No snow-white apple fairytale for Australia
A Canadian company has begun marketing two non-browning apple varieties that employ CSIRO’s patented gene-silencing technology. But in GM-averse Australia, there are no takers — why?
In March this year, Canadian biotechnology company Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF) received the green light from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada to grow and market two new apples genetically modified to resist browning when bruised or cut. The US Department of Agriculture had approved the production and sale of OSF’s Arctic Apples in the US a month earlier.
The news probably caused mixed emotions for the CSIRO Plant Industry researchers who invented the patented gene-silencing technology that Okanagan used to develop its new, snowy-white-fleshed Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples.
The technology has been available to the Australian stone and pome fruit industries, and the potato industry, for around a decade, but there have been no takers. The anti-GM movement has been so virulently effective in fomenting community fears of GM crops and foods that their commercialisation in Australia has been all but stifled.
Canada launched the world’s first broadacre GM crop, herbicide-tolerant canola, in 1995. Anti-GM activists have struggled for traction in Canada because GM canola’s early commercial success and snow-white safety record effectively forestalled any attempt to convince Canadians that GM crops were an unacceptable threat to human health and the environment.
Despite GM canola’s runaway success in Canada, anti-GM activists’ relentless scare-mongering in Australia spooked state governments into imposing a four-year, Australia-wide moratorium on the crop, which delayed the first plantings for 13 years after the crop debuted in Canada.
In 2008, the Victorian and NSW governments finally broke with the other southern states by lifting their moratoria. WA followed suit in 2011, but in South Australia and Tasmania it is still illegal to grow or transport GM canola.
Okanagan’s Arctic Apples are just the first products from Okanagan’s pipeline of non-browning fruits which employ CSIRO’s patented RNA-interference gene-silencing technology to switch off the polyphenol oxidase (PPO) gene. The PPO gene specifies an enzyme that causes exposed flesh to turn brown by oxidising phenolic molecules in the flesh of apples and other stone and pome fruits, including quinces, cherries, peaches and nectarines, and some vegetables like potatoes.
Australia was the first country in the world to release a genetically modified organism (GMO) into the environment in 1988 — a neutered strain of the crown gall bacterium Agrobacterium tumefacians that prevents crown gall disease in newly grafted stone and pome fruit trees. It is now sold worldwide.
Today, GM crops like canola, maize, soybean, rice and cotton account for 10% of the total planted area of crops around the world. But Australia’s pioneering foray into GM agriculture was short-lived — it rapidly stalled in the 1990s in the face of a tide of scare-mongering propaganda generated by anti-GM organisations like the Australian Gene Ethics Network, Greenpeace and Greenpeace’s rural spinoff, the Network of Concerned Farmers.
Australia’s national regulatory agency, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR), now lists dozens of crops that have been officially approved for commercial release in Australia. Most are ‘me too’ crop varieties containing the same tried-and-tested genes used for more than two decades to confer tolerance to herbicide or insect pests. But the OGTR requires them all to be submitted to the same rigorous, time-consuming and costly regulatory regime, including contained field trials, before they can be grown commercially.
In the 27 years since No-Gall was launched in Australia, just three GM crops have been commercialised in Australia: herbicide-tolerant canola; pest-resistant cotton, which rescued and transformed the cotton industry; and Florigene’s mauve and purple-hued carnation varieties, a spin-off from attempts to develop a truly blue rose.
Dr Jim Peacock, a pioneering GM crop researcher and former chief scientist of Australia, said Okanagan’s non-browning apples highlight the area in which Australian agriculture is failing: new product development. When the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering recently sought his views on the future directions of Australian agriculture, he pointed to a missing ‘G’ in the equation: genetics.
“They had produced a position paper highlighting some of the advances that had really helped our agriculture, and there have been many examples in the past,” he said. “But most advances have involved agronomy and crop-management technologies.
“Australian farmers are exceptional in the world for rapidly adopting new agronomy and management techniques and making them a success, but the genetics is left out.
“I told the academy, yes, we’ve been pretty good, and we can expect to make further incremental gains in productivity. But there are two components to success in agriculture: production methods and products. For the most part, we pay no attention to new products — we just produce commodities.
“A successful example of a new product is one we helped develop — BarleyMax, the low glycaemic index barley we helped develop to improve the crop’s health-giving properties.
“It has been developed for the Australian market by a small local cereal company, and it has been successful. But it could and should be marketed worldwide.
“That hasn’t happened because our business entrepreneurs have failed to appreciate the potential of new products developed by genetics. Some of these entrepreneurs are business advisers to our research institutions.
“Our ability to commercialise new products is pathetic. As far as I know, no Australian government — federal or state — has made a serious attempt to look at the increasingly wealthy Asian countries and ask them what they want in their food.
“What traits would they find attractive? How do they like to buy their food — raw or processed — and what sort of processing suits their tastes? We never ask these questions, but I believe it is one of the most important things was can do if we’re going to capitalise on the rapid growth in our Asian markets.
“If we’re exporting food to India or China, what our governments do is put a brand logo on it — they don’t think to change the product at all.
“With regard to the gene-silencing technology used in Canada’s Arctic Apples, it was a very important discovery by our scientists, and it’s being used to great advantage in research around the world and to develop innovative new products.
“We use it in research in Australia, but commercially, it has gone nowhere.
“These days, if you come to us and ask if we can make a certain trait in an agricultural crop — say, develop a maize variety that produces pink cornflakes — we can provide you with a very accurate assessment of whether it can be done, how it can be done and how long it would take.
“We are very confident of the capabilities of our technology, our knowledge of how genes work and how we can modify their function. But we’re just not doing it — our entrepreneurs and investors don’t seem to be interested.
“With regard to BarleyMax, there are three ways to produce a low-GI starch in barley. We can do it with molecular genetics, which is what we did to achieve proof of concept at the start of the project.
“We can go to the breeders and tell them to run their mutation processes, and tell them the particular mutation to look for in the gene — which is what the breeders did.
“Or we can sift through germplasm collections of wild barley from southern Asia, and find naturally occurring examples of the mutation we need.
“All these approaches target the same mutations in the same gene, yet there is no way we could have sold the GM version in supermarkets.
“The BarleyMax mutants that are now grown commercially were chance products of the most horrendous mutation-inducing chemicals, and as long as they’re not GM, nobody even thinks to ask how they were produced.”
Peacock is disappointed with the “undue attention” that the media and politicians have paid to the anti-GM movement in Australia. “They don’t argue from a factual base, but in emotive, frightening terms,” he said.
“But equally sad, I believe, has been the lack of considered viewpoints from our politicians — for the most part, they make no attempt to understand the full potential and facts about GM plants. But they do react to all the anti-GM noise because they are concerned about votes.
“It’s really disappointing, for example, that we still don’t have blanket acceptance of GM canola across Australia. For years, our canola farmers suffered in the competition with Canadian farmers who had GM herbicide-tolerant canola.
“Canada’s GM varieties were more reliable and offered higher yields, and they were able to sell every seed they produced into Japan. Meanwhile, in Australia, idiotic anti-GM activists were trumpeting that countries like Japan would not accept GM canola — the opposite was actually true.
“It’s symptomatic of the whole problem in Australia. We’d occasionally have a politician taking an interest in the issue — the last-but-one WA Minister for Agriculture inspected the GM canola trials at Cootamundra, went home and lifted the moratorium in WA.
“One of the outstanding possibilities for GM canola is varieties that CSIRO is now developing here in Canberra that will produce the healthy omega-3 oils that the food industry currently extracts from marine fish.
“We’re currently field-trialling these omega-3 varieties. We’re using an established crop to synthesise a product of great importance to our personal health, and to our market opportunities.”
Dr Peacock said the omega-3-rich GM canola promises to reduce harvesting pressure on endangered marine fish species — a prospect that anti-GM activists genuinely concerned for the environment should welcome.
Professor Rick Roush, former Dean of Agriculture at the University of Melbourne and a pioneering member of the Genetic Manipulation Committee (the predecessor of the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator), believes Australia’s scientific community and governments made strategic errors in their defence of GM crops and were constantly outflanked by the anti-GM movement.
Now Dean of Agricultural Sciences at Pennsylvania State University in the US, Professor Roush said he is an admirer of a group of “pretty elite” scientists in the UK who established a rapid-response team to counter alarmist anti-GM claims in the media. None has any direct connection to research, development or commercialisation of GM crops.
“They organise themselves so there was always someone on call when an anti-GM story came out in the news media, so they could offer comment in the interests of balance,” Professor Roush said.
“I’m sure that journalists didn’t often seek to find balance, or even seek a comment, but even when they did, they didn’t know whom to contact. As a result, the usual suspects in the UK — as in Australia — could always be counted on for negative comment, and the journalist would not seek a balancing response.”
Professor Roush said the UK group alerted Australian scientists in 2012 to the imminent publication in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology of a study by French molecular biologist Gilles-Éric Séralini — a noted opponent of GM crops — claiming to show that rats fed on a Roundup-Ready maize strain developed multiple tumours.
(Elsevier retracted the paper in November 2013 after scientists roundly criticised it for inept methodology and conclusions. Among other flaws, Seralini’s feeding study used Sprague-Dawley rats, which are prone to spontaneously develop tumours.)
The UK group’s strategy of being constantly available to the media for balancing comment required it to be “clean as the driven snow”, Professor Roush said.
“The fundamental problem has been that when a scientist says anything positive about GM, there’s a kneejerk reaction from most anti-GM groups, because these kinds of ideas are so far from their world view that they assume you have to be on the take if your views differ from theirs.
“The mistake we made early on was to believe people would listen to the scientific evidence, when we really needed to become involved much more in hand-to-hand combat, so that nothing they said went unchallenged. But nobody was prepared to do that.
“I don’t believe it was really about the need for crops with consumer-benefiting traits, because anti-GM groups have continued to attack GM crops that had nothing to do with multinational control of the food supply.
“Literally in the same week, activists attacked vitamin A-enriched GM rice trial plots in the Philippines, while other activists mowed down publicly produced GM papaya on the Big Island of Hawaii.”
(The GM papayas are resistant to the devastating papaya ringspot virus, which had virtually wiped out the Hawaiian papaya industry by the early 2000s.)
Professor Roush said a small research team, headed by Dr Dennis Gonsalves at the University of Hawai‘i, developed the GM papayas “totally in the public sector”, without corporate sponsorship or proprietary technology. The papayas been grown successfully in Hawaii for several years before activists vandalised them.
Asked if Australia’s complex and rigorous regulatory apparatus for GM crops might have had the paradoxical effect of helping to convince the community that concerns about GM crops were well founded, Professor Roush said, “I do think [the activists] were able to exploit that.
“We should consider the history of the Asilomar agreement to suspend gene-splicing experiments in the mid-1970s until the technology could be shown to be safe. Today, high school students are doing the same experiments — so it really is time we backed off on such rigorous safety regimes.
“The history of GM crops is one of a very high level of safety. There’s no question that we need to investigate new GM crops, but over-regulation has shut down the ability of public-sector research to flourish in countries like Australia and the US. If we can’t do it, the Chinese will.”
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