Statement—Gene technology and GM plants

December 2007

The Australian Academy of Science supports the responsible and ethical use of gene technologies to produce genetically modified plants for use in Australian agriculture and works with governments, scientists, NGOs, international organisations and the community on all GM-related issues.

Australian science has a key role to assist in global food security. There are already immediate urgent needs in the developing world to secure yields and to reduce the impact of pests, diseases and environmental degradation. In the mid to longer term, there is likely to be a need to improve food security in developed countries like Australia, as water, climate change impact and land degradation limits the capacity of agricultural production. Gene technology can play a role in the alleviation of malnutrition, enhancing sustainability and securing yields worldwide. Its potential must be harnessed. Sometimes, the lack of full certainty, in an environment of manageable risk, should not be used as the reason to postpone measures where genetic modification can legitimately be used to address environmental or public health issues.[1], [2]

The industry

Plant science and plant gene technology will be critical activities of the nation’s response to many challenges it faces in the coming decades. These activities include adapting to, and mitigating climate change, the production of food products with preventative health functions, the production of bioenergy, biofuels and biomaterials from renewable resources as fossil fuels diminish, maintaining efficient and sustainable use of our natural resources while feeding a growing global population, and meeting the increasingly sophisticated market demands as economies emerge in our region.

Biotechnology is a key industry sector in the economy, receiving significant support from government and the private sector. It has the potential to deliver new consumer goods, employment opportunities and benefits to the environment. This sector is experiencing significant growth, driven by rapid advances in gene technology, especially genomics research.

Potential benefits

Gene technology is integral to biotechnology and an essential tool in modern plant biology. Australia has a strong position in global plant science and is a significant contributor to advances in plant gene technology. The technology is being harnessed to gain fundamental insights into the molecular basis of life and has enabled the production of genetically modified (GM) cotton, the first broad acre GM crop to be released commercially in Australia. Coupled with existing breeding and production systems, gene technology and scientific innovation can deliver commercial GM crops offering improved financial and environmental outcomes for the agricultural sector. While gene technology is not a panacea in agriculture, it is an important enabling technology that has already proven its place globally with 102 million hectares of GM crops grown in 2006.3

It is important to consider the wider context in which gene technology may be used. The adoption of GM cotton in Australia has reduced pesticide use, and the adoption of herbicide-tolerant cotton allows the use of more environmentally benign weed management than was previously used in the conventional cotton production system.

There are many other potential uses of GM other than herbicide tolerant crops, including some that can deliver direct health benefits to consumers, such as important drugs, healthier food oils, removal of allergens from food, as well as environmental benefits, for example bioremediation and feral pest control. There is a significant body of research being undertaken to develop the next generation of products that could have significant consumer benefits.

Regulation and safety in Australia

The impact of current adverse consumer reaction by some citizens to GMs and the science system, more broadly, has the potential to negatively impact on innovation and with the flow-on risk of discouraging investment in research and development[2], harming Australia’s progress. The rapid uptake of GM technology in the Americas contrasts with Europe and indicates that the benefits are being actively pursued by those countries with experience of GM traits. Future Australian governments will need to address issues relating to business ethics in GM canola and other genetically-modified organisms.

There is a need for more effective dialogue between scientists and the mainstream environmental movements to establish common ground and identify areas for future research. The Academy supports a strong and robust public debate as an important component of the introduction of any significantly new technology into society. The Academy emphasises the fundamental importance of peer-reviewed quality science and substantive evidence in assisting public debate.

Gene technology can deliver benefits to human health and agricultural sustainability, as already evident in GM production of human insulin as well as the overall changes to more benign pesticide use in soybean, corn and cotton. As with other new technologies being introduced into society, identification of any risks with GM products and their management is essential.

The Academy strongly supports public scrutiny and safety of genetic research. Scientists catalysed the formation of the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee, and supported the establishment of the independent Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) and the current risk-based, transparent and national approach to regulation by the OGTR and Food Standards Australia New Zealand. These stringent national regulatory mechanisms are in place to ensure rigorous risk assessment on human health and the environment for new GM products. State-based legislation should be consistent with the national system and needs to be based on rigorous science and be transparent.

GM products have been in several foods for many years and consumed without any substantiated evidence of ill effects on health, and their safety confirmed by many peer-reviewed studies world-wide.[4], [5] The regulatory system in Australia is designed to enable unexpected, undesirable effects, such as the production of toxins or allergens, poor nutritional properties or serious environmental damage, to be identified during the laboratory phase or during the several seasons of field trials that precede commercial production. The Academy supports labelling of food, in particular where it assists consumers making deliberate dietary choices; but such labelling must be scientifically based.

All crop and pasture plants have the potential to impact negatively on natural or agricultural systems, whether GM or not. As with any modification of plants, whether by traditional breeding or through the use of gene technology, the Academy supports a thorough scientific evaluation of potential environmental impacts before their commercial release.

Prepared by TJ Higgins (Chair) on behalf of the National Committee for Plant and Animal Science. Endorsed by Council 6 December 2007.


Footnotes

  • [1] Food and Agriculture Organization (2004). Agricultural biotechnology: Meeting the needs of the poor?The State of Food and Agriculture 2003–04.
  • [2] Nuffield Council on Bioethics (1999). Genetically Modified Crops: the ethical and social issues.
  • [3] James, Clive (2006). Global status of commercialised biotech/GM crops. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, Brief No. 35.
  • [4] UK Government GM Science Review Panel (2003).
  • [5] International Council for Science (2003). New genetics, food and agriculture: Scientific discoveries – social dilemmas.

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