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Australasian Biotechnology (backfiles)
AusBiotech
ISSN: 1036-7128
Vol. 10, Num. 2, 2000, pp. 26
Untitled Document

Australasian Biotechnology, Vol. 10 No. 2, 2000, pp. 26

The GM Issue - GM FOOD: THE FACTS

David Tribe

Code Number: au00021

A vigorous campaign is being waged to raise suspicion and fear in the public mind and stop the use and experimental development of genetically modified crops. Unfortunately, the campaigning is a gross case of producing bad facts masquerading as science. As a scientist with 30 years of experience in genetics, it is particularly galling for me to see this misuse of biological science by people who display so little understanding of how DNA actually rearranges and recombines in nature. It is even more galling to discover, in a democratic country with a free press, that we see this one-sided information being fed to journalists and editorialists without any hard questions being asked. How can it be that GM technology has such bad press?

The two great success stories in the 20th century are the taming of infectious disease by antibiotics and vaccines, and the Green Revolution and other genetic improvements in crops, which have allowed worldwide famines to be avoided. From a strictly environmental viewpoint, GM food provides two distinct advantages that one would have thought would have the endorsement of those so set against it. Between 1940 and 1980 in the United States, per hectare yields of maize tripled and those of wheat and soybeans doubled.

Without this higher productivity, more land would have to be found to produce adequate food to feed the world’s increasing population.

Furthermore, by 1999 in the US, it was expected that 40 per cent of the corn, 50 per cent of the cotton, and 45 per cent of the soybean crop area would be genetically modified, reducing the use of chemical pesticides by millions of kilograms. A further benefit is that these crops create more scope for minimum-tillage farming, reducing erosion of topsoil. And what of children’s health in the Third World? About 200 million children are malnourished. “Golden rice” vividly illustrates how GM foods can greatly benefit these children. Newly developed strains of rice have been created to meet the needs of people suffering vitamin A deficiency, the world’s leading cause of blindness, affecting as many as 400 million people. Another rice variety has been created with high levels of iron. Iron-deficiency anaemia is the most common consequence of malnutrition and afflicts some 3.7 billion people. The scare of toxicity is yet another reason to applaud GM food.

Food toxicity is found in both GM foods and conventional foods, but the extra attention given to GM foods has worked in favour of consumers. For instance, Brazil nut protein, whose gene was inserted into soybeans, was found to cause allergic reactions in Brazil-nut-sensitive people. As a result, this novel food has not entered the marketplace. Such screening is not possible with conventionally bred hybrids, and the danger is real.

Natural varieties of potato and celery have in the past led to the selling of foods that were downright hazardous. Relatively little fuss was made about them and they were withdrawn from the market. Conventionally bred potatoes and celery still appear on supermarket shelves without warning labels.

In the face of the hysteria and vilification campaign, we must recall that genetic modification of crops began some 9000 years ago and both inbreeding and cross-breeding have played an important role in the origins of all our staple foods. Bread wheat, for example, contains virtually the complete chromosomal sets from three distinct grasses whose relatives grow wild today in the Middle East. It is an inter-species hybrid and is now mankind’s most valuable crop.

Democrat Senator Natasha Stott Despoja was reported in The Age on Friday calling for greater scrutiny of GM crops. “It’s essential that the veil of secrecy which shrouds genetically modified crops be lifted. The public must know what science is doing to our crops and our farming.” Precisely. I get angry when it is stated that scientists don’t want this debate to occur. Where is the debate in the newspapers? Why are the advantages of GM food and the compelling reasons for its development not being clearly put in a balanced debate? Ultimately, we all depend on science for almost everything in our lives; the most urgent task of the media is to help us understand the issues in a more balanced way.

Dr David Tribe is a senior biotechnologist from the University of Melbourne.

E-mail: d.tribe@microbiology.unimelb.edu.au

Call for Balanced Debate on Gene Technology

On the eve of World Health Day (7 April), the Children’s Medical Research Institute warned that current debate about gene technology and biotechnology is ill-informed and likely to impede progress on a wide range of beneficial health and environmental applications.

According to the Director of the Institute, Professor Peter Rowe, there needs to be balanced debate on gene technology and biotechnology as current debate fails to recognise a significant number of potential benefits of the technology and the strict guidelines that are in place, and continue to be developed, to ensure all potential risks are identified and managed.

“Gene technology has the potential to be able to unlock the secrets of genes and thus allow us to determine ways of preventing disease.

“The realisation of this goal would have the potential to relieve human suffering and give all children a healthier future.”

Some of the potential future applications of the technology include:

  • New treatments for different cancers
  • New treatments for diabetes
  • New strains of rice with added vitamin A to help malnourished children who suffer from blindness.
  • New strains of rice with added iron to overcome chronic anaemia which afflicts 3.7 billion malnourished people.

Copyright 2000 - Australasian Biotechnology

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