Food on trial

Broadcast: Landline, ABC, 21st August 2011
Reporter: Kerry Staight

We’re looking at one of the most contentious issues in global agriculture – genetically modified food. There’s obviously a robust debate in Australia about the pros and cons of the GM crops that have already been introduced, such as cotton and canola. But what’s next?

Scientists here are busy assessing the potential and performance of a whole range of genetically engineered crops from wheat and barley to bananas and sugar cane.

As Kerry Staight reports, despite the small size of the trial sites and the precautions being taken, these experiments are proving just as divisive.


DR MAARTEN STAPPER, FARMING SYSTEMS AGRONOMIST: The calls to ban our field trials, I support because we have to do other GM research before a field trial could be taking place, because we get contamination of the system.

(Australian Story, 2009) Thanks for coming this afternoon at this paddock because we’ll look here at the indicators of fertility in the soil.

KERRY STAIGHT: Maarten Stapper is one of the country’s leaders in biological farming and an outspoken critic of GM.

In fact, the former CSIRO employee claims he was dumped from the peak science agency for publicly sharing his views. He says his objection to GM field trials is not sour grapes but a cautious approach based on years of research.

MAARTEN STAPPER: You can have everything under control with fences, with borderlines and with buffer zones, but a human error is in a small corner, like those human errors have been made in the GM breeding world.

Like in the United States, in the rice- GM rice research, they suddenly had contaminated rice varieties in the United States and the farmers lost millions of dollars because it was contaminated.

KERRY STAIGHT: That case involved German conglomerate Bayer Cropscience. It denies it acted irresponsibly, but recently agreed to compensate farmers up to $750 million.

Whether GM experiments in this country have strayed too far is open to interpretation. In a document released last year Greenpeace said there had been 29 reports of GM contamination in Australia, half of which had happened during field trials.

ANDREW JAMES: We do know 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. And so as a researcher that’s a frustrating event but for the general public I don’t really believe that that’s a great concern.

KERRY STAIGHT: Critics say it is, because it can mess with how the body works when consumed.

MAARTEN STAPPER: We enter a new gene, a foreign gene like from a bacteria or a virus in through our food in our body, then in our gut that bacteria can combine with bacteria that are living in the gut.

KERRY STAIGHT: Supporters reject that, and say we’ve been messing with the genetic make-up of our crops for years.

ANDREW JAMES: Traditional breeding certainly does mix up the genome a lot in a way that’s not very controlled. And indeed there, you know, if we look at the commercial varieties of wheat and barley today that are out in the field, many of them have got traits that have come through processes like mutagenesis – chemical mutagenesis – which aren’t very natural.

KERRY STAIGHT: When it comes to assessing whether grain from a genetically engineered crop like this is safe to eat, the standard practice is to compare it with a similar conventional crop.

ANDREW JAMES: And we try and determine whether there’s a significant difference in the metabolite profile, its gene expression profile and so forth. And if there’s not a significant difference then at a first stage you would say it’s going to be very much similar to the normal, wild type plant.

I don’t know if you can ever say it’s going to be 100 per cent safe. There are always risks with technology and so I think you need to do the testing such as animal feeding trials or perhaps human feeding trials as well.


KERRY STAIGHT: The CSIRO has tested out some of the GM wheat being trialled here on rats and pigs. The modified starch wheat is harder to digest and higher in dietary fibre so the theory is it will improve bowel health. The longest animal study ran 11 weeks and researchers say there were no ill effects.

They now have approval to test the wheat on humans. But critics say longer feeding studies are needed.

MAARTEN STAPPER: We have to know that something can’t create havoc in the future and then we can release – and that’s a long-term study. And that’s a multigenerational study that we have to feed animals for five generations, like rats and mice, with GM crops and then show that they’re happy, healthy and fertile and then I don’t have any problems with GM.

But those studies have not been performed in the international world.

LAURA KELLY: When the biotech industry can turn around and say ‘Oh look, we’ve addressed that issue of genetic instability’ before releasing a genetically unstable organism into the field, then we’ll chat. But at the moment the evidence shows that they’re just not there, but that their corporate interests encourage them to push it anyway.

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