Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

GM Support Going Stale

By Simon Grose

Australians are increasingly divided in their support for genetically modified crops and foods.

The first week of spring was a busy one for GM crops. It started with a Western Australian organic farmer losing a court challenge against a neighbour over his claim for compensation after drifting GM pollen caused him to lose his “organic” status. This triggered Greens Senator Rachel Siewert to predictably claim that “GM crops have not proven to be safe” – a denial of fact – and calling for the reinstatement of a GM moratorium.

The Australian Research Council followed with the opening of a $4.3 million research hub for “genetic diversity and molecular breeding for wheat in a hot and dry climate” at The University of Adelaide. Look out, Rachel! As the Western Australian wheatbelt warms and dries, Perth’s bakers could be among the first to make GM bread to endanger you like never before.

Next came a survey commissioned by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator. It found that while a majority of Australians supported GM technology, mean levels of support fell from 6.07 out of ten in 2012 to 5.33. Strongly committed percentages were almost even, with 15% completely against GM foods and adamant they would never change their minds while 12% deemed it a safe way to produce food.

John Entine, a US science journalist who is an avid campaigner for GM technology, delivered the climax of the week with a speech to the National Press Club. Singing the praises of Monsanto as “visionary” and “admired in ethical business circles for its transparency” was an unnecessarily suicidal way to begin, but he was ultimately pragmatic about the difficulty of gaining acceptance of GM crops in general and food crops in particular.

Entine suggested that crops which had been modified to reduce the expression of selected genes in their genome – rather than having genes added from other species – would be a less threatening option. He cited the Arctic Apple, which has been modified to resist turning brown when exposed to air. Developed at the University of British Columbia, it gained the approval of agricultural and health regulators in the US and Canada earlier this year. Its resistance to browning offers advantages to food processors, so the challenge now is to find growers to plant enough trees to produce bulk volumes of fruit.

I was reminded of potato crisps I ate 20 years ago. They were from a GM potato that CSIRO had developed to resist two viruses in a project funded by the makers of Smith’s Crisps. The tasting was to celebrate regulatory approval as safe for human consumption. They tasted like a crisp and none of the invited tasters later felt ill or began displaying potato characteristics.

Nevertheless Smith’s decided that taking them to the market would be too difficult because of the anti-GM lobby.

Good luck to the Canadian apple-makers. They will need it.

Simon Grose is Editor of Canberra IQ (canberraiq.com.au)