Op-ed: Will cleverly-crafted prose win over GM wheat science?

August 27, 2010 Bookmark and Share

Paula Fitzgerald, Executive Director, Agrifood Awareness Australia Limited

Despite the benefits delivered by GM crops, a few continue to oppose the technology at every opportunity. Greenpeace Australia recently issued a statement entitled “No GM in our daily bread”. The article, cleverly composed by their spin team, stated that: “The threat of GE wheat is looming in Australia. If chemical companies succeed in progressing these trials to market-release stage, we could soon be eating polluted GE food in our breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Australia has a strong history in wheat breeding so it is unclear as to why a continuation of this, utilizing newer plant science techniques, poses any “threat”. Also, if something is “looming” it is usually imminent, yet best estimates suggest that GM wheat is at least seven years away from commercialization.

Lastly, Greenpeace suggests that “chemical companies” are responsible for Australia’s GM wheat trials. While plant science companies are actively partnering with publicly funded Australian R&D providers across a range of commodity sectors, a quick click on Australian Office of the Gene Technology Regulator’s (OGTR) website shows that it is actually Australian scientists driving GM wheat research.

GM crops have been successfully grown, traded and consumed around the world for 14 years, so can hardly be considered “new”. Despite this fact, opponents seem unwilling to contemplate that the introduction of GM wheat is unlikely to have a much greater impact on our meals than current ingredients from widely used GM crops.

In Australia, the OGTR has issued GM wheat (and barley) field trial licenses for a range of traits including enhanced nutrient utilization/efficiency and abiotic stress, enhanced carbon assimilation in drought and heat prone environments, growth and yield characteristics and altered starch. Some of these build on R&D conducted over the last decade, while others represent more recent work including research to address some of our current societal health challenges.

The GM canola experience has taught Australia a valuable lesson – for every GM crop there are two parts – the science (incorporating crop performance, human health and safety, and environmental safety) and secondly, the market and trade considerations.

Australia has demonstrated its ability to address both parts of this equation. In relation to the science, plant breeders, technology developers and seed companies have ensured the delivery of new crop varieties with good agronomic performance, tailored to both specific conditions and regions. Australian regulators have ensured that all approved GM crops pose no risk to human health and safety and the environment, and that all foods and ingredients derived from GM crops are safe. Lastly, one that is often overlooked, the Australian grain supply chain worked together over a number of years to ensure market and trade considerations were addressed prior to the commercialization of GM canola. This has resulted in the successful commercialization of the crop.

Last year, Australian entities joined key organizations in the USA and Canada to launch a GM Wheat Trilateral Statement. This statement demonstrated strong support for GM wheat R&D and noted the importance of working together to address market and trade considerations.

So, while this narrative doesn’t rely on colorful language, it is based on fact. GM wheat is some way from commercialization and as those seven years draw closer, we can be confident of robust plant science, new varieties offering benefits to our farmers and consumers, and a global grains industry with considerable experience to ensure a smooth path-to-market and the provision of choice in the marketplace.

Let’s hope data and evidence win on the day and misguided diatribe comes a distant last. In other words, let the facts tell the story!

Editor’s note: This is a summary of a larger article on GM wheat and is used with permission. The full article can be found at: http://www.afaa.com.au/letters_editor/GM_wheat_prose_or_science.pdf. More about Agrifood Awareness, which is an industry initiative to increase public awareness of gene technology, is available at http://www.afaa.com.au.