Farmers’ saviour or health threat? Behind the battle lines of GM food

Farmer Andrew Morrison and his bumper GM canola crop
Farmer Andrew Morrison and his bumper GM canola crop

As South Australia refuses to lift its ban on genetically modified crops to 2019 because of community concerns about the long-term impact of GM foods, experts are calling for animal studies into the effects of planned and existing GM crops to determine health risks while advocates support continuing field trials for new GM crops, including pineapple, papaya, wheat, barley and sugarcane. mojo reports on the raging debate over GM food and its place in the farming industry and on the Australian plate.


ANDREW Morrison steps over the fence and wades into a sea of towering, green plants to inspect the bright yellow canola flowers.

He is one of 145 Victorian farmers who have been growing genetically modified canola since 2008.

Before then, Morrison’s farm was heading for trouble, with rye grass weeds – resistant to traditional herbicides – threatening to strangle his crop.

“We’d been waiting for years to get the GM; that was going to be our saviour,” he says. And when it arrived, the weeds died and in that first season his canola yields increased by 35 per cent.

“It was enough to convince us to go totally GM.”

But not everyone is convinced. Vocal opposition to genetically modified organisms persists among a minority of scientists, individual farmers, and lobby groups such as Greenpeace and Gene Ethics.

They point to adverse health effects. A French study published in the Food and Chemical Toxicity journal claimed GM corn increases rates of tumours and premature death in rats.

Despite the widespread scientific condemnation of the study, concerns linger over the regulation and long-term health affects of GM foods. A recent study by the Australian National University reveals 54 per cent of respondents are unlikely to buy food labelled as genetically modified and 36 per cent feel they are unsafe to consume.

But what is genetic modification?

Genetic modification occurs when a plant is spliced with DNA from another organism – plant, animal or bacteria – to enhance its abilities.

The first genetically modified crop, pesticide resistant cotton, was released onto the Australian market – excluding South Australia and Tasmania – in 1996. Moratoriums on herbicide resistant canola were lifted in Victoria and New South Wales in 2008, and in Western Australian in 2010.

Dr TJ Higgins, Honorary Research Fellow and former Deputy Chief of Science at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) says the process is not unlike conventional hybridisation, which has been taking place for thousands of years.

“Hybridised crops are generated by making crosses…where you take pollen from one plant and put it into the female flower of another plant and you create another variety,” he explains. “Whereas, with genetically modified plants, you add a separate gene from the test tube into that plant.”

But others believe the situation is more complicated. Bob Phelps, founder of GM-sceptic lobby Gene Ethics, says such claims are part of the GM industry’s public relations spin.

“Hybridisation is breeding between the same species…They [the plants] have to be sexually compatible. Whereas, [with GM] you can put any gene you like, in principle, from anywhere into a cell.”

The technology also goes one step further, he says, by placing other pieces of DNA onto the gene to make it like the original plant, so the gene is not rejected.

“So it’s definitely something different, something new… and that’s why we have concerns about it – just like with other new technologies.”

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), the regulatory body for GM foods, has approved 55 foods for sale. It requires GM foods, ingredients, additives and processing aids to be labelled. But there is no obligation to label highly refined oils and sugars, vending machine foods and imported GM ingredients. Food outlets are also exempt from disclosing GM ingredients.

A Council of Australian Governments’ inquiry into food labelling policy in 2011 recommended that GM foods in vending machines and food outlets were properly labelled. It also opposed the current exemption for flavours containing “detectable” GM proteins and DNA.

Though the Government agreed with the recommendations, ministers decided against making changes to the labelling rules.

A response to the recommendations said monitoring and enforcing the proposed changes would create “additional costs for industry and regulatory and enforcement agencies”.

Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) CEO Michael Moore says while the current labelling system is “sound” it is important people know when they are consuming GM foods.

“That [the labelling system] is quite a sound way of operating. However, it’s also true to say these days that with the technology that we have, the vast majority of food companies are quite capable of knowing where their food comes from and whether or not it is GM,” he says.

Other critics are concerned about the lack of independent and long-term research on the safety of GM foods. Flinders University associate professor and Director of the Institute of Health and Environmental Research Dr Judy Carman says FSANZ does not conduct independent safety assessments of GM foods or mandate animal testing.

“All the company is required to do is this chemical breakdown of food and show that the amino acid comparison of the GM crop is not that much different to the non-GM crop.” By this time, she says, important information on what could cause allergies has been destroyed.

When carried out, the industry’s animal feed trials are little better, adds Carman.

 “The safety assessments that they do, do not measure cancer, they do not do reproductive studies, they do not do long-term toxicology studies… And you cannot determine the safety of the crop in a human being for their life span by only doing a 90-day feeding trial.”

An FSANZ scientist and GM safety assessor, who did not want to be named, says it is unrealistic to expect the regulator to conduct its own research.

“Data costs many millions of dollars to generate and no government agency would bear the costs associated with generating data to support the safety of a commercial product.”

Animal testing is only useful for detecting adverse effects when testing a single chemical, not a whole food, the assessor adds.

“Regulators believe that the comparative approach – and other scientific information – is much more valuable to tell you about the safety of food…We look at a whole suite of information and it’s all taken together. It’s a weight of evidence approach. So that we know what exactly the genetic modification does; we know the expected effects.”

The Public Health Association’s Moore is less concerned about the testing process and worries about the environmental impact of GM technology and its knock-on affects in humans.

He says gene technology was “supposedly” developed to produce larger yields “but what the industry’s done instead is developed strains that will withstand much higher levels of pesticides and herbicides”.

The environmental effects of increased herbicide use, Moore says, are “self-evident” and will have negative knock-on effects to human health.

“The likely impact of that on health is certainly one we have to adopt a precautionary principle on.”

But GM farmers argue gene technology allows them to use fewer chemicals. Andrew Morrison insists the one chemical he does use – Roundup – is safer than conventional herbicides.

 “It [the system] is actually more sustainable than the conventional or the triazine system…we’re using less chemicals and we’re using less of the nasty chemicals.”

 He adds the nature of GM canola’s “vigorous early growth” means he no longer uses pesticides.

 “With the vigorous nature of the hybrid [GM] canola… we actually don’t need to use insecticides now.”

 University of Adelaide associate professor in weed management Dr Christopher Preston says glyphosate – the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide – has been studied extensively and has no known health effects on humans, but acknowledges some people will never be convinced.

 He says many GM-sceptic attitudes are indicative of a growing “anti-corporate, anti-globalisation” ideology directed against multinational GM proponents like Dow, Syngenta, Bayer, DuPont and Monsanto.

 “When you actually look at the sort of belief systems that many of the people in the sector seem to hold, they are the same people who come out about anti-corporate involvement, anti-globalisation and so it’s just a part of a whole other ideological component,” he says.

 But, ultimately, concerned lobby groups and researchers want to see more independent, long-term research.

 The Institute for Health and Environmental Research is calling for a thorough animal safety assessment before crops are brought into the human food supply. According to Judy Carman “there needs to be reproductive studies on animals, there needs to be allergy tests done on animals and you need to feed animals for long enough for cancers to develop to see if they actually give you a higher cancer risk.”

 For GM foods already in the market, we need to play “catch up”, she adds.

 “We need to urgently do catch up [with] thorough safety assessments on those crops and any new crop that comes onto market, before it comes to market.”

 Back on the farm, Andrew Morrison doesn’t pay a great deal of attention to the fuss.

 He’s not entirely sure about the health effects. “I don’t believe that there’s going to be any long-term unforeseen problems,” he shrugs, waist deep in canola, “of course, I may be wrong.”

 But for now, he’s willing to hedge his bets on the results. “It [GM canola] has been a great tool and will be a great tool in the future.”