WA AGRICULTURE Minister Ken Baston will await further expert scientific analysis from the national regulator before passing judgement on controversial findings from a long-awaited study of animals feeding on Genetically Modified (GM) crops, released last week.
Under former Agriculture Minister Kim Chance, the WA Labor government awarded $92,000 to Dr Judy Carman in 2007 to conduct the study through the Adelaide-based Institute of Health and Environment (IHER).
The long-awaited study - conducted in the US on pigs fed several varieties of GM corn and GM RoundUp Ready soybean - was published last week in the Journal of Organic Systems.
Its key findings claimed the median uterus weight of the GM-fed pigs as a proportion of body weight was 25 per cent higher than pigs fed non-GM feed.
Pigs fed a mixture of GM soy and corn diets showed 2.6 times the rate of severe stomach inflammation compared to those fed non-GM feed.
“Given the widespread use of GMO feed for livestock as well as humans this is a cause for concern,” the report’s conclusion stated.
The study’s potentially negative health findings were also highlighted by several long-running anti-GM groups in Australia, including the Safe Food Foundation and MADGE.
MADGE co-founder Fran Murrell said a freeze was needed on new GM approvals, a reassessment of existing ones and full labelling of GM ingredients immediately.
The national food safety regulator Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) said it would now “carefully examine the study and publish a response in due course”.
Mr Baston said any scientific claim on the safety of agricultural products should only be made by scientists “that have had their claims peer reviewed by credible sources”.
“I will await the outcome of the FSANZ review with great interest,” he said.
CropLife CEO Matthew Cossey said the agricultural biotechnology sector takes any credible new evidence on the safety of GM crops very seriously.
But he expressed strong concerns the study was another case of “pseudoscience by media release” rather than credible review by scientific peers.
He said there were several questionable aspects of the report that warranted further scrutiny, including it being published in “an obscure online journal founded by anti-biotech groups”.
Mr Cossey said the study also reached conclusions that were “entirely opposed” to the vast weight of scientific evidence gathered over hundreds of independent food and feed safety studies that found “no difference” between animals fed GMO or non-GMO diets.
After replacing Mr Chance in 2008, former WA Agriculture Minister Terry Redman expressed repeated frustrations at being unable to source documented details of the research and approval for the $92,000, and ongoing delays with obtaining results.
In 2009, Edstar Genetics principal Dr Ian Edwards called for a parliamentary inquiry into the lacklustre funding decision, in backing the new Minister’s concerns.
As a member of Labor’s GM Reference Group when the funding was first approved, Dr Edwards also believed $92,000 was insufficient to bankroll a credible long-term animal feeding study.
He also questioned the research methodology and Dr Carman’s independence due to alleged links to anti-GM groups.
This week, WA Liberal Agricultural Region MLC Jim Chown renewed those calls for a parliamentary inquiry to scrutinise the $92,000 allocation by the former Labor government, in light of the report’s “questionable” scientific findings.
Mr Chown said the Legislative Council’s joint standing committee on public administration, made up of cross-party members, was the appropriate committee to conduct an inquiry into public expenditure issues.
The committee is empowered to call witnesses to appear and produce documents, with penalties for failing to obey summons.
Anyone found misleading the committee may be in contempt of parliament and subject to reprimand, fine or potential imprisonment.
“Questions have to be asked why the ALP didn’t pursue proper accountability measures, like those used for other valid scientific research projects,” Mr Chown said.
But Dr Carman has repeatedly defended the study’s independence and highlighted ongoing interference and ferocious opposition from pro-GM supporters.
Her final report acknowledged support from Mr Chance and prominent WA anti-GM campaigner Julie Newman who pledged to run against Mr Redman as an independent at the March State election, but withdrew the threat just weeks before polling day.
Dr Carman’s research was also funded by WA businessman George Kailis, a long-time supporter of GM-free marketing.
Support and financial backing was also provided by US-based Verity Farms in South Dakota and Iowa, which promotes non-GM meat, non-GM crop production and organic farming systems, as an alternative to conventional methods, including reduced chemical application.
Dr Carman’s report also said, “The authors declare that there are no conflicts of interest”.
In a statement to Fairfax Agricultural Media, FSANZ said food derived from all three GM corn lines used in Dr Carman’s study are approved in Australia and New Zealand.
But scientific evidence published so far, including by the OECD and the European Food Safety Authority indicates that feeding GM plant material to animals “does not affect the nutritional value or safety of the meat, milk and eggs derived from those animals”.
“GM foods are subject to a thorough pre-market scientific safety assessment before they can be sold in Australia and there is overwhelming evidence supporting the conclusion that approved GM foods are as safe as their conventional counterparts,” the statement said.
“FSANZ has the same scientific approach to the pre-market assessment of GM foods as the rest of the world.
“Contrary to public opinion, animal feeding studies do not generally help in the assessment of a GM food - sometimes they can even cause confusion.”
Shadow WA Labor Agriculture Minister Ken Travers said criticism of the GM feeding study seemed to be focused more on personally attacking the author than any detailed critical scientific analysis of the study.
Mr Travers said it should be noted that the majority of these attacks were coming from groups associated with the GM industry.
He said the WA Government commissioned the study because it was identified there was a lack of long-term feeding studies on large animals.
“The study findings raise significant concerns and the State Government should, at the very least, commission further research into this issue,” he said.
“The GM industry should support further independent research in this area, if they have nothing to hide.
“It again reinforces the need for proper labelling to ensure consumers are aware of foods which contain ingredients that have been refined.
“This will allow consumers to make their own choice.”