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Growing GM canola a smart move

G8th December 2007

C20 Comments

Tenvironment, plants, politics

Victoria will lift the 5-year moratorium on growing GM canola.

Last week, the State Government of Victoria announced that the five-year moratorium on the cultivation of genetically-modified (GM) canola would be lifted in early 2008. New South Wales has also announced that it will lift its ban. South Australia is expected to follow soon whilst Tasmania wants to maintain its prohibition. The lifting of the moratorium is a highly controversial decision, but one that I welcome.

Canola

This story goes back to 2003 when the Commonwealth Government’s Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) approved the cultivation of Bayer CropScience’s InVigor® and Monsanto’s Roundup Ready® herbicide-resistant canola (Brassica napus) for commercial oil production. In response, most Australian states (which have constitutional authority over agriculture) imposed 5-year moratoria on the basis that the economic and environmental risk was still unknown.

This was a sensible decision because it permitted more scientific and economic research to be conducted and for the community and farmers to express their concerns to government and industry.

GM canola has been grown in the United States and Canada since 1995. To date, there has been no evidence to suggest that there is a risk to the health of humans nor wildlife from growing such crops. In fact Bennett et al. (2004) found that growing a GM herbicide-tolerant crop would be less harmful to the environment and human health than growing the conventional crop, owing to the reduction of herbicide use. Indeed, there are many benefits that can come to Australia from the cultivation of GM crops.

Canola Plants

Australia already cultivates GM cotton and carnations. The incorporation of genes for “drought resistance” in wheat and rice for instance could have dramatic environmental benefits, not least allowing us to grow more food with less water. The savings could be returned to our parched rivers and waterways.

Despite the potential benefits, there is a general paranoia amongst extremist environmental groups (such as Greenpeace) that GM-crops are somehow “unnatural” and “dangerous”. Such claims show a complete lack of scientific literacy. The labelling of GM crops as “Frankenfood” is a favourite scare-tactic amongst the environmental extremists.

A good example of the potential of GM was the FlavrSavr tomato, developed by Calgene. When tomatoes ripen, they become soft and are easily spoilt and so are picked green. The softening is caused by a protein called polygalacturonase, which is present in all tomatoes. Calgene scientists simply cloned the gene, flipped it backwards and re-inserted it back into the tomato. This antisense gene then blocked the function of polygalacturonase and the tomatoes stayed firm after ripening. No “foreign” genes were used, yet green groups went berserk and even suggested the tomatoes contained fish genes! (This claim was false).

Golden Rice provides another example of the positive potential of genetic modification. According to the World Health Organisation, dietary vitamin A deficiency (VAD) causes some 250,000 to 500,000 children to go blind each year. As a remedy to this problem, scientists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer developed Golden Rice which contains elevated levels of β-carotene (provitamin A). Rice plants produce β-carotene in green tissues but not in the endosperm (the edible part of the seed). By addition of only two genes, phytoene synthase (psy) and phytoene desaturase (crt I), the pathway was reconstituted and β-carotene is consequently accumulated in the endosperm. The humanitarian benefit of cultivating this rice would be enormous, but for environmentalists objecting to the use of a “bacterial gene” in its development.

The notion that a “foreign” gene poses some risk to health or is unnatural is a myth. Aside from the lack of evidence of this process being dangerous in itself, gene transfer between bacteria and plants happens in nature, such as in the case of Agrobacterium tumefaciens. Sure, if a scientist were to transfer a gene encoding a toxin into an edible plant, that would be dangerous, but only because of the presence of toxin and not because the gene was “foreign”. Given that the DNA code is universal across all organisms and no genes have species-specific identifiers marking them as “plant”, “animal”, “bacterial” et cetera, this fear of the technology is misplaced.

One concern with growing GM canola is that herbicide-resistance genes will ‘contaminate’ non-GM canola crops via cross-pollination, since canola is an out-crossing species. In an Australian study, Rieger et al. (2002) found that canola pollen could be spread up to 3 kilometres away from source plants, but herbicide-resistance genes were present in an average of 0.03% of plants tested at those distances, suggesting that buffer zones could be successfully used where farmers want to grow non-GM canola without fear of contamination. This is especially applicable in the case of Tasmania. Under European standards for instance, “GM free” canola is permitted to contain up to 0.9% genetically modified material.

It is true that the organic sector could be affected by the commercial planting of GM canola, however ABARE currently estimates that organic canola accounts for less than 1% of the Australian canola crop. In any case, the economic debate is one which farmers will need to have and decide upon. This is not an environmental risk, but an economic one.

I believe that the adoption or otherwise of GM crops should be conducted where it is economically and environmentally prudent to do so. If a particular agricultural industry doesn’t want to grow GM crops because they feel their industry can gain higher prices with non-GM, then I support them wholehartedly. But if the environmental return (eg less use of herbicides, less water use etc) and the economic return is greater with GM crops, then as a society we should embrace the technology.

Of course there are risks. One risk is of GM crops hybridising with wild relatives in species where this is possible and wild relatives are present, causing a transfer of new traits (such as herbicide resistance) to these plants. However it is the job of the OGTR to evaluate and regulate new releases and to date, they’ve done an excellent job in risk assessment. Anyone who works in a PC2 laboratory would know how stringent the Gene Technology Act 2000 is.

It is up to affected farming groups, the OGTR, the Food Standards Authority and state governments to decide for each agricultural sector what is best for consumers, industry and the country. Consumers are entitled to stringent labelling regulations on all food, and the choice whether to purchase GM food products.

Genetic modification of crops offers Australia many opportunities and it would be foolish in the extreme to ignore the potential of this tried-and-tested technology and miss out on what it can offer the people of Australia and the world.

Scientific references:

Bennett et al. (2004) Environmental and human health impacts of growing genetically modified herbicide-tolerant sugar beet: a life-cycle assessment. Plant Biotechnology Journal 2: 273–278

DallaPenna et al. (1986) Molecular cloning of tomato fruit polygalacturonase: Analysis of polygalacturonase mRNA levels during ripening. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 83 (17): 6420-6424

Rieger et al. (2002) Pollen-Mediated movement of herbicide resistance between commercial canola fields. Science 296 (5577): 2386-2388

Image credits:

1. Canola field by Neal Sanche, used under a Creative Commons licence.

2. Canola plant by Richard Rosalion, used under a Creative Commons licence.

   

Comments:

20 responses to “Growing GM canola a smart move”

  • Written by James Wachai on 9 December 2007:

    Hoax stories about GMOs will never help. In my blog, GMO Africa, I always encourage people to engage in a constructive debate about genetically modified crops. Emphasis must always be scientific facts, but not hot air.

  • Written by Anastasia Bodnar on 10 December 2007:

    You say that customers are entitled to labeling of GM foods. What do you mean, exactly? To me, just labeling a food “GM” means nothing. Your example of the FlavrSavr is perfect. It’s GM, but not transgenic. Not only is the transgene (or lack thereof) important, I’m sure you know that GM plants can vary hugely by event as well. The problem is, tracking down which transgene and event is in each box of cornflakes would be impossible. What about lines of crops that have had their genomes modified with radiation? Does that need to be labeled? I agree that customers should be able to choose, but I don’t know if many customers have enough knowledge to do so, or if any food producer/supplier/packager would be able to provide the information.

  • Written by Adam Dimech on 10 December 2007:

    I was envisaging a simple addition to the standard food labelling scheme which indicates the presence of some “GM” product. At this stage, I don’t think the consumer would be too interested in the specific nature of the modification. Anyway, inclusion of such detail is not practical, as you validly say.

    I believe mere reference to “GM” would suffice, as that seems to be the source of anxiety for consumers at present. Such labelling would at least permit the consumer to discriminate, much as they do for “Australian Made”, “Organically grown” et cetera. None of these categories are watertight of course.

    As for what constitutes “genetically modified”, I would consider Agrobacterium-mediated transformation, microprojectile bombardment, antisense technology, artificial gene silencing and radiation breeding to be “GM” for sure.

    I believe FlavrSavr should be labelled “GM” because a gene has been modified using one of the above methods, even if it contains no actual transgene.

  • Written by Ellie on 12 December 2007:

    Adam, this is an extremely well written article and its certainly made me think. You’re right, the labelling of GM crops as ‘franken-food’ certainly does not help to educate the public on the issue at hand, and is very much a scaremongering tactic – something I loathe. Treat people like idiots and they will respond like idiots. Treat them like intelligent thinking beings and most of the time they will respond in kind. If only there was more open and honest discussion on just what the GM issue involves, it would (IMO) give people food for thought to think about the issue and come to a logical conclusion rather than an emotional one.

  • Written by SthPacific on 19 December 2007:

    I strongly oppose the patenting of any genetic material. I am not opposed to the technology and I do understand it and the flaws in some of the processes.

  • Written by gao on 1 January 2008:

    The adverse effect of “GM” food is potential and may be quite incredible .We still need to make further long-term study to know the aftermath of”GM” using. It’s not appropriate to widely use “GM” at present.

  • Written by keir james faulkner on 11 January 2008:

    It must must be rather difficult to maintain licences and patents if the pollen leaps over fences and spreads itself about, in fact after four or five years, even if the plant is sterile! the legal ownership of patents can easily be contested in most courts. GM scientist are in effect trying to patent weeds on the wing. impossible?

  • Written by Adam Dimech on 11 January 2008:

    Clearly from the comments above, as much concern rests with the intellectual property side of GM science as the biology.

    Kier – You’re making two key assumptions with your comment; firstly that the crop in question is outcrossing and secondly that it has weed potential. In the case of canola, the first assumption is true, because this is an outcrossing species (but many agricultural crops aren’t and therefore instances of cross-pollination will be low).

    In relation to the second assumption, canola is not a weed species in Australia and has no potential to be. For if it were, we’d have seen a weed response decades ago. It’s therefore inaccurate to suggest that scientists are developing weeds.

    In any case, this logic is flawed. If the crops are growing like weeds in plentiful abundance, why would we bother going to the expense of genetically-engineering them? We wouldn’t need to!

    Gao – I have no opposition to ongoing testing of GM crops for food safety reasons. But it’s like everything else, if we don’t try it, we’ll never know and the potential benefits will never be realised.

  • Written by Dr KM on 13 May 2008:

    Thanks for your review, it was very interesting. I agree with most comments that more long term testing of GM materials is required before we can wave our arms around for or against this notion.

    Further, as a senior research scientist I must comment that your statement “Given that the DNA code is universal across all organisms and no genes have species-specific identifiers marking them as “plant”, “animal”, “bacterial” et cetera, this fear of the technology is misplaced.”……is actually incorrect.

  • Written by kim carsons on 28 November 2008:

    adam,

    i can see you lifted the photo of canola straight out of monsanto’s website, along with Monsanto’s line, and the typical neo-con approach of calling the major middle of the road company GREENPEACE extremist.
    Do the research adam. find out who’s feeding you the lies and why. Unless of course you’re a mouthpiece for the company and you’re got family connections to one of the most ——– companies in the earth’s history.
    You can’t talk about this issue without looking at monsanto’s record. they are a chemical company who are not interested in food, they’re interested in dollars and destroying indigenous food harvesting. Any scientist’s who have dissented in the gm holy grail have been shut done, fired, shoved aside. If you think this is hot air, then do the research rather than blithely accepting the advice of a company who created bovine growth hormone, who created the chemicals in agent orange, who have consistently lied about their scientic moddelling, their reason for taking people to court, their “sustainable” agenda.
    get back to me for more info, otherwise live at the threshold of the Kafkaesque space designed for you alone.

  • Written by kim carsons on 28 November 2008:

    ADam,
    If you are an intelligent, non-monstanto modified independently alligned human then apologies. Just get online, get your media from non-corporate sources, challange your world view and watch the world according to monsanto.

    cia
    kim

  • Written by Adam Dimech on 28 November 2008:

    Kim, I have no connections to Monsanto, but rather work in a public sector research institute.

  • Written by kim carsons on 24 February 2009:

    hi adam,

    the text you deleted actually gives permission for me to cross post. (see the bottom of the global research page)

    so if that is the case, you should not have any objections to it being there. Yes they were not my words, but i do endorse them, and i think more people from different comunities should be reading them. especially someone such as yourself, as this is part of your field of enquiry.

    i appreciate being able to add comments regarding your posts, but i would hope the main game is, should be, the sharing of knowledge.

    for anyone interested here is some GMO links

    http://www.globalresearch.ca/PrintArticle.php?articleId=12309

    here is a link that pertains to australia and gmo.

    http://www.non-gm-farmers.com/news_details.asp?ID=2963

    thanks

    Kim

  • Written by Adam Dimech on 25 February 2009:

    Kim, this is my website and I am simply not prepared to have other people’s lengthy essays reproduced in their entirety in my comments. It unnecessary and inappropriate.

    You are free to post any links that are relevant to the original blog post and contribute to the overall discussion. The sharing of knowledge and diverse opinions is a noble cause, and can be achieved just as effectively with a hyperlink.

  • Written by Matthew on 25 March 2009:

    I believe your claim of GM crops having reduced herbicide use is entirely false! Do you have any evidence to back-up the claim?

  • Written by Matthew on 25 March 2009:

    Anyone else noticed that proponents of GM crops spend most of their time discussing “potential” benefits of the technology? The actual benefits appear to be limited to the bottom line of the chemical companies, clearly at the expense of the small farmers, the environment (particularly insects, such as bees) and the consumers.

  • Written by Adam Dimech on 26 March 2009:

    Matt: Some evidence is here. All you have to do is read it!
    (It was cited in the article).

  • Written by Richard Rosalion on 11 May 2009:

    Nice article, and thanks for the credit for using my photo.

  • Written by Matthew on 28 October 2009:

    Adam: I’m talking about the real-world experience, of the people who are growing this stuff commercially; not this idealised nonsense conducted on behalf vested interests.
    More “potential” benefits – The second line gives it away with some typical GMO proponent’s weasel words – (benefits)”might be expected if”

  • Written by Matthew on 28 October 2009:

    How’s this for twisted logic: GMO sugar beet seeds, have an inserted gene to make the plant resistant to the company’s Roundup herbicide.
    With an apparently complete disregard for conventionl logic, GMO proponents claim that this product benefits the environment through “lower emissions from herbicide manufacture”!
    Conventioal logic: herbicide resistance engourages herbice use = bad.
    GMO proponent logic: herbicide resistance lowers emissions form herbicide manufacture! = good.
    Is this the epitome of Orwellian thought? Go figure?

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