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Top five myths about genetic modification

The Conversation asked CSIRO scientist, Richard Richards, to look at the top five myths about genetic modification (GM), and correct the public record. Myth one: GM is just haphazard, imprecise cross-breeding…

GM is not being used to make fishbread Frankenfoods. Dave Lifson/Flickr

The Conversation asked CSIRO scientist, Richard Richards, to look at the top five myths about genetic modification (GM), and correct the public record.

Myth one: GM is just haphazard, imprecise cross-breeding

In genetic engineering, scientists can very precisely select genes and introduce them into their target species. For example, genes that produce insulin for medical use have been introduced into bacteria. Genes from bacteria have been introduced into corn or cotton to dramatically reduce insect damage.

In fact, the most dramatic genetic modifications to our crops occurred naturally thousands of years ago when chance events resulted in hybrids of different species.

Some of these events have resulted in some of our most important crops such as wheat, sugar cane, canola and cotton.

The wheat we consume today, for example, is a natural hybrid of three different wild species. This has resulted in bringing tens of thousands of genes together in several independent events. It is responsible for wheat being such an important crop.

Modern wheat breeders release new varieties after introducing thousands of unknown genes from wild grasses without any regulatory requirements or special testing and with no genetic engineering involved.

This is very haphazard and we do not know what genes are being introduced, apart from the target gene we know is present. The irony is that the precise introduction of a single gene is heavily regulated yet the introduction of thousands of unknown genes from wild grasses into a new wheat variety via traditional breeding methods is regarded as being completely acceptable.

Myth two: GM is a cure-all for more efficient land use and food security

It is important to remember GM technologies are just one of the tools that may be useful. Other important contributions to land use and food security come from traditional breeding, agronomy, land management and sustainability research.

Breeding new varieties of any species requires multiple selection and evaluation methodologies, and there are a lot of conditions at play when developing better wheat.

A new variety has to offer an advantage to the grower, it must have good yields and be adapted to the region where it is grown. It must also have good resistance or tolerance to diseases.

More importantly, it must be beneficial for end users and consumers.

In fact, breeding combines many traits together some of which are simple and some of which are complex. Usually, GM technology contributes only one or two of these traits, although combinations of up to eight genes are now in corn.

Some of these traits may be simply inherited (single gene) - such as plant height or flowering time.

But most are controlled by many genes, including performance in dry environments, grain yield, tolerance to high temperatures, and once the wheat is turned into flour, improved baking quality.

GM technologies are generally only suitable for the single gene traits, not complex multigenic ones. Over time, GM may contribute to factors such as grain yield and drought resistance as we learn more about the basic biology underpinning these traits and identify the key genes to optimise.

Myth three: GM is harmful to the environment

In fact, there have been many environmental benefits from GM.

GM technologies have massively reduced pesticide use in all circumstances where pests have been targeted.

For example, the GM cotton varieties bred by CSIRO that are insect resistant reduce pesticide use by up to 80%.

This reduced use of pesticides has other flow-on effects: less greenhouse gas associated with lower diesel use; less pesticide run-off; less residual pesticides; more biodiversity and improvements in human safety.

Both GM crops and non-GM crops with inbuilt herbicide resistance have also resulted in improved agricultural practices. This has resulted in more efficient water and light use, less soil degradation and improved yields for farmers.

Myth four: GM means creating Frankenfoods

Far from creating radical changes to plants, GM produces defined improvements to existing crop plants that meet a recognised need, such as food quality, increased yield or pest resistance. Strong regulatory systems ensure that GM crops meet stringent standards.

The reality is that scientists experiment with purpose and for beneficial outcomes. There is no use breeding a crop with no market need. Regulatory costs and market demand drive what genes will be introduced into crops.

Almost all introductions will be to improve crop production, quality and health outcomes. Other crops will be modified to change management practices, such as introducing resistance to herbicides.

Often GM technologies don’t involve the introduction of any new genes from another species. Rather they turn the “volume” up or down of a certain gene already present in our crops (rather than introducing foreign genes).

Some of them just silence, or “turn off”, a particular gene. Silencing can be important in modifying grain composition. For example, modifying starches can result in grains that have the potential to reduce the incidence of certain cancers.

Turning up the volume is used to over express some genes, such as those that detoxify excess levels of aluminium in the soil or solubilise nutrients in the soil to improve the nutrition of plants.

Myth five: The GM research agenda is run by big multinationals

GM research has contributed greatly to our understanding of how plants function and this has delivered tremendous benefits to both traditional breeding and to opportunities for GM crops.

However, commercial introductions are extremely costly due to the extensive regulatory processes required by different territories before GM crops can either be grown or utilised for feed and food purposes.

The public sector, through institutions such as CSIRO, also expends considerable research dollars on GM research.

Regardless of this, GM products will not be adopted by growers if they negatively impact their farming operations or they do not capture value in their farm products.

It is largely up to farmers which GM varieties they grow and market. More importantly, if consumers do not accept them, then they will not be grown.

By way of example, the adoption of insect resistant varieties and herbicide resistant varieties by farmers has been spectacularly successful.

It must represent some of the fastest technology adoption ever by farmers.

This has occurred because these varieties offer genuine benefits in terms of the cost, timeliness and sustainability of their overall farming operations.

Despite this, traditional varieties remain available and can be maintained if farmers wish to continue growing them for a particular performance or market demand.

The vast majority of funding for CSIRO’s research relating to gene technology comes from government funding, non-profit organisations and research centres.

There is investment from private companies but investment from all these sources makes up less than 0.2% of CSIRO’s total budget of $1 billion.

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33 Comments sorted by

  1. Dejan Tesic, PhD

    logged in via Twitter

    Thanks, Dr. Richards, for a very nice overview of the GM myths. A very useful link to pass around to try and cut down on some of the FUD when it comes to genetic modification.

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  2. Shirley Birney

    retiree

    "It is largely up to farmers which GM varieties they grow and market. More importantly, if consumers do not accept them, then they will not be grown."

    Unfortunately the horse has bolted since Australian consumers were denied the right to choose. That includes Monsanto's most recent victim, the organic farmer in WA whose livelihood was destroyed last year by Monsanto's Roundup Ready canola contamination. In a fake democracy, with zero regulatory enforcement, GM farmers are at liberty to contaminate another's property with impunity.

    Who are these 'private companies, non-profit organisations and research centres' who fund gene technology at CSIRO? Or would that information be deemed "commercial in confidence?"

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  3. Byron Smith
    Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

    PhD candidate in Christian Ethics at University of Edinburgh

    Thank you for this article on a topic where is there is plenty of confusion to go around.

    I would like to focus on the final point, as I think this is where the most interesting ethical and political questions lie.

    My concerns about GM are less to do with genetic modification and more to do with genetic commercialisation. The article denies that large multinationals run GM research, but isn't the larger issue the level of market dominance in GM patents obtained by a small number of very, very large…

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  4. Jenny Mountford

    Community Nurse

    This is very simplistic. We just don't know what GM modification does to the human body in the long term. Evolution is a very complex matter and I challenge any"expert" who says with 100% certainty that messing with naure is totally safe. We may just have to wear the risk to save the planet from dying of hunger, but risk to multinationals bottom dollar must not be at the expence of humanity.

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    1. Eric Ireland

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jenny Mountford

      It seems to me like the main objection people have to GMOs is that they just don't like the idea of "messing with nature". "Messing with nature" is central to scientific progress, though, so we need to make a rational judgement about when it's reasonably safe to do so, and when the dangers outweigh the risks.

      If people think GMOs are dangerous, they should explain why. I sometimes wonder if people realise all the possibilities and uses for GMOs. Is it just genetically modified food that people are against, or do they want to do away with all biotechnology? Do they want people to stop using PCR? That would REALLY throw us back into the dark ages..

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    2. Byron Smith
      Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

      PhD candidate in Christian Ethics at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to Eric Ireland

      Eric, the highest-rated comment on this thread (so far) is not about messing with nature so much as messing with politics and economics. Others are making a similar point.

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  5. Claire Parfitt

    Research student at University of Sydney

    It is not surprising to see an article from the head of Plant Science at CSIRO supporting GM crop development, given that the CSIRO has invested millions of public dollars in this area, along with its corporate partners including Monsanto, Limagrain and Bayer. (I would also like to see The Conversation offering a little more space to those who do not support GM crops as recent coverage seems quite unbalanced).

    Some of the commentators above hit the mark with their concerns in relation to corporate…

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    1. Eric Ireland

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Claire Parfitt

      You wouldn't have to look far to find evidence of increased yield and drought resistance from GM plants, e.g. (http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0707193104)

      Or, for that matter, crops with enhanced nutritional value, e.g. Golden Rice (http://dx.doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2008.27119)

      I'm sympathetic to the plight of farmers who have been forced to pay royalties to corporations for GM crops they didn't even want to grow, but that's a problem with the law, not with GM crops themselves.

      Regarding the CSIRO study you cited, I would agree that "more detailed investigations on the environmental fate of the root-derived Bt toxin, binding to soil components and build up, and movement beyond the rhizosphere and root zone, are warranted." I agree that the increased use of herbicide is a concern, too.

      Maybe we could do with more thorough testing and regulation of GM crops, but we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater and ban GMOs altogether; they should be examined one case at a time.

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    2. Shirley Birney

      retiree

      In reply to Eric Ireland

      Eric Ireland - other commitments beckon so I've not yet read beyond your first paragraph and the accompanying link which reveals that the author 'affiliations' in the paper you provided are no less than:

      *Monsanto Company, 62 Maritime Drive, Mystic, CT 06355; and
      ‡Mendel Biotechnology, Inc., 21375 Cabot Boulevard, Hayward, CA 94545

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    3. Eric Ireland

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      True, but PNAS is a peer reviewed journal. I'm not saying that necessarily means their results are accurate, but it's more plausible than if Monsanto had published it themselves.

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  6. Cockalorum Cockalorumus

    logged in via Facebook

    In Texas geneticists modified a head of cabbage by splicing in the Firefly gene that makes the beetle itself glow after dark.
    "Great." said the Governor "We can get the Wetbacks to work all night long!"

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  7. Madeleine Love

    logged in via Twitter

    Re Richard Richard's Myth invention One:

    The latest laugh coming out of the GE promotion circuit, not spared by Richard, is that conventional plant breeding is like 'crashing two 20 story buildings together' with completely 'haphazard' results. They are saying that the precise insertion of single gene is nothing in comparison, in apparent attempt to bring the widely rejected techniques into a more favourable light - call it a 'precision-wash'.

    I feel shocked that someone from CSIRO is attempting…

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  8. Madeleine Love

    logged in via Twitter

    A quick note on Richard's Myth Invention Four:

    Bringing some reality to what GE crops are and why people would object, these are the GE crops approved for our Food Supply by Food Standards Australia New Zealand:

    •19 lines claiming herbicide tolerance, such that they won’t die when specific agricultural weed killers are sprayed on them (soy, corn, canola, cotton, sugar beet, lucerne).

    •14 lines claiming insect resistance, such that the crops make their own insecticidal toxins that kill specific…

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  9. Madeleine Love

    logged in via Twitter

    Addendum - I might be wrong on the GE rice described above - will need to check it.

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  10. Madeleine Love

    logged in via Twitter

    Notes on Myth Three:

    "GM technologies have massively reduced pesticide use in all circumstances where pests have been targeted."

    In Richard's careful selective crafting of this paragraph we need to be mindful that as a result of GE crops as whole, according to USDA data pesticide use has increased dramatically in the US (where ~50% of all GE crops are grown). This is mostly as a result of the herbicide tolerant crops. See Charles Benbrook's
    "Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide…

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  11. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    Comments on comments.
    1 Some commentators completely missed the first point made by R Richards- that genetic modification goes on all the time in nature and conventional breeding .
    2 The community nurse is apparently also not aware that GM type biotech is used in developing modern medications
    3Monsanto and Bayer are powerful corporations . In the 1970's they were accused of seeking world domination of agriculture by selling conventionally -bred hybrids and synthetic pesticides. So far they've missed…

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    1. Madeleine Love

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to wilma western

      Wilma, what is done in the genetic engineering of food crops is nothing like what 'goes on all the time in nature and conventional breeding'. That is why the world communities made an entire regulatory system to support it, seemingly initiated at Monsanto's request (The World According to Monsanto - Pollution, Politics and Power; Marie-Monique Robin; ISBN 978-1-87678-683-3
      http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=205/ )

      At some time in the 1970's no one company owned more than 1% of world seed. In the 1990's Monsanto and the other major chemical companies rapidly acquired seed companies to the point where a few companies now dominate world seed ownership. https://www.msu.edu/~howardp/seedindustry.html Read your wikileaks cables to find out the power behind the push for GM crops.

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  12. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    Madeleine Love is a leading member of MADGE which is right now orghanising anti Gm lobbying. She should declare her involvement.I am merely a retired farmer who has taken an interest .

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    1. Madeleine Love

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to wilma western

      :D Wilma is a regular pro-GM letter writer, and I thank her for bringing attention to the MADGE Australia network.

      We are a volunteer community grassroots group of mothers and others. We research the food system to allow people to choose food that is good for those who eat it, grow it, produce and sell it; and for land and environment.

      MADGE is collectively concerned about GM crops for the reasons stated above, and far more. We put out ~monthly newsletters which report what we have learned from our research.

      The MADGE website is http://www.madge.org.au
      Twitter http://twitter.com/MADGEAustralia
      Facebook http://www.facebook.com/pages/MADGE-Australia-Incorporated/112889015407427

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  13. Shirley Birney

    retiree

    1) While the evolution of glyphosate resistance among weeds is approaching catastrophic proportions, Dow AgroSciences (better known for its complicity in the Agent Orange ignominy and POPs) and M.S. Technologies LLC boasted last month of a collaborative submission to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the approval of the first-ever, three-gene herbicide-tolerant soybean.

    ‘This new soybean event developed by the companies includes, for the first time, three herbicide tolerance genes stacked…

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  14. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    Madge and Genethics are the most active and organised anti GM lobbies at least in Victoria . It was incumbent on M Love to declare herself much sooner. If you count up to a dozen letters to our local papers written in 2008 as being a 'regular letter writer ' on the topic of GM ,I plead guilty. I was reacting to a local anti GM campaign lobbying 2 local councils to declare their shires GM-free zones , and spreading all sorts of scare stories about deaths of livestock fed GM soy or canola meal , hospitalisation…

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  15. Eric Ireland

    logged in via Facebook

    Is it just GM food people that anti-GM activists are against, or all biotechnology? E.g. Do you believe it is somehow morally wrong to genetically modify bacteria, yeasts, etc to produce enzymes for medicines?

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    1. Bob Phelps

      Director at Gene Ethics

      In reply to Eric Ireland

      Hello Eric: Gene Ethics supports GM-free futures on health, environment, ethical and economic grounds. GM bacteria for the production of insulin, growth hormone, or food processing aids and additives such as the cheese setting agent chymosin, for instance, are grown in contained vats. The enzymes they produce are harvested and we expect no GM organisms will remain in the products or be released to the environment where they may pose a hazard. As products of genetic manipulation, any processed food that contains GM enzymes should be labelled as such but Food Standard 1.5.2 exempts them. This violates our right to know that novel foods without a history of safe use are in our food supply. It's not a question of morals.

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    2. Eric Ireland

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Bob Phelps

      Thanks for replying, Bob. I really respect the fact that you make that distinction between enzymes produced in a controlled situation and crops and animals that are released into the environment. As far as agriculture goes, I think it's a question of how far you take the precautionary principle. I think we should reduce our reliance on herbicides, and I realise that most of the GM crops currently being grown are Roundup ready. I don't like the idea of Monsanto controlling the world's seed supply either. Maybe you are right about the health and environmental risks. I don't know, I suppose I should probably read up about it more. I just feel that more research is a good thing most of the time. When Greenpeace destroyed that wheat crop at the CSIRO, it made me angry. From my rudimentary understanding of biochemistry and molecular biology, I can't see any danger in what the CSIRO was doing.

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  16. Shirley Birney

    retiree

    Ad hominem has nothing whatsoever to do with the argument. Opponents of the biotech industry have raised many issues including compelling evidence to substantiate their assertions which have not yet been challenged. Why is that?

    One proponent of GM crops says: "the Conversation is supposed to deal in evidence , peer reviewed science etc" but she has not produced any herself. Why is that?

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  17. Bob Phelps

    Director at Gene Ethics

    Richards dispels a GM industry myth when he confirms that genetic complexity is a barrier to the use of genetic manipulation (GM) techniques so most of their promises will never happen. A few single gene traits such as herbicide tolerance and Bt insect toxins have been transferred from bacteria into plants using GM but not multi-genic traits.

    The Beef CRC was de-funded recently and its CEO Dr Heather Burrow confirmed the limits to GM and gene mapping in animal breeding and selection as: “the dramatic…

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  18. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    GM canola has no effect on human consumers, we are told, because only the oil us used and that carries no genetic material or protein allergens.

    My concern is that canola is closely related to several common food plants, including all the Brassica oleracea group: cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi.

    What is the probability of pollen from GE canola fertilising flowers of those food plants?

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    1. Cockalorum Cockalorumus

      Cocky1

      In reply to John Harland

      What is the probability of pollen from GE canola fertilising flowers of those food plants?

      Not very bloody likely, mate.

      I mean really - as if anyone would know!
      I would say the probability of anyone even eating those things you mention is less that one in four thousand.
      And I wonder even if they are grown in the same area together.

      Probability.
      Define probability.

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