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Genetic engineering poses unacceptable risks
Genetic engineering poses unacceptable risks
Let them eat rockcress

“Salt-tolerant GM plants could help feed the world” read the headline in a recent copy of The Age. Sounds impressive huh? Until you read the actual scientific article that the report is referring to and discover that the research is still at proof of concept stage and was done in rockcress (Arabdopsis) - hardly an important food crop!

Whilst this research may be interesting from an academic perspective, genetically engineered (GE) salt tolerant crops are still likely to be at least a decade away. And the important question remains – do we really need them?

According to Mark Tester, of Adelaide University's Centre for Plant Functional Genomics the research could eventually increase world production of crops such as rice, wheat and maize. But hang on a minute, numerous varieties of salt tolerant non-GE rice are already being successfully grown by farmers in India, and researchers in WA are also trialling non-GE salt tolerant wheat.

Salt tolerance is complex characteristic, linked to stress and other developmental responses. It is therefore extremely difficult to genetic engineer successfully in crop plants. Furthermore, the very complexity of salt tolerance increases the possibility of unexpected, unintended effects resulting from attempts to genetically engineer it. Other non-GE techniques such as selective breeding and marker assisted selection are much more effective for developing salt tolerant crops.

As Dr Barrett-Lennard from the Future Farm Industries CRC points out, salt tolerant crops, however we develop them, will not be the sole solution for farmer’s salinity woes. Relying solely on salt tolerant crops to deal with salinity issues is only likely to further degrade soils.

How salinity issues are best tackled will vary from farm to farm. However, one thing is for sure - we need to move away from the unsustainable, chemical intensive farming techniques that got farmers into this mess in the first place. As the UN’s recent International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) observes:

“Natural resources, especially those of soil, water, plant and animal diversity, vegetation cover, renewable energy sources, climate, and ecosystem services are fundamental for the structure and function of agricultural systems and for social and environmental sustainability, in support of life on earth. Historically the path of global agricultural development has been narrowly focused on increased productivity rather than on a more holistic integration of natural resource management with food and nutritional security.”

We urgently need to develop and agriculture that works with nature rather than against it. GE crops just encourage business as usual, which we simply can’t afford.

Further reading

Mishra Awarded For Developing Salt-tolerant Rice, Financial Express, 24/4/04.

Future Farm Industries CRC (2009) Salinity – a holistic approach leads to successful solutions 

International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD): Executive Summary of the Synthesis Report.

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