CSIRO GM crop attacked by Greenpeace had "negligible" risk

By Tim Dean
Thursday, 14 July, 2011

The crop of genetically modified wheat destroyed by Greenpeace activists in Canberra today was rated by the federal government regulator of genetically modified organisms as posing a “negligible” risk to either people or the environment.

This is in contrast to Greenpeace’s claims that the crop consisted of “untested and potentially unstable GM organisms”.

The crop was part of a CSIRO study of wheat and barley genetically modified to suppress the function of endogenous genes resulting in an altered starch compositions.

The intention was to produce a grain with higher starch content which would contribute to greater dietary fibre intake, thus improving nutrition and digestive bowel health.

Once the crop was harvested it was to be fed to rats and pigs in controlled laboratory experiments to determine whether the altered grains do, in fact, possess different nutritional properties.

It was also to be fed to a small group of volunteers as part of a controlled nutritional study. However, no material from the trial was to enter the commercial food or feed supply chain.

Before the study took place a risk assessment was undertaken by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, which is tasked with protecting "the health and safety of people, and the environment, by identifying risks posed by or as a result of gene technology, and by managing those risks through regulating certain dealings with genetically modified organisms (GMOs)”, in accordance with the Gene Technology Act 2000.

The OGTR found that the “limited and controlled release do not pose significant risk to either people or the environment.”

Three Greenpeace activists, wearing hazard suits, razed the crop using whipper snippers in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Greenpeace claims

Greenpeace claims the crop was to be used in “the world’s first human feeding trials of GM wheat, without adequate safety testing.”

However, the OGTR is required to approve of any testing of GMOs and, as such, it would have undergone scrutiny and monitoring by the independent regulators.

According to a statement released by Greenpeace, GM wheat is “not safe”.

“This GM wheat should never have left the lab,” said Heather McCabe, one of the activists involved in destroying the crop.

“I'm sick of being treated like a dumb mum who doesn’t understand the science. As far as I’m concerned, my family's health is just too important. GM wheat is not safe, and if the government can't protect the safety of my family, then I will.”

However, the study on the GM wheat was to test the safety and nutritional value of the GMO. If such studies are continually disrupted it is impossible for GMOs to be demonstrated as either safe or unsafe.

Greenpeace food campaigner, Laura Kelly, also claimed that “GM has never been proven safe to eat and once released in open experiments, it will contaminate.”

However, GM foods have been on sale in several countries around the world, notably the United States, for over a decade with no confirmed cases of harm caused to any individual consuming them.

Greenpeace cited an open letter signed by eight international scientists and doctors that questioned the safety of the human trials to the conducted by the CSIRO.

However, none of the scientists are experts in the contemporary field of genetically modified organisms or their health effects, and some are actively involved environmental activism, political parties or the organic food movement.

Scientists speak out

Scientists have spoken out against the destruction of the GM crop and the disruption of an ongoing experiment.

“I am deeply disappointed at the news that Greenpeace has stooped so far in their desperate attempt to gain publicity for their campaign against genetically modified wheat,” said Professor Mark Tester, a plant scientist at the University of Adelaide. “GM technology is not a magic bullet but it does offer new opportunities to improve the quality and quantity of wheat. Scientists are trying to reduce the environmental impacts of farming and so help farmers in the developing world and Australia,” he said.

“We have been modifying the genomes of plants for thousands of years using breeding technologies and continue to do so, giving them the properties that we desire. Previously we have been crossing plants and hoping for the best – now we are able to selectively choose the genes that we want and discard the ones that we don’t.”

Dr Christopher Preston, Associate Professor in the School of Agriculture, Food and Wine at the University of Adelaide, also spoke out against the action by Greenpeace.

“As an active scientist, I am appalled that a fellow scientist’s experiments have been destroyed through this action,” he said.

“I would be extremely upset if a member of the public had knowingly interfered with and destroyed some of my own scientific research that aims to improve the sustainability of Australian farmers.

“The destroyed trial was a small research trial that had been approved after assessment by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR). The OGTR had assessed the trial to offer no significant threat to human health or the environment.”

The CSIRO has information on its website about gene technology and genetically modified organisms.

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