CONTROVERSY surrounding genetically modified food often centres on the unknown and a recent public forum organised by the Pastoralists and Graziers Association (PGA) aimed to dispel some of the myths and uncertainties surrounding the regulation and testing of GM foods.
It was held last Monday week, only days before 1000 people attended a march against genetically modified (GM) foods in Perth on the weekend.
It is hard for anyone to say whether the forum did achieve its aim, but the panel of GM experts, which included the likes of WA's chief scientist Professor Lyn Beazley and former InterGrain chief executive officer Bryan Whan, presented a series of talks that were sure to get even the biggest sceptics thinking.
An area that is often overlooked in the GM debate is its role in combating human diseases and food security.
Molecular biologist and chief of CSIRO plant industry Dr John Manners spoke about the role of GM for crop biosecurity and its potential to save lives.
"When we think about the eradication of human diseases, we all remember smallpox which was globally wiped out in 1980, and other human diseases linked to ruminants have also been eliminated," Dr Manners said.
According to Dr Manners, there are eradication programs underway for a series of human diseases and viruses, both parasitical and bacterial, but it is GM technology that holds the biggest potential in eliminating these.
"I don't think we ever think about this when we talk about plant diseases we think about chemical resistance, making our way through the next two or three seasons, protecting the crop," Dr Manners said.
While the dominating GM crops in Australia are canola and cotton, Dr Manners sees immense potential for GM wheat that is resistant to rust diseases.
"The three rust diseases, stem rust, leaf rust and stripe rust are traditionally the most important disease constraint on wheat production," Dr Manners said.
He said the global wheat industry had recently been on high alert because of extremely virile races of rust that had initially developed in Uganda, but quickly spread through southern Africa, the Middle East and the western Asian region.
"These races have been really threatening wheat production and while there's been an active program to combat that, it does demonstrate that new races may in fact come into Australia and other wheat production areas and devastate our agricultural production and threaten global food security," Dr Manners said.
He explained that scientists had traditionally used resistance genes in breeding to combat rusts.
"In recent years several of these genes have been cloned and these have independent modes of action," Dr Manners said.
"But we have a paper, about to be released, showing another mode of action.
"So we can now start to think about stacking together multiple genes of different modes of action and actually making it almost impossible for a pathogen to evolve.
"GM technology allows you to actually put all of those resistance genes in one bit of DNA, into the same position into the wheat plant, that can actually then be very easily bred."
While the subject of GM crops can often attract controversy, it could be argued that the use of the technology to produce animals is even more contentious.
But Dr Manners believes that it has an important role to play and could combat outbreaks of serious and deadly diseases such as Avian influenza also known as bird flu.
According to the World Health Organisation, in the past decade there have been 637 human cases of Avian influenza worldwide, resulting in 378 deaths.
In the past year, the disease which can be transmitted directly from birds, particularly poultry was responsible for 43 human deaths in China.
But Dr Manners said scientists were now able to produce GM chickens by using RNAi technology and anti-viral technology developed at the CSIRO.
"We can now make them immune to avian influenza," he said.
"Given the fact that this is a serious health risk to humans, the potential for using that technology in intensive agriculture, for example in Asia to avert Avian Influenza outbreaks, is very real."
His final comments for the evening centred around wine production and the potential GM could play in breeding superior grapevines.
According to Dr Manners it is a little known fact that 70 per cent of the world's fungicides are applied to grapevines.
He said researchers had successfully cloned multiple genes for disease resistance in grapevines against the major pathogens, such as powdery mildew, to control these diseases.
"We've made GM grapevines that have complete immunity to these diseases that are currently controlled by fungicides," Dr Manners said.
"But the Australian wine industry has decided that it does not want to release a GM grapevine."
Following Dr Manners' speech, the audience had the opportunity to ask questions.
Many of these focused on 'whole of life testing' and examples of reports that allegedly proved the negative consequences of GM.
One audience member asked whether the increased incidence of cancer, Parkinson's disease, auto-immune diseases, obesity, digestive disorders and fertility problems were linked to GM.
She argued that there had been no independent peer-view scientific tests on the effects of GMOs on human health.
The panel responded by promising to personally email her reports that prove otherwise.
Former chief scientist of Australia Professor Jim Peacock said there were a specific set of safety tests that have to be done on any new food variety.
"This is certainly true with any new food or seed that has GM in it and in fact testing is far more rigorous for those seeds than non-GM," Prof Peacock said.
"You can walk into a restaurant here in Perth and you can feel confident of the safety of the foods you eat, so in the end we need to have confidence in our strictly applied safety regulations.
"The 10pc of GM crops that have been grown over the past 15 years have been used in billions of meals, and as far as I know there are no cases of human health problems."