The Gene Revolution – GM crops and farming reality
AFAA — Jim Peacock
The time has come for all sectors of Australia’s grain industry, from farm to shop, to get on top of GM technology, urges Australia’s former Chief Scientist, Dr Jim Peacock.
Our Green Revolution is near spent. The enormous and lasting gains made in crop yield through conventional plant breeding, mechanization, crop protection and clever agronomy are slowing.
But the next era for mainstream broadacre farming is already here, it might well be called the Gene Revolution.
More than 95% of Australia’s near 400,000 hectare cotton crop this summer consists of GM varieties. And in only the 3rd year of commercial production, there are some 133,300 hectares of GM canola in NSW, Victoria and WA this spring – an estimated 9% of the total canola crop.
What else is coming over the hill? Well, you name it … GM research underway in Australia covers: papaya, pineapple, sugarcane, grapevines, carnations, rice, white clover, wheat, Indian mustard, bananas, barley, perennial ryegrass, tall fescue, corn and roses. Most work is focusing on key traits which lessen production risks and underpin yield.
The big-ticket item, GM wheat, is just 7 or more years away. Clearly, our farmers and their advisors, and the supply chain all the way through to customers and consumers, now need to start appreciating the GM reality, and separate myth from fact.
Fact 1: GM science will be essential for our food security in the decades ahead. It is estimated that the number of humans on the planet will rise from 6 billion in 2000 to near 9 billion in 2050, and food demand will rise by 70% (Source: FAO).
Fact 2: Globally, farmers and supply-chains are going with GM; in 2009, 134 million hectares of GM crops were planted in 26 countries representing an 80-fold increase since 1996 when GM crops were first commercialised. There were 2 million new adopters last year.
Fact 3: It is estimated that biotech related gains in corn, soybean & canola had delivered an extra 14 million tonnes of production since 1996. And it has all been successfully traded.
Fact 4: Farmers who use GM technology appreciate that GM R&D businesses simply need a return on their long-term investments. Remember, much GM work is by public-private collaboration, and these bodies can only protect their IP through patents and fund their work via royalties. It is how innovation is incentivized. It is standard practice. And market forces ensure the pricing of the technology to farmers is realistic.
Fact 5: The costs of doing the R&D and bringing a variety to market are huge: Monsanto alone spends $1.1bn per year ($3 million a day) in research. Multiply that figure 10-fold or more for the global GM R&D effort.
Perhaps the biggest misguided myth is around ‘safety’. Those who have a different view of mainstream farming reality continue to raise questions about GM science and GM crop safety, and refer to studies which purport to have discovered something harmful about GM.
Fact 6: Such studies have, without exception, been discredited by the weight of mainstream scientific evidence, opinion and peer review, and by recognised regulatory agencies around the world.
Fact 7: Major scientific and health organizations, and regulatory bodies, have endorsed the safety of approved GM crops to human health and the environment.
In Australia, we are regulatory leaders. We have an excellent, world-class system that is purposely designed to pick-up anomalies and look for any potential problem. Human health and environmental safety is the first priority. Why would it be anything other than that? Indeed, GM crops are subjected to incredible scrutiny, whereas ‘conventional’ crops receive relatively less.
For example, our record started with Gossypium sp. When we started work with cotton (Gossypium pima) in the early 1990’s to develop GM varieties, we knew that there were some native Australian Gossypium plant species. We were rightly required to conduct thousands of tests to analyse every possible facet of potential transfer of genetic material from the new GM varieties to the native plants.
The point is that we had to do the work, and the system proved that there were no risks. If the extent and comprehensive-ness of the safety analyses was seen and understood by the public, people would not give a second thought to approved GM varieties.
Fact 8: Over the years billions of meals have been made and consumed that contain one or more GM crop ingredients or whole foods.
While GM canola and cottonseed oils are pure oil – they contain no proteins – even if they did, they’d be broken down into basic amino-acids. It happens every meal: just think of what was for dinner last night!
In our gut all proteins, starches and fats/oils that are in lettuce, carrots, potatoes, pumpkin, tomatoes, corn, soybeans and canola dairy products, beef, lamb, chicken or fish are all broken down into the basic biochemical building blocks, and no genetic material becomes incorporated into our genes!
The reality of today’s farming is that scientists are working for the betterment of society and GM crops are simply the next major agricultural technology.
Agrifood Awareness Australia Limited (AFAA) is an industry initiative, established to increase public awareness of, and encourage informed debate and decision-making about gene technology. AFAA is committed to providing quality, factual, science-based information on the use of gene technology in agriculture to allow for informed decisions. AFAA works broadly across the agriculture sector. The organisation has three founding members – CropLife Australia, Grains Research and Development Corporation and the National Farmers’ Federation – and our activities are also supported by the sugar industry, the Grain Growers Association and through a project partnership with the red meat industry.
Agrifood Awareness Australia Limited gives no warranty and makes no representation that the information contained in this document is suitable for any purpose or is free from error. Agrifood Awareness Australia Limited accepts no responsibility for any person acting or relying upon the information contained in this document, and disclaims all liability. August 2010.
I’m not a fan of comparisons like this. Why not go back one more year and claim an infinite fold increase? The 2 million adopters last year is better imo, or an average % increase per year, or an indication if the trend is upwards or not – taking any comparison from the very start of a tech and trying to use it to show anything isn’t particularly useful tho (I have the same distaste when anti-monsanto/roundup folk will decry the x fold increase in roundup since the intro of RR crops – O RLY? Who’d have frickin guessed)
Afaik that figure splits pretty evenly between biotech and breeding for Monsanto – $550M is still a huge chunk of change.
The science of crop transgenesis is so mature that it’s time for many academics to stand out of the way.
The only person qualified to conclusively assess crops with novel traits is the farmer.
The genetic manipulation (GM) of crops is half-baked. The annual GM industry-backed survey by ISAAA (www.isaaa.org) shows 7 of the 25 GM countries grew less GM crops in 2009 than 2008, with Paraguay down 19%. No countries adopted GM in 2009 and just 2.7% of global farmland had GM.
Indian Bt cotton expanded a little but the Indian government also banned commercial GM eggplant. In the EU the area of Monsanto’s GM corn fell in Spain, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia, and 5 other EU countries banned it outright. Over 60% of the increase in global GM crop in 2009 was GM maize in Brazil but deforestation of the Amazon for maize is unsustainable.
GM crops are not a global industry as just 6 countries dominate, with the USA, Brazil, Argentina, India, Canada and China growing 95% of all GM crops. 20 other countries, including Australia, grow some GM but are just dabbling.
GM crops are stalled, with no new commercial GM crops or traits since 1996 when GM soy, corn, canola and cotton were launched in the USA, with just 2 traits – Roundup tolerance and caterpillar killer, Bt. It’s like peddling Windows ’95 – GM technology and its products are past their use by date.
170 other countries and 60 territories remain GM-free. The Cartagena Biosafety Protocol will be completed this year, giving countries more scientific grounds for saying ‘no’ to GM crops. 160 countries are members of the treaty but Australia is not among them.
Not one commercial GM crop has increased yield, drought-tolerance, salt-tolerance, enhanced nutrition, a nitrogen-fixing grain or other trait promised by GM companies for 25 years. Yet GM crops also hinder the development of real solutions to hunger and climate change by restricting funding and farmer access to seeds and knowledge.
We should spend our scarce R&D money on smarter GM-free farming systems that feed people without wrecking the planet instead of using GM to prop up chemical/industrial farming. Industrial agribusiness must change as oil and phosphates are depleted and the climate changes. The sooner, the better.
Actually, there are more than just two traits commercialized. There is also virus resistance in squash, and in papaya as well. There are also several different Bt traits (in corn for both rootworm and corn borer) and more than one type of herbicide tolerance. We could debate about whether or not those are really ‘different’ traits, but there is more than just 2 on the market. Several others exist, such as nutritional enhancements that are in the approval process, and drought tolerant corn which I hear last night that is being trialled in Africa now.
Actually, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, GE crops have increased yield in the case of Bt corn. They only looked at Bt corn, and herbicide tolerant corn and soy, yet they still found a gain in yield on the farm level. And this comes from an organization that is highly critical of GE.
If you’re equating traits to windows ’95 then your analogy fails. Given that subsequent versions of windows were improvements on ’95 (for the sake of arguement at least, let’s not get into debate about whether various incarnations of Windows were abominations or not) – if you look at Bt as a for instance there are multiple different modes of action for above and below ground pests – so the initial release may have been the equivalent to windows 95, but then you have VT double pro corn which has 2 stacked Bt genes which we can perhaps equate with windows ’98, and then Vt triple pro which we can equate with windows 2000, and then of course smartstax which combines 8 different genes (6 different insect protection measures and 2 different HTs) which we can equate with whatever other version of windows you want.
It also isn’t true that there are no new GM crops or traits since 1996 (it’s almost so not true as to no longer even be false)
1996 saw the release of Bollgard cotton and RR soybeans
1997 saw the release of RR Canola and Cotton aswell as Bt Corn
1998 saw the release of RR corn and the first stacked trait of BtxRR in corn
2001 saw roundup ready 2 corn released (an improved version, so by your windows analogy a different version)
2003 saw the release of rootworm protected corn and bollgard II cotton
2004 saw the release of stacked insect control (above & below ground) corn
2005 saw the first triple stacked trait package (RR2, + above & below ground insect protection) and the deregulation of RR beets (a new crop? Shurely not)
2006 saw the introduction of roundup ready-flex cotton (essentially a RR2 type product for cotton) and stacked cotton with RRF & insect protection
2008 saw the release of RR2Y soybeans
Do you have hard evidence that there is a linkage between the increase in maize and the deforestation of the Amazon? From what I’ve seen maize increases are on land already used for Soy.
So long as you don’t consider Bt whatsoever – as Karl stated even in the US Bt has increased yields (even for non adopters) and once you leave the US the evidence is overwhelming that in lower input environments Bt increases yields dramatically by protecting agaisnt insects in a far more effective manner than ad-hoc spraying.
In what manner exactly does GM tech hinder funding of other activities? The bulk of funding for GM tech is corporate, this funding comes from sales of seed etc (at least in the case of Monsanto where ~10% of profit is funneled back to R&D) in which case it’s a pretty closed loop, given that ~50% of this money goes towards breeding your arguement is massively weak.
Why can’t GM solutions be even smarter? They can help use land, water, oil, phosphates, capital, and human labour better, with greater yield and less pest losses, and especially so in developing countries where yields are low and losses due to pests are high. Bt insect protection and virus-protected papaya are a good example of better environmental impacts. It’s irresponsible not to explore a range of better technology to look after the planet, and GM offers many useful paths to do that. And GM is not equivalent to industrial agribusiness. It is for any farmer — ask the Chinese and the Indians, and the Hawaiian papaya growers.
Bob Phelps will probably deny that drought resistant GM traits in maize exist, but they are tested in North America and S. Africa. I mentioned virus protected papaya. Salt-tolerant crops also exist. Omega 3 enriched soybeans, lysine enriched maize, and carotene enriched rice all exist. Thus the idea that there are just two traits is wrong. Bob’s idea that there is no momentum to GM approvals is belied by the decision this last year of China to approve both a new GM rice and GM maize, both with environmental benefits. One included a new feed digestibility trait , phytase production, not considered by Bob. (see http://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/3690 )
With all the pressure on food security and the environment, the sooner we bring through these traits the better.
Bob Phelps of the GeneEthics Network (which may be a network of one person) has done untold damage to progress in Australian agriculture.
If he stops pushing his anti-GMO agenda, he’s out of a job. No farmer would have him, so perhaps he could get a cushy job in an urban environment, where he doesn’t have to do anything that benefits anyone.
Wait… he already has that.
David: all my comments about the failures of Genetic Manipulation technique’s relate to the COMMERCIAL crops reported by the industry-backed ISAAA (www.isaaa.org) annually. If we accept ISAAA’s industry-generated data and analysis (for instance, I doubt the veracity of inflating 1 hectare of a crop stacked with 2 GM genes into 2 ‘trait hectares’) then commercial GM crops are clearly in reverse. Commercial GM crops are excluded from most of the world’s cropping systems and there have been no new commercial GM crops (worth ISAAA’s attention) since they were first launched in 1996. These are not the hallmarks of a successful and maturing technology. GM’s crude cut and paste techniques will not mediate most multi-genic traits, for the epigenetic reasons elaborated by Richard Strohmann and Barry Commoner long ago. Most crop traits you cite as present successes are at proof of concept or field trial stages and are doomed to fail when confronted with the ecological realities of farm environments. GM is an expensive time waster. We should rescue marker-assisted breeding from the wreckage and move on. Eric is just gratuitously insulting and deserves no comment.
Simply restating there have been no new crops since 1996 in the face of plenty of evidence to the contrary, even just confining ourselves to those comments made in this blog post, does not amount to a convincing case.
In the case of drought protection, it is scientifically wrong as you do to describe the multi-genic GM approach being used in practice as “simply cut and paste”, and your failure to mention that the drought resistance GM varieties in field tests are in fact deliberately altered in multiple traits, does rather undermine the credibility of your predictions about its outcome.
Since while claiming multi-genic changes will be needed for drought resistance (which is probably correct) you repeatedly misrepresent (or misunderstand) the biological features of current drought resistance maize varieties that are now in late-stage field trials (because they are in fact multi-genic manipulations), and particularly since your have also misrepresented them before in a previous media conversation with me, one is entitled to be skeptical about your judgement of its future failure.
As far as prediction of technology failures, I personally recall you making similar predictions around 1990 that GM approaches would be useless for cancer therapy, and your previous cancer therapy predictions have subsequently been proven to be completely wrong by the numerous GM cancer therapies now in the market. Why should your opinion about drought resistance be any more credible today than your wrong predictions about GM cancer therapies in the 1980s?
Barry Commoner may be a famous environmentalist, but he has made a lot of curious comments about biology and genetics that are not well accepted among modern biologists, so I find an unreferenced quotation from him to be unconvincing too. Was that missing source for Barry Commoner not mentioned by you because it is in a popular magazine (BARRY COMMONER / Harper’s Magazine Feb02.) rather than a real science journal?
This ISAAA report?
Looking at the ISAAA data I can only assume you are citing from the journal of proctological agriculture rather than the ISAAA – there is a clear year on year increase in biotech crop acreage from 1996 through 2009 (actual acreage and not trait acres which I’d agree is a poor measure of anything other than the popularity of stacked traits)
Direct quote from the pertinent slide
In what world is a sustained 7% increase a decrease in acreage or indeed indicative of a failing technology?
True, unless you read the ISAAA’s executive summary of the report linked above which explicitly states
No… New… biotech… crops – keep repeating the mantra – it won’t become any more true but it may make you feel better about the spectacular level of intellectual dishonesty it takes to make such bold assertions when the data highlighting how wrong you are is clearly available to anyone capable of using a web browser.
Even if this is true (I’ll cede to David’s comments on your predictive abilities) not being able to mediate most multi-genic traits != not being able to mediate any multi-genic traits.
Citation needed – field trials of drought tolerant corn have been succesful enough that the product has hit late commercial development in the Monsanto pipeline – this isn’t likely unless the product works.
Tell that to all the people who have saved/made money with GM technology and have saved time (y’know like Indian cotton farmers, US farmers etc etc)
Australia needs to wake up before it is too late. I have spent the last 25 years living in the states and BELIEVE ME – the food chain has gone to ruin and biodiversity a thing of the past.
I also attended the BONN symposium in 2008 with about 300 scientists from all over the world trying to put a stop on Monsantos insanity. We succeeded in creating a TREATY – IF YOU DONT KNOW ABOUT IT GET INFORMED! If Australia doesnt get on board we are truly missing one of the most important boats in history. It astounds me that we can be so ignorant and so blinded by the idea that GM and Monsanto have the answers. People / farmers – really need to wake up.
Is there any way you could actually give examples rather than asking us to act on faith? Preferably on how GMs in particular, rather than agriculture in general (or any of the other myriad factors involved such as expanding suburban areas, increasing populations etc), have impacted biodiversity or “ruined” the food chain.
Which insanity? The one improving farmers lives globally, or the secret project to create Triffids to wipe out life as we know it? (pending a meteor shower which blinds 95% of the population)
This really would have been a good opportunity to inform people – a link or somesuch would have been awesome, even a high level summary.
I think I already covered the whole waiting for the meteor shower to blind people – it would have been of somewhat more interest if you’d taken the time to actually spell out why GM can’t address some issues, or exactly what answers you think it is Monsanto is claiming to have that it doesn’t. Alas no though.
Max appears to be referring to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an international quarantine and customs treaty that creates a cooperative system to protect the global environment and human health from the impacts of living genetically manipulated organisms (LMO/GMOs). The protocol is the first and only treaty negotiated by parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). So it reflects the values and principles agreed by the world’s governments to reduce human impacts on our life support systems. The international community is sensibly attempting to minimize the risks posed by the international transfer, handling and use of GMOs.
I recently wrote to the Australian Government’s Trade Minister (the lead Minister) saying:
As a full member of the CBD, Australia has a responsibility to join the Protocol and to fully cooperate with the 160 other countries that are already parties. Australia should decouple itself from the US government and industry stance that seeks to undermine the protocol, especially as the USA is not even a party to the CBD.
The Australian government’s pretext for not signing or ratifying the Protocol has been that the treaty may be used to erect non-tariff barriers to trade. Gene Ethics asks you to reject this view as the objective, scientific basis of the Protocol’s regime is clear and unequivocal.
Other countries do not take the trade claims seriously. For instance, even among the 18 members of the Cairns Group of agricultural exporting countries (led by Australia) that collectively opposed negotiation of the Protocol and sought to minimise its powers, 13 have now ratified or acceded to the Protocol. (See: http://www.cbd.int). They recognize that the Protocol enhances biosafety and does not threaten trade.
Among Cairns Group countries, only Australia, Argentina, Canada, Chile and Uruguay remain outside the Protocol. North and South American states close to the USA remain dominated by US policy but Australia would benefit greatly from joining with the GM-free interests of other states in our region. Co-operation is essential to avoiding the predations of exotic imported GMOs. Australian governments must not support the production and export of GMOs worldwide with impunity and without orderly constraints.
We request the Australian Government, in this term of office, to meet its responsibilities as a member of the international community, to:
ο sign and ratify the Biosafety Protocol;
ο support the liability and redress provisions of the Protocol;
ο recognise the Protocol as a progressive customs and quarantine measure for protecting human and environmental health, not a ‘barrier to trade’;
ο improve co-operation with other countries and the global community on biosafety;
ο draw on the expertise of the Protocol’s roster of biosafety experts, to help strengthen domestic regulatory approaches in Australia;
ο support SBSTTA’s recommendations for global moratoria on Gene Use Restriction (Terminator) Technologies, synthetic biology and geo-engineering (See: http://www.cbd.int/sbstta14/);
ο increase co-operation and support for the Protocol’s Biosafety Clearing House;
ο adopt the principle of free prior and informed consent that respects parties’ rights to be fully informed about proposed GM imports and to exercise their rights to decide;
ο co-operate with the international community to monitor, test and protect against GM contamination incidents in the environment and food supply;
ο integrate biosafety issues into Australia’s National Biodiversity Strategy 2010-2020 from which it is now absent, even though the strategy purports to meet our treaty obligations;
ο amend the Commonwealth Environmental and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) and Gene Technology Acts to fully protect biodiversity and human health from GMOs;
ο enhance domestic mechanisms for the monitoring and recall of unapproved GM products that may contaminate the Australian food and animal feed chains;
ο protect our key export industries and our population from the threat of serious losses or health damage incurred through contamination by GMOs;
ο support public awareness raising and participation in decisions on biosafety;
ο invest in and fund independent research into the negative impacts of GMOs;
ο incorporate biosafety issues into ARC research funding criteria, with an institutional and structural commitment from governments;
ο establish an Australian Centre of Excellence on Biosafety to research, monitor and ameliorate the negative impacts of GMOs;
ο recognise and support biosafety research by independent scientists;
ο review and redress the shortcomings in OGTR and FSANZ regulatory approaches;
ο broaden the risk methodologies used by regulatory bodies, which now primarily assess chemical toxicity rather than GMO impacts on broader ecological and systemic processes;
ο marshal interdisciplinary expertise to support the more robust biosafety risk assessments and monitoring of systemic ecological and public health risks;
ο investigate evidence of organ dysfunction in animals that consume GM feed;
ο apply evidence from GM canola contamination in Japan, the USA and Canada to the spread of GM canola and related weeds in Australia;
ο address the risks posed by commercial GMO releases, to global food security, cultural heritage and species survival.
The Obama administration should join the CBD and also engage with the protocol in a spirit of constructive co-operation rather than destructive obstruction.
Bob, can you please explain the sentence: “Co-operation is essential to avoiding the predations of exotic imported GMOs.”
I am also hoping you’d be interested in providing clarification for a few of your demands of the Australian government.
“recognise the Protocol as a progressive customs and quarantine measure for protecting human and environmental health, not a ‘barrier to trade’”
Do you propose that every example of genetic engineering be quarantined and/or banned from entering the country? If not, how would a company/country/etc go about getting an exception? If getting an exception requires scientifically based proof, what sorts of tests would be adequate? Does this include products made from genetically engineered organisms or with the assistance of genetically engineered organism or does it only include living genetically engineered organisms?
“support SBSTTA’s recommendations for global moratoria on Gene Use Restriction (Terminator) Technologies, synthetic biology and geo-engineering”
Properly designed GURTs would greatly reduce the possibility of gene flow from genetically modified organisms to sexually compatible organisms, which could be seen as an environmental benefit. Please explain what is the rationale for this call for moratorium.
Synthetic biology is an emerging field that has a lot of potential, while there aren’t any risks unique to synthetic biology that would be eliminated by a moratorium. I would also like an explanation of why a moratorium is justified for synthetic biology.
Perhaps a better understanding of what synthetic biology and GURTs are would be useful. For information about synthetic biology, I recommend SyntheticBiology.org. We’ve discussed GURTs here at Biofortified, see: Terminator 2 My Mission is to Protect You, Gene flow, IP, and the terminator, and Contaminated.
“adopt the principle of free prior and informed consent that respects parties’ rights to be fully informed about proposed GM imports and to exercise their rights to decide”
Decide what? Whose rights matter? What if one group or person wants to import and the others do not? What if one group or person doesn’t want to import and the others do? The statement is very vague.
“invest in and fund independent research into the negative impacts of GMOs” and “establish an Australian Centre of Excellence on Biosafety to research, monitor and ameliorate the negative impacts of GMOs”
What’s the point? If the intent is a total ban of GMOs in Australia and testing and subsequent destruction of accidental imports, then who cares what the negative effects are? They’re banned anyway. There won’t be any negative (or positive) effects if they’re banned. It seems like a waste of funding.
“investigate evidence of organ dysfunction in animals that consume GM feed”
Will the numerous independently funded feeding studies that show no harm to a variety of animals be considered? Or just the studies that show harm? Will there be a proper review of experimental design and methodology of all of the studies?
“address the risks posed by commercial GMO releases, to global food security, cultural heritage and species survival”
Will the risks posed by non-GMOs be considered? There are incidences of “naturally” bred organisms causing havoc in ecosystems, reducing biodiversity, and causing a decline of cultural heritage. What about the risks of other things that can negatively impact food security, cultural heritage, and species survival such as new housing developments, use of pesticides, cutting down forests, use of fossil fuels, mining, etc. There are many things that objectively pose a far greater risk than GMOs but people seem to be ignoring them – doesn’t that seem like a problem? What about risks of not using GMOs? Will the risks of acting and of not acting be weighed?
Thanks in advance for your thoughtful response.
To me, Bob, that sentence says it all.
Since around 1975, ecologists have been working together internationally to deal with problems of invasive species. Do I have to explain that a local ecology can be negatively affected when an invasive species arrives? Do I have to explain that this has happened over and over again, that it continues to happen, and that sometimes effects are very calamitous?
But since 1992, the anti-GMO group captured the diplomatic effort and it has been impossible to accomplish anything except building up more and more protections from the possible hazards of living modified organisms.
Is this the most important threat to biodiversity?
I talked to a local gene flow expert, and asked them what the current biggest threat of gene flow was, and they said very quickly – Elm Trees. Siberian Elm trees, to be more specific. Totally non-GMO, but totally a problematic invasion. When you introduce an entire species, you introduce a suite of genes all at once, rather than just one or a few.
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