GMO, some can’t live with it, others can’t live without it

Last year I watched the Australian Story episodes about a fight between two farmers in Western Australia, Stephen and Michael.

Stephen was running an organic farm. His neighbour Michael began the growing genetically modified (GM) crop, Round-up Ready Canola, in the paddock just over the road. The canola is modified so the herbicide Round-Up can be sprayed to kill weeds without killing the crop.

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Canola crop. Credit: Pete via Flickr

Michael’s harvesting technique, recommended by his agronomist, was to form piles of the loose seed-heads in the open paddock and leave them there for some time after the crop was harvested. It’s a method called swathing, a common way to improve oil content in canola.

GM seed heads from the open paddock blew onto the organic farm.

The organic accreditation company NASAA de-certified 70% of Stephen’s farm because of GM “contamination” in the organic paddocks. Stephen tried to sue the GM farmer, saying Michael’s negligence had caused lost income because of de-certification. It was the first case of its kind in Australia. In a six-year battle, the hearing and two appeals all agreed that the GM farmer had not been negligent. It’s a sad story because every farmer has the right to farm in their own way, GM, organic or conventional without being restricted or penalised by their neighbours.

In 2010, when the crop went in, it was the first year that Western Australia had allowed GM canola to be farmed by the public. Since this case, the WA government has put together framework for managing GM farms that neighbour organic properties. Too late for Stephen, but helpful for others. The case bought up criticism of the standards for organic accreditation have been for their zero tolerance approach to GM contamination. NASAA’s standards are stricter than our main export markets which allow a small percentage of contamination. This puts organic growers from Australia at a disadvantage if they’re near GM farmers.  Perhaps these standards need to be to be more realistic.

Where is GM in the rest of Australia?

Genetic modification is when a foreign gene is inserted into, in this case, plant DNA. In this sense, foreign may mean a different species of canola or a different plant/animal altogether. Before genetic modification commercial crops came from plant breeding. It takes about 10 years to breed traits (e.g. drought tolerance) into plants. GM is quicker and has more abilities.

All Australian states except South Australia and Tasmania allow GM farming. At the moment, the only crops which can be commercially farmed are GM cotton (resistant to the pest bollworm) and Round-Up Ready Canola.

There are lots of GM trials around Australia. It’s not just the big agricultural companies in these trials; universities, state government departments and the CSIRO all have projects. Different crops are being grown to improve yield, disease/ pest/herbicide resistance, nutrition and tolerance to drought.

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand assess GM food safety on a case-by-case basis. They have scientifically assessed and approved specific GM varieties of canola, corn, cottonseed, lucerne, potato, rice, soybean and sugar beet. All are now available as food in Australia.

What next?

This is supposed to be the biotech century. But science and technology are moving faster than community acceptance and regulations.

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Not everyone is happy with GM. Photo credit: Antoine Couturier via Flickr

Golden rice was developed in 2000, it’s a rice crop with extra vitamin A. The crop was developed to stop blindness from vitamin A deficiency. The World Health Organisation has said this is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children. Golden rice isn’t farmed yet because it hasn’t been approved anywhere.

Biotechnology has taken a step further into the food chain, there’s also GM livestock and salmon. How do you feel about less pollution from pig farms? Growing more meat from less feed? If this was done by efficiencies in farming we would love it. But it’s from GM, are we still happy with that? Personally, I have come around to plants but I feel uneasy about GM in animals.

When I read more about GM, I found a writer who spoke directly to me:

In the absence of serious safety or welfare concerns, we must question the ethics of comfortable, affluent Westerners imposing their lifestyle choices on millions of undernourished people.

A good reminder that if we say no to GM, we need to acknowledge there can be devastating consequences for others.

It seems like it will take more than advances in science alone to bring widespread acceptance of GM. Afterall, the science is already there. I’ve been thinking about what it must have been like to get the public on-board when vaccinations were developed. Injecting virus’s or bacteria into your body as a new scientific break-through would have been hard to sell. But then there was a smallpox crisis so the choices were more serious. Not liking the idea of a vaccination had a higher price.

I get the feeling that we will need to feel a crisis before GM gets wide acceptance.


8 Responses to “GMO, some can’t live with it, others can’t live without it”

  1. asroka says:

    Hi Jennifer,

    When discussing GMOs and global hunger, I think it’s vital to mention there is actually no shortage of food globally.

    Modern food systems depend highly on fossil fuels and are key factor in destroying the earth’s ecosystems. Agriculture plays a major role in this. Meat and dairy in particular contribute majorly to greenhouse gas emissions. In a world where half the grain grown is fed to livestock, I think we all need to consider the impact of our diets.

    Producing more food doesn’t necessarily address hunger/food security issues. To move toward more sustainable food systems, we need to address underlying inequalities, over-consumption, waste, and poor dietary quality. GMO may have a place but I don’t think it should be seen as a silver bullet.

    Thanks for an interesting read and for encouraging healthy debate about such an important topic!

  2. August says:

    Agreed. In a way the problem with using too much Roundup also reflects people’s somewhat discriminating attitude towards GM crops (but in this case discriminating as in exploiting it), I think this is another reason why the public (including farmers) need to view GM in a neutral, objective perspective

  3. Jennifer Robertson says:

    OhMG a GMO snap!! good one. Your post is great.

    I think it’s good to look at GM on a case by case basis. For example, the other variety of GM crop in Australia, Bt Cotton, is modified to be pest resistant, so if a farmer were to sow Bt Cottton rather than a non-GM cotton, less pesticide would be used on the crop, and, less pesticide released into the environment. If someone grew a crop genetically modified for say drought tolerance or nutrition, it would likely require a similar amount of pesticide to to conventional farming.

    As for Round Up Ready Canola, the active ingredient in round up, glyphosate, is approved in Australia as a weed killer. The chemical doesn’t have support from everyone, the Netherlands banned its use last year. This came after it was classified as a probably carcinogen by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. But, it is still very widely used around the world. Many Australian farmers use it as a herbicide. It’s a non-selective weed killer so it will kill all plants it comes into contact with. As far as I understand, in conventional farming it would be used before crops are sown to kill existing weeds. Not after they are sown as it would kill the crop.

    I fully agree with the point that by farming Round Up Ready canola, there will be more glyphosate in the environment. But I think the issue that you’re raising relates more to whether glyphosate should be used as a herbicide in Australia rather than the whether using GM crops in general is damaging to the environment.

  4. August says:

    High five for writing about GM, Jennifer!

    I absolutely agree with you GM tech should not be rejected on the basis of public sentiment, we should make decisions on real solid scientific evidence!

    But on the other hand, I’m concerned about GM’s implication on the environment. As I mentioned in my blog entry about GM: http://blogs.unimelb.edu.au/sciencecommunication/2016/08/13/going-omg-over-gmo-have-we-figured-out-if-genetically-modified-crops-are-safe-to-eat/
    GM farmer’s practices can be substantially less sustainable, by which I mean herbicide resilience in Roundup Ready Canola is prompting farmers to use more herbicides and in turn cause ecological damage, especially to sensitive species (such as amphibians). I guess from the perspective of the environment, GM should still be rigorously investigated before putting to use.

  5. Jennifer Robertson says:

    Thanks for your comment Lung-Yu.

    This is an area of interest for me, rather than an area of expertise, so in short I don’t have a specific yes/no answer for you. But, more detail would be needed on the specifics of viruses and genes to say what the possibilities are.

    I haven’t found much information on plant viruses being transmitted to humans. But, I’ve seen an article saying it’s theoretically possible, as we know plant viruses can leave the plant kingdom and be transmitted to insects http://www.mdpi.com/1999-4915/7/4/2074/htm.

  6. Jennifer Robertson says:

    Hi bseymour,

    From your comment, I think I may not have written the blog clearly. What I was trying to say using the quote about “westerners imposing their lifestyle choices..” by not approving GM, e.g. golden rice, we are with-holding benefits to others, such as avoiding preventable blindness. Or it could be a more nutritious version of a cereal crop, etc. So we should look at ourselves and consider the wider effects of inaction on the uptake of GM.

    I think this is making the same point as you are, that GM can bring major benefits to health and sustainability.

  7. Lung-Yu Liang says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    This is a rather good article about GMO food, which is always a debatable issue since this technology has been developed. In terms of the safety of GMO foods, I heard advocates suggested some specific viruses capable of infecting crops are more dangerous for human health compared to the inserted genes that modify GMO foods. Do you have any idea about this argument?

  8. bseymour says:

    I think the “imposing lifestyle choices” is a poor choice of words, and it does not adequately represent the benefits that GM products bring to health and sustainability. I would like to know your thoughts on this?

    Also I think the GM products will inevitably gain more acceptance in time as the novelty wears off and they become another commonplace piece of science that benefits society. After all almost all modern technology has been feared and distrusted for a period of time before gaining acceptance.