The agricultural use of genetically modified (GM) plants has been a subject of disagreement, debate and bitter conflict around the globe. Sectors of Australian science experienced this recently when field trials of GM wheat were destroyed by protesters.
Why should Australia consider producing GM wheat? Is it a viable solution to the problems it seeks to address?
Why is Australia the place to grow GM wheat?
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAOSTAT), Australia is the ninth-largest wheat producer in the world, in quantity and in value.
Interestingly, the eight countries ranked above Australia not only produce more wheat, they also produce more wheat per hectare.
On average, Australia manages only about half of the yield efficiency of the nine major producers. Of the top 20 wheat producing countries – including Afghanistan – only Kazakhstan has a lower yield efficiency than Australia. None of these countries grows GM wheat.
Clearly it seems that Australia is not an ideal place to grow wheat. That said, Australia is big and flat and therefore easy to mechanise for wheat planting and harvesting.
If the genetic makeup (or genotype) of wheat could be changed so the dry and hot conditions of Australia were to its liking, Australia mightn’t only become a good place to grow wheat, it might even become good at growing it.
GM wheat is still in trial stage in Australia. According to the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, there have been 11 GM wheat products brought to field trial stage since 2005.
Many of these experimental cultivars are being tested for their “enhanced abiotic stress tolerance”. In other words, they are being tested for their ability to grow better under conditions such as too little water or too much heat.
How have they performed? It might be too early to tell. But over the decades of trialling similar traits, there are no commercially viable abiotic-stress tolerant GM crops, despite well over a thousand approvals for trials in the US alone.
What will make the Australian GM trials different from those already conducted, and failing, elsewhere? Will GM wheat raise Australia’s productivity? Will it raise it faster and more sustainably than alternatives?
Is Australia concentrating on the most important things?
One of the most important conclusions to come out of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), was that the goals of breeders – including those who use genetic engineering – take disproportionate resources from the science of the environment.
In other words, while money is being spent on genetic engineering, it’s not being spent on the environmental science that could make it unnecessary.
This means that unless current breeder priorities shift, at some point the soil will be just too dry, too depleted and too toxic for these plants to grow and provide healthy food, no matter what genes are put into them.
To feed the world, funding needs to focus not just on developing new and better agricultural crops, but also on the science and practice of restoring the environmental conditions necessary for crop productivity.
The recently destroyed field trials of GM wheat were not, however, trials with abiotic stress tolerant wheat. They were trials with wheat modified to have an altered starch composition. The idea was that these GM cultivars may contribute to healthier bowels by offering the potential of a white flour with enhanced fibre.
If the cause of bowel disease were simply the consumption of wheat, this advance would be truly welcome. But people have eaten wheat for thousands of years and the diseases of the bowel are a phenomenon of scale only in recent decades, and mainly in wealthy countries.
The problem is arguably not the wheat, but rather the modern diet based on highly processed foods and lacking in whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables. People need to change their diets, not their wheat.
Nevertheless, the wheat could be considered “innovative” if it is marketed as healthier and attracts a price premium. Unfortunately, real solutions to the problem may not be as easy to sell for monetary profit; although we would all profit from them nonetheless.
What does Australia put at risk?
There is no guarantee that consumers and governments around the world will be as easily sold on the idea that eating GM wheat will cure bowel woes. Beyond not being willing to pay a price premium for the product, there may be outright market rejection or price penalties in export markets. This has indeed been the case with other GM crops.
Australia’s non-GM products bring a high price. They may lose this marketing edge if they are contaminated by GM products through either pollen or seed flow.
Failures to maintain GM crop segregation have caused disruption in many countries, including New Zealand, Canada and the USA. As the contamination of the US rice supply by a non-commercial research line illustrated, even small scale production can cause extensive financial damage.
Given the potential for contamination, Australia could look forward to much more litigation as a result of introducing GM wheat. Consider the Western Australian organic wheat and oat farmer who lost his organic certification when his farm was contaminated by GM canola. He is now suing the GM farmer for compensation.
Indeed, nearly 300,000 organic farmers in the US are also taking legal action against Monsanto over the company’s failure to contain its GM crops.
Attempting to plaster over the complex contextual causes of yield limitations and bowel disease by engineering plants takes resources away from lasting and sustainable solutions and creates new problems.
How should Australia prioritise its spending in science and innovation? What do we want from our agricultural sector? What incentives will help us to achieve its goals?
Answers should be sought in a broad-based and deliberative manner that allows discussions to focus not just on questions of risk and regulation but also on problem formulation and options assessment.
Without this, the future will only involve further protest, more litigation and continued environmental degradation.