I recently visited Australia to examine the situation with genetically modified (GM) crops. I was stunned by what a beautiful country Australia is and wondered why anyone would want to grow GM crops here. Australia has very little to gain and much to lose by growing GM crops.
What are the risks of GM crops?
There are many risks with GM crops. There are those associated with the trait, such as herbicide tolerance or insect resistant. There are both environmental and health risks. Fundamentally it’s the insertion of genes into the genome of an organism that can give rise to unexpected and unpredictable effects. This can cause many effects. Of significance, it can alter the protein profile – for examples producing new proteins or modifying existing ones. This is important, as most allergens (the compounds that cause allergies in us) are proteins
The more we know about how genes and genomes function, we more we realise how complex and tightly controlled their operation is. GM crops belong to an outdated and over-simplistic concept of how genes function. For example, the “new generation” of GM crops include those that employ a process known as RNAi (interfering RNA). This includes CSIRO’s GM wheat for altered starch composition. Recent scientific publications suggest that some of these small RNAs (produced by genes or DNA), might not degrade on cooking and eating as previously thought, but could be taken up into our bodies via food. The evidence further suggests they could affect gene expression in humans. It’s too early to know what the full implications are, but it demonstrates quite clearly that we don’t have a full picture of how genes or DNA and their products that occur naturally in the food we eat affect us. Using genetic modification to introduce new and novel gene products into our food means we just don’t know if GM foods are safe to eat.
GM contamination of conventional crops will happen
There’s a real risk that experimental field trials of GM wheat in Australia could contaminate Australia’s lucrative wheat industry. Not only does this pose a risk to human health, but it should be of large concern to Australian farmers. Contamination happens, and it’s expensive. There are now several cases of GM contamination from experimental field trials. Many, if not most of these contamination cases tend to be from human error, mix-ups or mistakes, rather than cross-pollination. This means that even if cross-pollination is unlikely (wheat for example is self-pollinating), contamination is still a significant risk.
The experiences with canola contamination that farmers are already having in Australia are very distressing. There are many studies from North America confirming that GM canola can escape and form “feral” populations (introduced plants growing wild without cultivation) along roadside verges. These feral populations can act as a reservoir of GM genes that contaminate conventional canola (1). Japan, which doesn’t grow conventional canola, has feral populations of GM canola around the sea ports and roadsides just from spillages of imports (2). GM simply cannot be controlled.
GM crops aren’t needed
Several times I was asked “but don’t we need GM crops to feed the world”? The answer is no. GM crops are not designed to give greater yield than conventional crops. Currently, they are designed to be resistant to toxic herbicides such as Round-Up, or contain the pesticide itself.
Desired crop traits tend to be complex traits such as drought and salinity tolerance. These complex traits are better suited to non-GM breeding techniques such as Marker Assisted Selection (MAS) or “smart” breeding. MAS utilises our knowledge of DNA and genomes to produce complex traits using conventional breeding, and without producing a GM crop. Solutions to sustainable agriculture are needed but GM crops are not part of that solution.
I hope farmers and consumers say “No!” to GM wheat. GM crops aren’t wanted in many parts of the world. The majority of GM crops are isolated to the Americas and European consumers simply don’t want to eat GM. There is a large demand for GM-free commodities. Growing GM crops in Australia risks contaminating Australia’s exports and losing important trade markets.
Why would you take the risk?
(1) Schafer, M.G., Ross, A.A., Londo, J.P., Burdick, C.A., Lee, E.H., Travers, S.E., Van de Water, P.K. & Sagers, C.L. 2011. The establishment of genetically engineered canola populations in the U.S. PLoS ONE 6: e25736. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025736.
Knispel, A.L & McLachlan, S.M. 2010 Landscape-scale distribution and persistence of genetically modified oilseed rape (Brassica napus) in Manitoba, Canada. Environmental Science Pollution Research 17: 13–25.
(2) Saji, H., Nakajima, N., Aono, M., Tamaoki, M., Kubo, A., Wakiyama, S., Hatase, Y & Nagatsu, M. 2005. Monitoring the escape of transgenic oilseed rape around Japanese ports and roadsides. Environmental Biosafety Research. 4: 217–222.