End GM bickering so data can speak

THE ISSUE of genetically modified (GM) wheat is a contentious one, but there’s one unequivocal point in the argument. Australia needs to conduct GM wheat trials.

Now before those against the production of GM crops leap up in the air, this is a long way from saying Australia needs to become the first nation to commercially produce GM wheat. We don’t know whether there is any breakthrough that will make it an essential part of the cropping rotation – that’s where the trials come in.

There’s been a lot of talk about the so-called ‘second generation’ of GM crops, ones that move past simple herbicide resistance and into a range of environmental tolerances, such as heat, moisture stress and frost.

Researchers are confident they will come up with GM varieties that perform better in tough conditions, which is of enormous interest to the many Australian croppers operating in semi-arid regions with annual rainfall of less than 400mm.

Those against GM wheat claim there are no gains that could not be made through conventional breeding techniques.

Again, trials will be the answer. Let’s go to the independent umpire and see how well the varieties go.

Should the results be compelling, the case for commercialised GM wheat will become stronger; should it not, then it will be a case of focusing on gains from conventional breeding.

We’ve seen the different impact GM varieties can have in different crops.

GM cotton has made a big impact on the Australian industry with its range of insecticide tolerant varieties, while GM canola, while increasing in tonnage each year, certainly has not had the mass take-up GM cotton lines did.

A combination of the higher costs compared to conventional lines and the pricing discounts have meant for some growers, it has been a case of the cons of the lower margins outweighing the pros of the improved herbicide flexibility. It’s been useful for many growers, but it would be stretch to say it has revolutionised canola production in Australia.

This question faced by prospective GM canola growers will be similar to the one faced by authorities when weighing up GM wheat, should it perform well enough to push for commercialisation.

Will the productivity gains outweigh the very real negatives, especially in terms of marketing.

Bluster as it might, the pro-GM lobby has to face the fact GM food crops have an image problem in Middle Australia.

Shrewd marketing by anti-GM groups such as Greenpeace, which is now riding the culinary wave sweeping post-Masterchef Australia and enlisting the help of celebrity chefs to denounce GM crops, has meant metropolitan Australians are distrustful about GM foods.

There’s been countless debate on whether or not this mistrust is justified, and this is not a dissection of the merits of either argument, it’s a simple statement that those pushing for GM wheat will have to do some serious public relations work in order for the Aussie public as a whole, as opposed to the farming sector, to embrace GM.

Drought and heat tolerance would be like gold for farmers in low rainfall zones, but there are two crucial questions.

First and most importantly: Will the breeders have any success in developing GM lines with solid improvements in areas such as dealing with moisture stress or frost tolerance? And the second, authorities and the industry need to work out whether anybody will buy the stuff should it be commercialised.

Currently, its very much a case of crossing the marketing bridge when we come to it. The focus needs to be firmly on the trials. If the varieties deliver, then the industry proceeds to the next stage. If, as anti-GM campaigners suggest, there’s no discernable advantages in the GM lines, then we’ll know that for sure, and that will be that.

For now, its time for stakeholders to stop bickering and let the trial data do the talking.

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Madeleine Love
12/11/2010 7:51:49 AM

For a writer who's typically takes a pro-GM angle (although he might not realise it) that was nearly a reasonable article. Two problems. First, as far as we've discussed, 'farmers' in general don't want GM wheat, so suggestions that this is being done for the 'farmers' seems a loose use of terms. Secondly, Greenpeace has done little to change the public view on GM food. The public has consistently and persistently rejected it. What Greenpeace has managed to do is get the issue into the media to allow people who are being deceived about what they're eating to finally become aware. The media has a lot to answer for over this last decade. http://www.madge.org.au
Madeleine Love
12/11/2010 8:01:38 AM

And a few more things... I'd doubt the integrity of data emerging from trials after the rigging that NSW broadacre farmer Gai Marshall noticed happening with GM canola. We're also trying to get adequate information on the GM RR soy crop, but Monsanto, or perhaps their protectors FSANZ are being a bit coy about providing it. So when Gregor Heard writes 'let the data speak', we echo his sentiments. We want to know the glyphosate and associated residues in GM crops. We want to know the micronutrient loss in GM crops sprayed with glyphosate. We want to know the actual sequences used in the GM crops because we now know that certain arrangements of DNA code are inflammatory, priming the human body to produce immune response to coadministered proteins. There is a lot of data we'd like to see.
Not convinced
12/11/2010 12:41:43 PM

I support the data that speaks for itself. What is missing is an impartial umpire to sort out the spin from the facts and hold to account anybody using unethical means to impose their preferences on consumers.
Julie Newman
12/11/2010 4:01:07 PM

You've missed the point Gregor. No market in the world wants GM wheat and if GM wheat is grown commercially, all farmers are expected to market as GM because to market as non-GM is too expensive and too difficult. The reason Canada and America are not growing GM wheat is because their market research showed that not only would their markets reject GM wheat but they would stop buying wheat from countries that grew GM wheat (ref. Canadian Wheat Board). If you want to grow frost tolerant, drought tolerant plants that have market resistance, try growing weeds as it does not affect everyone elses market.
12/11/2010 4:02:18 PM

I quite agree with Gregor Heard, "Again, trials will be the answer. Let's go to the independent umpire and see how well the varieties go." He says quite rightly, let's give the independent umpire a go - trouble is Gregor, the umpires for GM are NOT independent are they? The GM companies provide all the trials and the 'scientific' testing behind them! FSANZ bleats they do not have the money for any testing. FSANZ claims having the GM companies do it all is safe and honest! Strange how most of the public do not agree with that thinking!
12/11/2010 5:28:11 PM

With more & more ethical eaters emerging, it would be wise for food producers and R&D techno's to stick with the natural way of producing food, which doesn't require a patent and does work with nature. Humans and animals need nutrient dense foods grown in well mineralised and balanced soils (healthy soils!). Drought/frost/salt tolerance is naturally addressed when ensuring a healthy soil. We all need water to survive and thrive however, ensuring a healthy soil will give most things grown in it the best chance to meet its potential even in drier times.
Justification Please
12/11/2010 5:28:15 PM

I'd really like to know how one can justify the use of this technology when we have everything we need to grow our food source and it works perfectly well as nature has orchestrated. Arguments like "it will feed the world, pest resistance, cold tolerance etc" are just not good enough anymore because they lack fundamental common sense foundation. How is it that you people think like you do on a process which has been proven to cause so much damage to life in all forms? Let's be honest here, how do you think?? I'm really interested in this personality type?
Ruth Rendely
12/11/2010 5:37:03 PM

Industry has little incentive to trial traditional methods of producing better crops, and the large agricorps have made it their policy to donate significant sums to so-called independent research facilities, which basically directs future research. I don't think the scales are balanced between traditional breeding and GM.
The Dude
12/11/2010 8:24:44 PM

The problem is those trials will not be done by independents, they will be sponsored by the companies interested in selling their stuff. One GM company in particular, comes to mind, which has a long history of lying: http://www.gmwatch.org/latest-lis ting/1-news-items/11593-monsantos -history-of-lies-and-toxicity These people would think nothing of fabricating test results, as they have hired specialists to do it for them for years. It's a good reason to reject GM trials out of hand. They don't have the quality of their products as a goal, only profit, in spite of poor quality products. They've only had success because of their government connections and ttechnology agreements. Why would you trust these people ? The only viable two traits they've achieved so far is BT toxicity and herbicide tolerance, they advertise their new line of produts as having 7 or more spliced genes, which only do two things in total. It's also impossible to make a GM crop fixate nitrogen better than a natural one, because the glyphosate severely hampers nitrogen fixation: http://www.i-sis.org.uk/glyphosat eTolerantCrops.php
Bob Phelps
12/11/2010 9:01:50 PM

Gregor: GM trials are fixed for the same reasons as cricket matches. Dollars. Surely you are being ironical when you say: "Let’s go to the independent umpire and see how well the varieties go." All the relevant scientists, officials and public institutions are compromised by their corporate connections, contracts and influence-peddling. For instance, our Premier is a member of the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organisation that promotes GM crops on behalf of the US government and companies globally - so rot starts at the top. No-one is independent. With the process you propose, it is a foregone conclusion that GM wheat would be commercialised. With US experience,Scientific American says: "biotech companies have given themselves veto powers over independent research" (A Seedy Practice, August 2009). Nature Biotechnology, October 2009, also asks: "Are the crop industry’s strong-arm tactics and close-fisted attitude to sharing seeds holding back independent research and undermining public acceptance of transgenic crops?" Yes! In a perfect world your proposal for independent, objective and unbiased science is a nice idea but it can't work in the GM context.
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Grain of TruthRural Press grains writer Gregor Heard on the big issues facing the broadacre farmers today.


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