GM Crops: Our meal ticket to the future?

12 August 2011

Written by: KATE SCARFF

People are dying every day because they don’t have access to food.  Rising prices, trade barriers, and climate change are just some of the factors contributing to the food crisis.  With the world population predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050, drastic changes are needed to ensure we have global food security in the future.

Genetic modification (GM) has often been touted as the answer to the world’s food shortages. The process involves transferring a particular gene from one plant to another.  However, despite being scientifically tested there continues to be controversy surrounding the use GM.

On Wednesday night over 100 people attended the event, ‘GM: a dinner discussion. Should GM crops contribute to global food security?’, a public forum funded by National Science WeekAustralian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics and TechNyou.

The panel consisted of Professor Peter Langridge, CEO of ACPFG; Dr Alex Johnson, botanist at the University of Melbourne; Dr Carl Ramage, formerly a senior scientist with the Department of Primary Industries and Compliance Manager at Biosciences Research, and  Dr Rob Sparrow, an ethicist at Monash University.

The discussion focused on the acceptance of GM crops with regards to human health, the environment and the Australian economy.  The panel provided insight into the science, philosophical, regulatory and manufacturing aspects of GM crops.

Throughout the evening, the panel stressed that genetic modification only causes small changes to DNA when compared to sexual reproduction which results in a complete ‘shakeup of the entire genome’.  The audience was also reminded that DNA is in all living things and is therefore in the food we eat, whether you eat meat or are a vegetarian. In the words of Professor Langridge: ‘The disruption caused by inserting a gene is a drop in the ocean compared to what is happening normally.’

Developing countries are most in need for GM crops. Scientific developments have demonstrated great potential for staple cereals to deliver micronutrients using GM technology.  For example, Dr Johnson has been conducting research investigating GM techniques to fortify rice with iron. Other benefits include the possibility of pest and disease-resistant GM crops, which would increase the profitability of small farms due to higher yields and reduction in the application of expensive insecticides.

However, even though GM has the potential to greatly assist developing countries, the technology is still met with apprehension from the developed world.

In Australia, the GM crop industry is regulated by the Gene Technology Act 2000.  This legislation has been in effect since 2000 and its primary mandate is human health and environmental safety.

Professor Langridge mentioned The European Commission’s 2010 report on GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) published last year showed no difference between GM crops and conventional crops with regards to human health and environmental safety.  ‘If anything, GM crops are probably safer because of the increased scrutiny that goes into their regulatory approval,’ he said.  According to Dr Ramage, conventional plant breeding is not regulated in Australia.

Professor Langridge went on to say the regulatory approval of new crops in Australia places too much emphasis on the technology and not enough on the product.  ‘For example, the atrazine resistant canolas were accepted by the organic producers and the anti-GM lobby without any qualms whatsoever, even though they were clearly environmentally inferior technology to the Roundup Ready GM canola.’

Speaking from the audience, Professor Tony Bacic, Director  of the Bio21 Molecular Science and Biotechnology Institute questioned why there is a difference between acceptance of drugs for human health produced by GM technology, such as insulin, and acceptance of GM food.

Dr Sparrow said people in Australia are generally happy with the food they are eating but they are concerned about their health.  ‘ It is easier to sell GM medicines to make people better,’ he said.

Some have suggested that consuming GM foods may trigger allergic reactions, but no cases have been reported so far.  There was an early case of allergy reported with a GM soybean that did not reach the market.  It was discovered the inserted gene from the Brazil nut encodes a protein that is the key allergen in people with Brazil nut allergy.  ‘This is a situation when regulation comes into play – tests are done before a product is registered and include looking at the potential for allerginicity’, said Dr Ramage.

Until GM crops meet the cultural requirements of the developed world, the discussion whether GM crops can contribute to the global food security crisis will continue to stumble upon the building blocks of DNA.

Kate Scarff is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student at La Trobe University and is part of upstart‘s editorial team.  You can follow her on Twitter: @katescarff