CSIRO: GM essential for health and food security

Despite attacks, CSIRO isn’t giving up on genetic research. AAP

Just as medical researchers work to unlock the role our human genes play in disease, CSIRO investigates how plant genes can be used to boost the health benefits of food, increase crop yields and prevent plant disease.

We recognise that the genetic modification of plants causes concern in sections of the community.

However, we also know that many people will be more comfortable with genetic modification in food products if they can be assured they benefit human health and are environmentally safe.

There is a gap between community concerns and the knowledge of our scientists around genetic research.

That gap requires scientists and food producers to understand community views and share their scientific knowledge to earn community trust.

We must bridge this gap if scientific developments in plant genetics are to improve health and support global food supply.

Plants are more complex than most people realise and, in many cases, have more genes than humans. We research the genes of plants to improve human health outcomes, increase the take-up of nutrients from soil, improve yields and provide resistance to plant diseases.

Our genetic modification research generally involves turning off genes, changing the timing of the expression of some genes or inserting genes from different plants.

Anyone who has planted a grafted passionfruit in the backyard can appreciate research to improve the take-up of nutrients from the soil.

Grafting uses the genes of one passionfruit variety with sturdy roots and strong growth as the rootstock and the genes of another variety to produce the best fruit for the family pavlova.

Our scientists are researching genes that control the root systems in wheat to improve uptake of nitrogen from the soil to reduce fertiliser use.

By studying and understanding the genes of plants, we can use this information to bring better food to market for improving health outcomes.

For example, we are researching how changing the digestibility of the starch in grains such as wheat can lower the biomarkers that indicate colon cancer and improve their glycaemic index.

When it comes to our food supply, the world’s population could reach 9 billion by 2050. The global challenge is to produce 70% more food in the next 40 years.

To meet that food demand we need to increase our agricultural yields and increase the efficiency of how plants take up nutrients. It means growing plants that use less water to produce the same output and improving resistance to disease and pests.

The world is not turning its back on GM technology. Plantings are rapidly increasing around the world with one billion hectares of GM crops planted in 29 countries by 15.4 million farmers in 2010.

Indeed, most Australians with insulin dependent diabetes inject themselves daily with insulin produced using GM technology.

Across the very extensive and prolonged use worldwide, there has been no evidence of harm to human health associated with the use of GM technology.

In Australia we’ve been growing and consuming GM products for at least 15 years, with GM cotton and carnations grown commercially since 1996 and GM canola since 2008.

Australia has for many decades led the world in plant research and our farming community has had a partnership with science that is truly remarkable on the global stage.

Australia leads the world in the understanding of the wheat genome, while Australian farmers supply 10% of the global wheat trade.

Our research teams work shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s best public and private partners including plant breeders, Australian farmers, food manufacturers, nutritionists, government research bodies and national and global NGOs.

Our plant scientists are unsung heroes in Australia’s history and they deserve our support. The partnership they have with our agricultural and food manufacturing community is a foundation of Australia’s competitiveness.

It is these partnerships that have led to consistent productivity gains in the past. It is only through such partnerships that we will continue to innovate and make the advances in productivity needed to address global food security challenges and sustain quality human life.

GM technology is just one of several technologies we employ in our research programs which are designed to deliver on this future. CSIRO will continue to conduct research on the genes of plants and investigate GM solutions, given the vital contribution this technology can make to Australia and humanity.

This article was originally published in the National Times.

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