Friday, August 19, 2011
The future of GM under fire
Kerry Staight for Landline
August 19, 2011
Greenpeace has called for a ban on all genetically engineered crop field trials in Australia, saying the science is not fully understood.
While genetically modified (GM) cotton and canola have already been released commercially, there are a range of other GM plants growing in field experiments around the country including wheat, barley, bananas and sugarcane.
“We’re fine with GM research in the lab, but Greenpeace believes we just don’t know enough when it comes to genome function to support the release of a living genetically modified organism into the environment,” Greenpeace spokeswoman Laura Kelly said.
Last month, Greenpeace activists allegedly scaled the fences at the CSIRO’s experimental site near Canberra and destroyed a GM wheat trial.
The organisation has not ruled out targeting other outdoor experiments.
The CSIRO has put on a night security guard and is considering improving fencing and installing electronic surveillance, but says the field work will continue because it is a vital part of any plant breeding program.
“It’s all very well growing things in pots and you can get them to look very nice in a glasshouse, but out in the field the weather changes, the soils are strange and different, and so those aspects of how the plants behave against those environmental conditions are important,” said Dr Jeremy Burdon, the CSIRO’s plant industry chief.
In a report released last year, Greenpeace said there had been 29 GM contamination incidents in Australia, half of which happened during field trials.
But the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, which approves licences for GM field trials and controls how they are carried out, says while rules have been broken in the last decade, containment lines have not.
“There have been around 80 potential non-compliances that we’ve found, mainly administrative or technical non-compliances where people perhaps haven’t kept appropriate records,” said spokesman Dr Joe Smith.
“There have been no instances that I’m aware of in terms of field trials leading to contamination.”
Greenpeace believes GM crops are unsafe to grow and eat because they are unstable.
“There’s a lot of evidence to show that the genetic engineering process itself leads to deletions and re-arrangement of genes in the plant and creates a great deal of unpredictability about how that organism will then respond in its local ecosystem,” Laura Kelly said.
But Andrew Jacobs from the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics rejects that notion.
“We do know that when you put a transgene into a plant it can become unstable, but that generally doesn’t make the rest of the genome of the plant unstable,” he said.
“As a researcher, that’s a frustrating event, but for the general public I don’t really believe that’s a great concern.”
Dr Jacobs is involved with GM field trials being run near Adelaide, which are looking at drought tolerance, salt tolerance and nitrogen use efficiency in wheat and barley plants.
“It’s just one technology that we need to have in our arsenal and I think it will help us address some of those important environmental, social issues that we’re going to face moving forward,” he said.