasoning behind the introduction of The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling bill.

Beyond Vermont

In Vermont, GMO food labels would provide consumers with information on which to base their purchasing decisions.

Consumers who wish to avoid GMO ingredients would do so and those who either want GMO ingredients or are indifferent can also make that choice. The label would not signal to consumers that GMO ingredients are inferior to those produced using other agricultural production methods.

The study was conducted in one state. Because there are no labels currently in the marketplace, the study is based on survey data. Using a statistically valid methodolgy, it seems that for Vermont, where a labeling law has been passed, the law will act as intended: it will provide consumers with the information they want in order to make choices about the food they want to buy and it will not scare them away from GM technology.

More research is needed to determine whether these results are generalizable to consumers in other states.

For other studies on GMO labeling, see:

– Caswell, J. A. (1998). Should Use Of Genetically Modified Organisms Be Labeled? AgBioForum, 1(1), 22-24.

– Caswell, J. A., & Mojduszka, E. M. (1996). Using informational labeling to influence the market for quality in food products. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 78(4), 12481253.

– Costanigro, M., & Lusk, J. L. (2014). The signaling effect of mandatory labels on genetically engineered food. Food Policy, 49, Part 1(0), 259-267.

– Fulton, M., & Giannakas, K. (2004). Inserting GM products into the food chain: The market and welfare effects of different labeling and regulatory regimes. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 86(1), 42-60.

-Loureiro, M. L., & Bugbee, M. (2005). Enhanced GM foods: Are consumers ready to pay for the potential benefits of biotechnology? Journal of Consumer Affairs, 39(1), 52-70.

-Loureiro, M. L., & Hine, S. (2004). Preferences and willingness to pay for GM labeling policies, 467-483.

– Lusk, J. L., & Rozan, A. (2008). Public Policy and Endogenous Beliefs: The Case of Genetically Modified Food. Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 33(2), 270-289.

The Conversation

Jane Kolodinsky is Professor and Chair Community Development and Applied Economics at University of Vermont.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


WTO puts the spotlight on food safety

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) committee dealing with food safety, animal and plant health, heard a record number of specific trade concerns when it met last week. 

A total of eight new trade concerns were raised at the meeting and 16 measures previously discussed were back on the agenda, making it the highest number of specific trade concerns raised in the Committee’s history.

Several members raised concerns about the European Union’s proposed amendment of its approval procedure for genetically modified food and feed (also known as biotech products).

The United States said that the amendment would allow EU member states to restrict or ban the use of such products with no justified reasons. Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil and Canada raised similar concerns, stating that the proposed revision would create unnecessary barriers to international trade.

In response, the EU said that the proposal does not introduce any restriction or ban on biotech products, but would only provide the possibility for EU member states to opt out of the EU decision of authorisation if they wish, for overriding reasons of public interest.

The committee also discussed China’s proposed amendments to tighten its safety assessment of agricultural genetically modified organisms.

Paraguay and the United States welcomed China’s notification, but noted the negative impact such a regulatory procedure could have on international trade. According to the United States, the delays and lack of transparency in China’s current biotech approval process remain a serious trade concern for exporters, and the proposed amendment could further prolong and complicate the approval process. In response, China said that the draft revision aims to enhance the safety assessment of agricultural GMOs, and invited WTO members to comment on the proposed revision.

Costa Rica has also places a temporary import ban on avocados from certain exporters, due to the presence of avocado sunblotch viroid — a disease affecting avocado trees – in various avocado-producing countries. Mexico and Guatemala said that Costa Rica’s measure halts trade and is not justified by scientific evidence. The concern was supported by the United States and South Africa. In response, Costa Rica noted that the measure aims to protect the country from being affected by sunblotch disease, and said that it would maintain close dialogue with its trading partners to resolve the trade concerns.

The meeting also discussed a few concerns that were raised at previous meetings of the SPS Committee, including the EU’s ongoing work on defining criteria for identifying endocrine disruptors, South Africa’s concern about EU measures on citrus black spot, import restrictions on Japanese food products following the nuclear power plant accident, and concerns expressed by Peru and a number of other countries regarding the application and modification of the EU regulation on novel foods.

One of the key functions of the committee is to provide a forum for WTO members to discuss their food safety, animal and plant health measures in order to ensure that these measures do not unnecessarily restrict international trade.


GM soybean safe: FSANZ

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) today called for submissions on an application to permit the sale and use of food from a genetically modified soybean line.

FSANZ Acting Chief Executive Officer Marion Healy said the soybean line had been genetically modified to be protected against lepidopteran pests, including key soybean pests, the bean shoot moth, sunflower looper and fall armyworm.

“FSANZ has assessed the application and determined there are no public health and safety concerns,” Healy said.

“Based on the data provided in the application, and other available information, food derived from this soybean line is considered to be as safe for human consumption as food derived from conventional soybean cultivars.”

All FSANZ decisions on standards are notified to ministers responsible for food regulation. The ministers can decide to adopt, amend, or reject standards or they can ask for a review.

The closing date for submissions is 6pm, 26 August 2015.


Genetically modified source of asparaginase safe: FSANZ

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) today called for submissions on a new microbial source for asparaginase sourced from a genetically modified strain of Bacillus subtilis.

FSANZ Chief Executive Officer Steve McCutcheon said FSANZ had assessed the Application to include the asparaginase preparation as a permitted processing aid.

“Asparaginase can be used to reduce the risk of acrylamide formation in food which can occur when certain starchy foods are cooked or processed,” McCutcheon said.

“Acrylamide formation occurs when certain foods are fried or roasted including potatoes, coffee, and cereal-based products.

“FSANZ has concluded that there are no public health and safety issues associated with using the enzyme preparation as a food processing aid.”

All FSANZ decisions on standards are notified to ministers responsible for food regulation. The ministers can decide to adopt, amend, or reject standards or they can ask for a review.

The closing date for submissions is Friday 31 July 2015.


FSANZ considers allowing food from a GM corn line

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has called for submissions on an application to allow food derived from a genetically modified corn line.

FSANZ Chief Executive Officer Steve McCutcheon said the corn line had been genetically modified to be tolerant to the herbicide glufosinate ammonium, and for protection against common corn pests.

“FSANZ has completed its safety assessment on this application and found there were no potential public health or safety concerns,” McCutcheon said.

“FSANZ has determined that food derived from this corn line is as safe for human consumption as food derived from conventional corn cultivars.”

FSANZ has also assessed an application to permit the voluntary fortification of breakfast cereals with Vitamin D.

The application, made by DSM Nutritional Products Australia was to permit a maximum of 2.5 µg per normal serving of breakfast cereals. FSANZ approved the draft variation on 20 May 2015 and the Australian and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation was notified of the decision on 1 June 2015.

All FSANZ decisions on standards are notified to ministers responsible for food regulation. The ministers can decide to adopt, amend, or reject standards or they can ask for a review.

Independent safety reviews will foster trust in GM technology

The topic of releasing genetically modified (GM) products into food and the environment is highly polarised. But are we making any progress with it?

The debate is now so vicious and impatient that to have any engagement is taken as permission by others to tell you that you are “pro” or “anti” everything that has to do with these products, even extending to accusations of your support for the science behind them.

But a 2013 report Where there is smoke, is there fire? Responding to the results of alarming studies on the safety of GMOs, by the Dutch Commission on Genetic Modification (COGEM), is an interesting divergence from the routine.

COGEM, a statutory advisory body of scientists created to provide advice to government on GM, makes nine major recommendations on how to better support the work of, and trust in, GMO safety regulators.

I am sceptical about some of the recommendations, and about singling out certain papers by name as “alarming”, while apparently neglecting that others might one day turn out to be wrongly overconfident about safety. Those caveats aside, three of its recommendations could be helpful for (re)building trust in regulation of biotechnology products.

Three key recommendations

I evaluate what I believe to be three important recommendations as a single “package” because only taken together could they hope to restore or improve public trust and reduce polarisation.

  1. carry out random repeat studies or supervised inspections of GMO safety studies by companies
  2. ensure in-house knowledge and competences in specific areas of science and science communication within the ministries
  3. promote scientific research into the safety of GMOs by making it more attractive for researchers to carry out counter-studies and repeat studies (for example through the provision of funding and access to research materials)

There are two ways that the capacity for repeating or overseeing industry studies could be developed. One way is in the regulatory agency itself, the other in the scientific community.

Regardless of the strategy chosen, the cost should be borne by the party that expects to make the profit and without creating any sense of entitlement for meeting those costs.

Many people mistrust the science demonstrating the safety of GM technology. Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND


The capacity for independently repeating GMO safety studies is rare or extinct in most countries. As COGEM correctly states in its report:

The regulator, such as Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) or New Zealand’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), does not demonstrate the safety of the products it regulates. It endorses (or rejects) the claims of safety made by those developing the products. That makes the recommendation to carry out random repeat studies for GM products a significant departure from what happens now.

If the regulator were to carry out such studies as part of the risk assessment, it would mean that “in-house knowledge and competences” were not just based on ability to evaluate scientific studies, but extended to the design, conduct and defence of experiments capable of challenging or critically confirming the safety studies now solely supplied by those seeking regulatory approval.

Building the capacity for risk assessment

In complying with the recommendations, governments might choose instead to outsource the science to public sector laboratories. That way any study – whether it was evidence of safety or of harm – could be put to the test.

In doing so, they would contribute to the third COGEM recommendation which is to build capacity in the wider scientific community to conduct such studies.

If this were the strategy chosen, then the testing laboratories could neither benefit from the product under test nor from finding a harm. They also need to be protected from legal challenges by developers.

Those who would be conducting these experiments must have the reasonable expectation of a productive career regardless of what they may find. This is more problematic than it might seem.

Many funding bodies have mixed the objectives of science and innovation through intellectual property licensing. Even where non-commercial public-minded science is funded, it is at levels that a research scientist cannot count on to continuously support his or her work.

The COGEM recommendation exposes a systemic erosion of public capacity to independently challenge or affirm commercial science.

To enact the third recommendation is potentially revolutionary in that it requires substantive rethinking of how we support the non-entrepreneurial but creative, spirited, dedicated, ambitious and accomplished scientist and the institution in which they work.

Different standards of evidence review

Different standards of evidence gathering are applied to scientific and regulatory work. These are acknowledged by COGEM, but not explicitly evaluated. That is an important omission for a report seeking to find ways forward in regulation of controversial technological products.

Domitille Parent/Flickr, CC BY-NC

The common high standard of peer-review in research is blind (or anonymous) peer review. The characteristics of a blind system are that the authors must convince an impartial editor that they have fully and properly addressed criticisms made by expert peers who are free to be frank because their identity is protected.

The standard practice used by regulators on their own decisions is to place themselves in the position of editor, choosing who will review their findings and whether, or how, to respond to any criticisms.

The standard practice used to approve new technological products is different still, as COGEM’s report explains:

Applications for marketing authorisation of GM crops also contain unpublished and non-peer-reviewed information, which suggests that different criteria apply to different stakeholders […] the studies submitted in support of permit applications also undergo a type of review in the form of appraisals by the competent authorities and advisory bodies.

The regulator does act as a sort of referee of applications because it can ask for more information or call for new experiments within the limits of the regulator’s governing legislation.

Nevertheless, this and other similar review systems in common use are less stringent types of review than most research journals use. This is because the reviewer is not anonymous (and therefore not fully protected) and the materials needed to replicate the developer’s experiments are not automatically available to those wanting to verify their findings. Where such materials are made available, it is by ad hoc and limited arrangements based on where you live or where you work.

Standards of decision-making

An irony in the way these different peer-review systems are applied is that the less potential impact a decision is likely to have on the general public the greater the stringency of review.

Scientific papers published in journals have no legal standing. They cannot compel someone to do, sell or use something. In contrast, regulatory decisions determine what products and potential harms and benefits people will experience from products.

In its report, COGEM states that:

In the natural sciences a single publication is usually insufficient to convince other scientists of the validity of a claim.

Yet unpublished work from developers are used to make regulatory decisions that affect what we put in our bodies.

COGEM also observes that it “is not possible to determine immediately whether the results [of an ‘alarming study’] are valid or not, and so the value of the results will have to be investigated”.

Likewise, it is not possible to determine immediately whether the results of a “reassuring study” are valid or not without further investigation and replication. This double standard is routine for regulators.

Recommendations needed to address underlying issues of distrust

Adopting these three COGEM recommendations, and implementing them fastidiously, would significantly build the trust relationship between society, government and private enterprise.

The COGEM recommendations might be criticised for being heavy-handed and bureaucratic. Implementation may select for ever more clever ways to subvert the system. Alternatively, implementation may cause a transition toward a developer-regulator interface that delivers the desired trust.

COGEM’s standing may help governments to rethink how they are regulating new products. They will have to resist considerable pressure from those who would prefer both reduced regulation on new technologies and less accountability. I believe that good regulation can pay for itself in public safety, sector confidence and public trust.

Nothing less ambitious than enthusiastic and uncompromised implementation of these key recommendations is likely to advance both trust in new technologies and ensure the creation of good technologies. If the COGEM strategy worked for GM, which invokes such passion in so many, then it would likely work for many kinds of new technologies and products.

The Conversation

Jack Heinemann receives funding mainly from government funding bodies. He also has accepted some funding from for-profit, philanthropic and NGO sources. He works in a public university, does research using genetic engineering and has a research interest in the safety of GMOs.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Making a meal of GM food labelling

In this final instalment of GM in Australia – a series looking at the facts, ethics, regulations and research into genetically modified crops – Heather Bray and Rachel Ankeny explore the murky world of food labelling.

In all countries in which genetically modified (GM) food is sold, such as Australia and the US, the issue of food labelling has been hotly debated.

While consumer and anti-GM groups call for better labelling of GM foods, the food industry’s position is that our labelling system is good enough to allow people to choose whether to eat GM foods.

Meanwhile, consumers are confused and frustrated. So what is needed?

According to Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), food must be labelled as genetically modified or containing GM ingredients if it or its contents have been produced using gene technology as permitted under the Commonwealth Gene Technology Act.

But there are some exceptions:

  • highly refined food where the modified DNA, or proteins resulting from it, is removed during processing
  • processing aids or food additives, where no modified DNA or protein resulting from it remain in the final food
  • flavours where the concentration in the final food is less than 0.1%
  • unintentional presence, where the ingredient is less than 1% of the food
  • any foods consumed at the point of sale.

So canola oil from GM canola, imported GM soy products eaten in cafes and restaurants and beer made using adjuncts such as syrup from GM corn (where no modified DNA is present in the final product) are not labelled as GM foods.

Quinn Dombrowski, CC BY-SA

Industry groups support this approach to labelling, saying that if a product does not contain modified DNA or protein resulting from modified DNA, then it shouldn’t be labelled as a GM food. According to them, it about what’s in the food, not how it is produced.

This product versus process distinction is at core of labelling issues. Although highly refined products made using gene technology are not different in substance from their non-GM competitors, consumers who don’t wish to support this technology can’t identify those products which align with their values.

This idea is at the core of campaigns such as the True Food Guide, where food producers are given a “green light” if they can declare that they use no GM at any stage of production.

What do consumers look for, then?

While foods produced using gene technology on our supermarket shelves have been approved as safe to eat by FSANZ, we know that people do not choose their food based primarily on science, if at all. Our food choices are a reflection of our experiences, broader society, religion, traditions and culture among other factors.

Nowadays, many of us in western societies are being asked to consider the impact of our food choices on the environment and other people. Celebrity chefs and others encourage us to buy local, sustainable, organic, animal welfare-friendly and often GM-free products, without ever really explaining why. These labels have become a proxy for quality; shorthand for “good food” in a busy world.

These so-called “ethical” labels are largely unregulated by the government (country-of-origin labelling is an exception). “GM-free” along with “sustainable” and “organic” are claims that can be made on foods without requiring products to meet any particular standards of evidence set by the government.

In the case of organic, only producers who meet certain criteria can display an accreditation logo, one of which is no use of GM products or processes in any stage of production. ABC’s The Checkout describes it nicely in the video below.


The primary means of enforcement of food labelling is via the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which then appeals to whether labels fulfil what the average consumer would expect from a product with that label.

Interestingly, one case brought to the ACCC suggests that “GM-free” refers to the use of GM in production, as well as the product itself, for most consumers. But “GM-free” labels can also be found on foods unlikely to contain any GM ingredients, including those made from products where there is no GM counterpart to its main ingredient.

This complex situation is highly confusing for consumers. Our current labelling regime assumes that consumers can make “informed” decisions on whether to eat or avoid GM food based on their own understandings of a label that may be present or absent, legislated or unregulated.

Research has shown that people tend to develop simple binaries (such as good/bad, natural/artificial) when choosing foods in the face of confusing information, and adapt the new information on the label to fit within decision frameworks which are more familiar to them.

Our preliminary research suggests that consumers see GM as an additive, and hence avoid processed foods or purchase organic foods, to avoid GM.

Although the current labelling regime is insufficient to fulfil some consumers’ demands, questions remain about what information should be mandated, and in what form, to allow consumers to make the decisions that they wish to make as well as consideration of whose interests such labels would serve.

What is clear is that more dialogue and transparency are necessary if consumers are to actively participate in food labelling debates.

Further reading:
GM techniques: from the field to the laboratory (and back again)
Setting the standards: who regulates Australian GM food?
Safety first – assessing the health risks of GM foods
Because we can, does it mean we should? The ethics of GM foods
How private funding influences GM research

The Conversation

Heather Bray is supported by funding from the Australian Research Council to work with Prof Rachel Ankeny on projects on ethical food choices, social aspects of genetic modification and animal welfare issues. She was Public Engagement Officer with the Waite Research Institute between 2011 and 2014 and between 2003 and 2010 she developed and delivered community and schools education programs for the Molecular Plant Breeding CRC.

Rachel A. Ankeny receives funding from the Australian Research Council for projects relating to food ethics and GM. She currently serves on the GM Crop Advisory Committee for the Government of South Australia and has recently served as a member of the Commonwealth's Gene Technology Ethics and Community Consultative Committee.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Because we can, does it mean we should? The ethics of GM foods

In this fourth instalment of GM in Australia – a series looking at the facts, ethics, regulations and research into genetically modified crops – Christopher Mayes examines ethical issues surrounding GM foods.

Food is cultural, social and deeply personal, so it’s no surprise that modifications to the way food is produced, distributed and consumed often lead to ethical debates.

Developments in the genetic modification (GM) of foods and crops has resulted in a raft of controversies.

Ethics can help here. While science determines whether we can safely modify the genetic makeup of certain organisms, ethics asks whether we should.

Ethics tries to move beyond factual statements about what is, to evaluative statements about the way we should act towards ourselves, each other and the environment we inhabit. But things are not always so clear-cut.

Three areas of ethics can help frame some of the concerns with GM food and crops: virtue, moral status and consequences.

Virtues vs vices

Ethics of GM foods can be developed by looking at virtue or character. Does the activity of engaging in the development of GM foods and crops erode virtues while producing vices? Or is GM technology a prudent use of knowledge for humanitarian goals?

Character or virtue-based arguments are seen in the case of golden rice – a rice strain modified to contain beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A.

According to the World Health Organisation more than 250 million preschool age children are vitamin A deficient (VAD), and two million deaths and more than half a million cases of blindness are attributed to VAD. The developers of golden rice say it will supply 60% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A.


But global outrage ensued after group of Filipino farmers destroyed a test crop of golden rice. There has been little recognition of the Sisyphean struggle of farmers in countries such as the Philippines, Bangladesh and India, yet these farmers have been described as anti-science Luddites and contributing to the deaths of children.

Critics of golden rice such as Wendell Berry and Vandana Shiva argue that GM technology is a solution offered by industrial agriculture to address problems created by industrial agriculture.

Golden rice is a techno-scientific fix to structural problems created by some of the very companies that may profit from GM crops.

Although golden rice is a non-profit initiative, Shiva argues that it is a trojan horse to give GM crops a humanitarian face.

According to opponents such as Shiva, golden rice and GM crops not only pose negative consequences for farmers, environment and the global poor, but represent vices of greed, arrogance and dominance. Rather than humbly working with and caring for the natural environment, industrial and technological interventions seek to master, profit and control.

Morality of nature

There are also concerns about the moral status of the organism itself – does the modification of an organism’s genetic makeup represent a wrong to the dignity or integrity to the organism?

This position depends on arguments that nature has dignity and interests beyond those of its human inhabitants. Such arguments are not readily accepted due to their metaphysical or theological overtones and dependence on essentialist idea of nature.

Appeals to nature can led to what British philosopher G.E. Moore described as the naturalistic fallacy – the idea that we can derive moral statements from facts of nature. Examples include:

  • raw milk is good because it’s natural
  • standing desks are good because we weren’t meant to sit
  • genetically modified crops are wrong because they’re unnatural.

Perhaps we aren’t so concerned about the essential dignity of rice or wheat, but what about GM pigs that glow in the dark, featherless chickens, cows that produce human milk or the integrity of an ecosystem? Although the arguments are relatively the same, in discussing GM animals, the idea of a natural integrity or dignity seems more compelling.

Weighing up consequences

The most common way of framing the ethics of GM foods is to ask: do GM foods and crops present negative or harmful consequences for individuals, populations or the environment? Answers to this question vary according to context.

Most scientists argue that GM foods are safe to eat and will not harm consumer health.


Yep, all good. Bart/Flickr, CC BY-NC

While critics maintain that long-term health effects are uncertain, they contend that even if GM foods are safe to eat other harmful consequences should be considered, such as the impact of patenting laws on farmers and research integrity, or the risk of GM crops contaminating other crops or escaping into the wild.

Debates over consequences tend to avoid the question of whether there is something inherently objectionable about GM foods and crops. So long as there is appropriate management of risks, then theoretically, there is no ethical problem.

It is unlikely these issues will be resolved any time soon – and likely that new ones will be added – but one area that can be worked on is discourse ethics.

Describing opponents of golden rice, even those that destroy test crops, as committing crimes against humanity or those in favour as pursing economic self-interest does little to move the debate forward.

Until productive discourse is established, barriers between opposing views will only strengthen.

Further reading:
GM techniques: from the field to the laboratory (and back again)
Setting the standards: who regulates Australian GM food?
Safety first – assessing the health risks of GM foods

The Conversation

Christopher Mayes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Safety first – assessing the health risks of GM foods

In this third instalment of GM in Australia – a series looking at the facts, ethics, regulations and research into genetically modified crops – Ashley Ng explains how GM foods are determined safe to eat.

Genetically modified (GM) foods require strict assessment before they can be considered safe for human consumption.

In Australia, GM foods are regulated under Standards 1.5.2 – Food produced using Gene Technology, which covers the sale and use of food and the labelling of food produced using gene technology.

Its schedule lists the permitted foods produced using gene technology that can be sold in Australia and New Zealand.

Foods produced using gene technology are prohibited from sale in Australia and New Zealand unless they have undergone strenuous pre-market assessment and been approved by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).

FSANZ identifies new or altered hazards associated with the food as a result of the genetic modification. It assesses whether there is risk associated with any identified hazards under the intended conditions of use, and determine if any new conditions are needed to enable safe use of the food.

Joel G Goodman/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

GM food approval in Australia

The only GM foods which have been approved for sale in Australia after a case-by-case analysis are specific GM varieties of canola, corn, cotton, lucerne, potato, rice, soybean and sugarbeet.

It also assesses any altered composition or nutritional value introduced by genetic modification to the organism.

While FSANZ doesn’t conduct its own laboratory tests, its assessments are based on safety data provided by the applicant generated according to quality assurance guidelines on internationally accepted protocols consistent with Good Laboratory Practice:

  • Case-by-case consideration of GM foods is necessary because the key issues requiring consideration in a safety assessment will often depend on the type of food being evaluated and the nature of the genetic modification
  • FSANZ assesses intended (related to the particular genetic modification made) and unintended effects (such as toxicity to the edible part of the plant, or unexpected allergenicity) of the GM
  • Comparisons with conventional foods having an acceptable standard of safety.

FSANZ also uses other sources such as scientific literature, including evaluation of animal feeding studies where available, independent scientists, other regulatory bodies and importantly, the general community who can tender written submissions for currently open assessments.

These case-by-case safety assessments are publicly accessible.

FSANZ is aligned with the principles established by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation Food Standards Program (FAOWHOFSP) and the Codex Alimentarius committee.


GMO food crops are more thoroughly tested than any non-GMO products in the history of agriculture.

GM foods undergo more rigorous pre-market assessment than any other food sold in Australia. As new flood and drought-resistant GM crops and organisms become available, it can be expected that the number of approval applications will increase.

From the aspect of food safety assessment, a stringent process is currently in place that includes invitation for public comment.

As this process can reject GM food applications or impose conditions on their use in the interests of public health, the safety, nutritional and societal impacts of any new GM foods will continue to be assessed before these GM products should appear, appropriately labelled, on our shelves.

Further reading:
GM techniques: from the field to the laboratory (and back again)
Setting the standards: who regulates Australian GM food?
Because we can, does it mean we should? The ethics of GM foods

The Conversation

Ashley Ng receives funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council. He is affiliated with the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Royal College of Pathologists Australasia. He has previously received research funding from the Leukaemia Foundation of Australia and Cure Cancer Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Setting the standards: who regulates Australian GM food?

In this second instalment of GM in Australia – a series looking at the facts, ethics, regulations and research into genetically modified crops – David Tribe walks us through the bodies responsible for GM policy and oversight.

In the past, new crops were introduced into the food supply without any formal scientific evaluation. Humans learned by trial and error how to safely prepare foods such as cassava and potato, even though they can be toxic.

With the advent of crop genetic engineering in the 1980s, public controversy and intense public scrutiny over genetically modified (GM) foods meant that the trial and error method of discovering whether new GM foods were safe became unacceptable.

Scientific safety assessment of new GM foods as well as government regulation of their introduction was introduced in many countries.

In Australia, this occurred during the major policy reform of all Australian food safety regulation, through the revision of the national Food Standards Code (1994-2002).

During this period, safety assessment of GM foods became the responsibility of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). Section 1.5.2 of the Food Standards Code defines the requirements for the compulsory pre-market assessment and labelling of foods produced by gene technology.

Comparative safety assessment for new whole foods

Food scientists carrying out GM food safety assessments realised that unintended variation in potentially toxic non-nutrient plant chemicals was a possible source of hazard in new GM crop varieties.


United Soybean Board/Flickr, CC BY


The presence of thousands of potentially toxic natural substances in plant foods meant that the safety assessment of GM foods had to be done by different procedures than those that had worked well with food additives and synthetic pesticides.

Regulators realised that if the hundreds of thousands of natural substances present in plant foods – such as soybeans or maize – were subjected to the same standards used with food additives and synthetic pesticides, all food – GM or non-GM – would fail regulatory standards.

A solution to this quandary was developed. Relative safety of GM foods is assessed by systematically looking for all the chemical differences that can be found between:

  • a GM food and
  • an otherwise comparable non-GM food that can be presumed to be already safe because of its history of safe use.

If no meaningful differences are detectable in a new crop variety, the GM food can be assumed to be at least as safe as its non-GM counterpart.

The standards agency FSANZ provides many further details of how safety assessment of GM foods is carried out, before they are allowed to enter the commercial marketplace.

Box 4.1 from their introductory booklet on the topic gives the main features of the process.



Who’s involved in setting standards?

Most GM crops are commodities that are extensively traded on world markets, such as maize, soybeans and canola. These have to meet food and regulatory standards in several different jurisdictions (such as in the US, the EU, Japan and China).

In practice, traded GM commodities have to pass regulatory scrutiny in counties to which they are exported. The safety assessment frameworks in these different trading countries have a substantial degree of consistency.

The UN forum Codex Alimentarius Commission is the major international intergovernmental forum in which this safety framework was developed.

Codex has established international guidelines for the safety assessment of foods derived from modern biotechnology. The Australian protocols for the pre-market safety assessment of GM foods are congruous with Codex principles.

Codex emphasises the use of sound scientific evidence for food risk assessment, and the separation of risk policy and risk management from scientific risk assessment. In Australia, the management of GM food safety follows these principles.

Food regulatory policy and political oversight are decided by an Australian intergovernmental board called the Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation.

GM safety assessment and food standards development are carried out by FSANZ.

In establishing standards and evaluating pre-market applications for the commercialisation of GM foods, FSANZ interacts with other agencies – in particular the Gene Technology Regulator, whose responsibilities include licensing the deliberate environmental release of genetically modified organisms.

Genetically modified foods have now been in the marketplace for nearly two decades without any harmful effects identified.

The absence of any evidence pointing to the lack of food safety in the recent farmer court case in Western Australia (fought over the unintended presence of genetically modified canola plants on another farmer’s property), underlines the overall conclusion that there is no credible evidence of any food safety risk with the GM foods that have been approved so far.

More tangible problems of food safety – such as the mould toxins that can ruin staple grains and cause cancer in developing countries should now get more attention.

Further reading:
GM techniques: from the field to the laboratory (and back again)

The Conversation

David Tribe does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article except the University of Melbourne, where he is paid for teaching research and community outreach by a standard salary arrangement with the University, and not-for-profit outreach organisations Academics Review and Biology Fortified Inc. where he is a non-paid board-member. He has no relevant affiliations that might entail a conflict of interest in scientific analysis.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

GM techniques: from the field to the laboratory

Welcome to GM in Australia, a series looking at the facts, ethics, regulations and research into genetically modified crops. In this first instalment, Peter Langridge describes two GM techniques: selective breeding and genetic engineering.

Genetic modification (GM) sounds very laboratory-based – people in white coats inserting and deleting genes – but the vast majority of GM work was completed in the field through selective breeding.

Early Middle Eastern farmers collected grain from natural grasslands, but they needed to time their harvest very carefully. If they were too early the grain wouldn’t store well, and if they were too late the grain would spread over the ground making collection difficult.

At some stage, one of these early farmers must have noticed that some heads remained fixed on their stems even after the grain was fully dry. He obviously didn’t understand this at the time, but these were plants with a mutation in the genes controlling seed dispersal.

Farmers began preferentially choosing plants with this useful mutation and planting them, perhaps the first case of breeding and selecting for a novel trait.

Exploiting genetic variation


Gregor Mendel. Wikimedia, CC BY


Systematic breeding really began in the early 1900s when scientists rediscovered Silesian monk Gregor Mendel’s groundbreaking work on genetic inheritance in peas.

Breeding involves utilising genetic variation to produce new combinations of genes and gene variants. A breeder will cross two different lines and then select offspring that have improved performance.

Breeders are always looking for new sources of variation, normally from within the elite germplasm pool – that is, within established varieties. Many important traits, such as disease resistance, are controlled by single genes and can be crossed into elite lines, with only the resistant offspring selected.

But for many crops the level of diversity available within the elite germplasm pool is very narrow and breeders must look further afield for novel variation. This search led breeders to explore land races (varieties grown by traditional farmers) and even wild relatives (undomesticated progenitors of our modern crops).

In many cases crosses between the wild relatives and modern lines will not produce normal seeds, but the embryos can often be isolated from the developing seed and grown in sterile tissue culture to produce viable, fertile plants.

This technique, called embryo rescue, has been widely used and many modern cultivars contain genes from wild relatives.


danbruell/Flickr, CC BY-ND


The normal number of genes present in a crop plant is around 30,000 to 40,000 – the same as for humans. In making the crosses all 30,000 genes from the wild relative are introduced but the breeder may only want one gene.

The genes are linked along chromosomes with each chromosome carrying several thousand genes. The breeders need to break up the chromosomes from the wild relative into small fragments so that only the desired region is transferred – a process called chromosome engineering.

This can take several decades of work, making the use of wide crosses technically difficult and slow. Breeders want other methods of generating useful variation.

Engineering mutations

In the 1950s the idea of inducing mutations became an important technique for creating new variation. This involved using ionising radiation, such as X or gamma rays, or chemical mutagens.

These techniques produce random damage to the genetic information in the plant by changing the DNA directly or knocking out segments of the genome (the genetic make-up). Most mutations are deleterious, and the mutagenesis usually generates many thousands of unwanted changes, so the clean-up can be slow.

After exposing the plants to the mutagen, the breeders need to select for the beneficial mutations and remove the deleterious mutations.

Scientifically the ideal solution would be to be able to take a gene from any source and introduce it into your crop plant to change the plant’s characteristics. This would allow breeders to use variation from diverse sources and make changes just one gene at a time without the extensive collateral damage done by mutagenesis or wide crosses. This is what genetic engineering offers.



Enter the lab coats …

The first genetically engineered crops were produced in the 1980s and, as in all areas of science, the technology continues to advance. The most widely used method today takes advantage of a natural DNA transfer mechanism.

Several groups of soil bacteria are able to engineer plants for their own benefit. These bacteria transfer a segment of their genome into the plant’s genome so that the transformed plant cells will proliferate and produce compounds that only the bacteria can use. In this way the bacteria control the plant development to produce nutrients for the bacteria.

The mechanisms for this type of natural genetic engineering are now well understood, allowing scientists to change the DNA segment transferred so that the genes causing altered plant growth are removed and new genes inserted.

How does this work practically? In a laboratory the scientist will design and build a DNA sequence containing specific sequences that delineate the region of DNA to be transferred (the left and right borders). They then insert the gene of interest and usually a selectable marker, such as resistance to a herbicide.


Agrobacterium tumefaciens attaching to a plant cell. Wikimedia, CC BY


This construct is then introduced into a bacteria called Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which readily takes up DNA. The bacteria are then applied to growing plant tissues in sterile culture.

After a period the bacteria are removed and the plant tissues placed onto media containing the herbicide. Only the plant cells that have been transformed (those that took up the construct from the bacterium) are able to grow and divide.

These cells are allowed to multiply and divide until they produce plants, which are taken out of sterile culture to a glasshouse where they can grow to maturity. The genes that have been transferred will now be included in the genetic make-up of the plant.

Different species and even varieties will differ in their ability to take up DNA from the bacterium and to regenerate normal plants. Where in the genome the new DNA inserts is usually random but will preferentially occur in regions containing active genes.

Extensive growth trails and evaluation are needed to ensure that the transgenic or genetically engineered plant behaves as expected.

… and back to the field

In Australia all aspects of genetic engineering research are closely regulated. The researcher, organisation and facilities used must all be licensed and meet tight standards.

Before a field trial can be grown, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) conducts a detailed risk assessment of the genes used, the reasons for the trial, and the design and management of the trial site.

The OGTR have issued 103 licenses for field trials covering 14 different crops. In Australia 37 genetically engineered crops have been approved for commercial cultivation for seven different species, but only GM cotton (eight different events) and canola (three events) are grown to any great extent.


BASF – The Chemical Company/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND


The resistance to GM crops in many parts of the world has encouraged scientists to look for alternative techniques for making targeted changes to the genetic make-up of crops and other organisms.

For example, a new technique called “genome editing” allows us to make specific changes to native genes within the plant that are essentially identical to the changes induced by mutagenesis but at only one site rather than all over the genome. Mutagenesis is widely used and is not subject to regulation – will the same apply to genome editing?

There are other developments that are also challenging the community’s views on new technologies. How will people feel about GM crops where a native gene has been isolated, changed and re-inserted (a process known as cisgenics)?

What about using GM rootstocks engineered for resistance to root diseases, but grafted with non-GM scion so that they produce non-GM apples or avocados?

These questions are now challenging the regulators since the first examples are starting to become available.

The Conversation

Peter Langridge receives research funding from Pioneer/Dupont, the Australian Research Council, the Grains Research and Development Corporation, the South Australian Government, Australia/India Strategic Research Fund and the US AID program . He provides advice to several public sector research organisation in Europe, North America and to international agricultural aid programs.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The week in focus: video

A landmark GM court case, an alleged egg cartel and dodgy deli meat are the focus of this week’s news round-up.

One of the biggest stories on our website this week was the news that organic farmer, Steve Marsh, lost a landmark court case against his neighbour and former friend, Michael Baxter for allegedly contaminating his property with genetically modified canola.

Marsh alleged that he lost his organic certification on more than half of his farm after GM canola blew onto his land from Baxter’s neighbouring property.

Justice Martin noted that the Marshes’ could not prove that there has been “any reasonable interference” by Baxter, and that Baxter had employed industry standard harvest methodology when planting his GM seeds.

"Mr Baxter was not to be held responsible as a broadacre farmer merely for growing a lawful GM crop and choosing to adopt a harvest methodology (swathing), which was entirely orthodox in its implementation," he said.

"Nor could Mr Baxter be held responsible, in law, for the reactions to the incursion of the Marshes' organic certification body, NCO, which in the circumstances presented to be an unjustifiable reaction to what occurred."

Get all the details about this, and other top-rating news stories from our website, in the video below.



NASAA says GM canola decision highlights need for reform

Australian organic certification body, the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture (NASAA) has called upon the State and Federal regulators to provide greater regulatory certainty on the application of National Standards for Organic and Biodynamic Produce.

The move follows a landmark high court decision that ruled in favour of conventional farmer Graham Baxter, who’s GM canola allegedly contaminated a neighbouring organic property owned by Steve Marsh, resulting in Marsh losing his organic certification to a significant proportion of his land.

NASAA says that Justice Martin’s decision to rule in favour Baxter is a “significant blow” for Marsh and the organic sector of Australia as a whole.

NASAA maintains that it acted responsibly in withdrawing Organic Certification rights to Marsh’s land despite Justice Martin finding that the decertification was ‘erroneous’.

Ben Copeman, General Manager of NASAA said that the Court’s decision not to recognise NASAA’s decertification of Marsh’s land as warranted highlights the need for regulatory reform.

“We found GM canola growing on organically certified land. The court found that there was no risk of GM contamination," says Copeman.

“While tolerance thresholds for GM contamination are governed by the Federal Government under the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce, it is not a legislated standard and is not recognised by the courts.

“Without any legally recognised form of protection, Australian organic farmland and produce is left vulnerable to contamination from conventional farming methods including GM crops. This could seriously threaten the sectors access to domestic and international organic markets.

Copeman said that the decision has the potential to opens a “Pandora’s Box of conflicts” between neighbours and farming communities

 “Farmers across Australia are left with an uncertain future. The need to recognise and support greater commercial security for both organic and conventional (GM free) farming is now an issue of national importance," said Copeman.

“The issue of how organic and non-organic farmers can co-exist while respecting each other’s right to farm in the way they choose will not go away and needs to be resolved.”

NASSA recently secured approval from Chinese regulators for its certification arm, NASAA Certified Organic, to inspect organic operations within Australia for export to China.

According to NASAA, the deal has the capacity to boost Australia’s organic and biodynamic industry by up to $100m per year, and marks the first time that a foreign organisation has been approved to inspect organic products for export to China.

Copeman says that progress on this agreement and others like this will be put at risk if Australia is seen to be unable to ensure the security of its organic produce.

“Australian organic standards and related export regulations have a good international reputation in key markets within SE Asia, China, Japan, USA and the European Union.

“Any unreasonable risk of contamination can lead to a loss of recognition and acceptance of Australian certified organic produce and those markets being inaccessible to Australian famers.”


Organic farmer loses GM canola case

Western Australian organic farmer, Steve Marsh has lost a landmark court case against his neighbour and former friend, Michael Baxter for allegedly contaminating his property with genetically modified canola.

Marsh alleged that he lost his organic certification on more than half of his farm after GM canola blew onto his land from Baxter’s neighbouring property.

Following a three week hearing, Justice Kenneth Martin ruled in favour of Baxter, stating that although Marsh and his wife bought two causes of action against their neighbour – common law negligence involving the breach of duty to ensure that the GM seeds were contained on his property, and the tort of private nuisance – they only claimed financial damages, WAToday reports.

"They did not claim to have suffered any physical damage or injury to themselves, to their animals or to their land at Eagle Rest," said Justice Martin.

"GM canola only posed a risk of transferring genetic material if a canola seed germinated in the Eagles Rest soil … and then later cross-fertilised through its pollen being exchanged with another compatible species," Justice Martin said.

"There was no evidence at the trial of any genetic transference risks posed by the RR (roundup ready) canola swathes blown into Eagle Rest at the end of 2010.

"The Marshes had never grown canola upon Eagle Rest."

Justice Martin also noted that the Marshes’ could not prove that there has been “any reasonable interference” by Baxter, and that Baxter had employed industry standard harvest methodology when planting his GM seeds.

"Mr Baxter was not to be held responsible as a broadacre farmer merely for growing a lawful GM crop and choosing to adopt a harvest methodology (swathing), which was entirely orthodox in its implementation," he said.

"Nor could Mr Baxter be held responsible, in law, for the reactions to the incursion of the Marshes' organic certification body, NCO, which in the circumstances presented to be an unjustifiable reaction to what occurred."

It has not yet been confirmed if the Marshes’ will appeal the decision.

Environmental group calls for nano-material ban in food

Environmental group Friends of the Earth has called for a ban on new nano-materials being used in foods and its packaging until risk assessments have proven the materials are safe to consume.

A report released by Friends of the Earth on Thursday said the number of products in Australia containing nano-materials was growing rapidly, despite scientific evidence suggesting these materials could accumulate in the body and cause damage, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.

The report said one of the most common nanomaterials used in food is nano titanium dioxide, used as a whitener and brightener in a range of foods, including lollies, chewing gum and doughnuts. Animal studies using nano titanium dioxide show that it can damage DNA, disrupt the function of cells, interfere with the immune system, cross the intestinal tract and cause organ damage. Friends of the Earth said children between the age of 2 and 4 have been found to have the highest exposure levels.

Jeremy Tager, an author of the report said "In order to protect the health of the public you [need to] treat new technologies with a level of precaution until you've established they're safe."

Nano-materials are produced or engineered to be less than 100 nanometres. The size and shape of nano-particles gives them unique properties and behaviours, which manufacturers exploit to improve their products, but which opponents say can make them unsafe.

Friends of the Earth also want a register for products containing nano-materials and compulsory labels for nano-foods. Although the national food regulator, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, requires producers of new foods, manufactured with nanotechnologies that present safety concerns, to undergo safety assessment before they can be sold, the definition of "new" is murky.

A Monash University law academic, Karinne Ludlow, said if a manufacturer used a traditional ingredient in its nano form, it may not be considered new and therefore may not require testing.

The food standards website said it had not received any applications to approve new nano-scale particles in food.

Ludlow said it was impossible for any regulator to test every new product against every new science.

"There's no real evidence that nano-food causes harm," Ludlow said.

A toxicologist and head of NanoSafe Australia, Paul Wright, said many of the studies that suggested nano-materials were toxic to animals or cells were exposed to much higher doses than would ever be found in foods.

In October 2012, New Zealand scientists produced hypoallergenic milk by using a genetically modified cow.

New Zealand’s largest research institute AgResearch bred the first cow able to produce high-protein milk with reduced amounts of beta-lactoglobulin (BLG), a whey component known to cause allergic reactions.

The institute's research director said further studies on the milk is needed before it can be tasted by humans, but it could eventually be produced commercially and marketed as a low allergy substitute.

A Food Standards Australia New Zealand spokeswoman said food manufacturers and suppliers were legally obliged to ensure any food entering the market was safe. 

Foods that did not comply would be investigated by state agencies, she said.


Vermont passes GMO labelling bill

Vermont has become the first state in the US to pass a bill that requires the labelling of genetically modified foods.

The Vermont House approved the bill last week, with governor Peter Shumlin stating that the new law will come into effect from 1 July, 2016 to give manufacturers time to comply.

"I am proud of Vermont for being the first state in the nation to ensure that Vermonters will know what is in their food," Shumlin said in statement. 

ABC News reports that the new bill will see offenders pay a penalty of $1,000 per day per product for “false certification” with the fine applying to the general product, not each individual item or package within the particular category.

According to The Guardian, twenty nine other states together with Vermont have proposed bills this year to require the labelling of genetically modified food.

According to Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), foods in Australia must be labelled if they contain GM ingredients, however if a GM ingredient is highly refined, (ie cooking oils and sugar) they do not have to be labelled.

The decision to not label highly refined products is based on the notion that processing removes DNA and protein from the food, resulting in GM foods holding the same composition as non-GM varieties.

Currently, Australia does not permit the sale of GM fresh foods including fruit and vegetables.