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GM wheat: the story of our daily bread | TechNyou

TECHNYOU (reproduced here by kind permission of TechNyou)

Australian consumers will soon be eating GM bread that has never been proven safe, according to Greenpeace.
Greenpeace have lately been rattling the can about CSIRO’s proposed trials of GM wheat that have altered starch characteristics. Part of the proposal to the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator was for possible human feeding trials, which they especially didn’t like.
As part of what Greenpeace say is just the beginning of a concerted push to oust any GM wheat from Australia and elsewhere in the world – research trial or otherwise, they yesterday released a report, “Australia’s wheat scandal: the takeover of our daily bread”. They certainly didn’t pull any punches in their criticism of CSIRO and other research organisations such as the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics.

Is the criticism justified?

I thought I had better check it out. In trying to get a handle on the actual CSIRO research, I have spoken to CSIRO’s Dr Matthew Morell, Theme Leader, Future Grains, Food Futures Flagship, who headed the research into the GM wheat with altered starch characteristics. I go into more detail about this wheat as we go and at the end.
First the Greenpeace report. If I was to go through every part of the report I thought needed clarification or context you would need to take an annual leave day to read it so these are just some of the main points. The report is also often a political and economic debate rather than a scientific one and so steps outside our agenda.

Greenpeace claim: Commercialised GM wheat by 2015.

This is highly unlikely. The closest GM wheat to commercialisation is the CSIRO wheat mentioned above and that is still in the research phase rather than any final tweaking for commercialisation. Dr Morell says that it would be at least 2017 before that hits the market, if all goes well with the proposed research trials and it gets through all the regulatory hoops and hurdles – and further trials.

Conflicts of interest?

Greenpeace are concerned that this year’s GM wheat trials were proposed and approved while two directors of Nufarm were serving on the board of the CSIRO. I am unsure how this is relevant as CSIRO are not lawfully allowed to approve such trials. This is the responsibility of the Australian regulator agency, Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR). CSIRO can chat and approve all they like internally, but they cannot conduct any such trials – laboratory or field – unless they apply to and get approval from the OGTR – which they have.
See CSIRO’s OGTR application DIR 093, and if you are interested all the other applications at this url

Shoddy science?

Under their heading of “Shoddy Science”, Greenpeace make the following claims about gaps or flaws in our regulators’analysis:
Failure to require corporate applicants to conduct molecular analysis to map gene insertion sites and copy number. This means that scientists and their corporate partners do not know what and where they have inserted novel genes into GM wheat before releasing it into the environment.
And – Failure to require corporate applicants to disclose evidence of short-term genetic stability.
And – Failure to require corporate applicants to disclose details on genes inserted, declaring this information ‘commercial in confidence’. (this one is partially true in that such sequences are not released publicly, but they must be made available to the regulators – FSANZ, at least – as part of their assessment)
I am unsure where they got there information from for this statement, but this information is exactly what Food Standards Australia New Zealand require as part of any application to have a GM food assessed before it is approved for human consumption. See references below for a more detailed idea of just what FSANZ do re: safety assessment of GM foods. And yes, I am aware that many of those opposed to GM crops think their assessment is insufficiently rigorous, but that is not for me to judge. The other side think their assessment procedures are too rigorous and make the cost of doing such research only accessible to those with lots of money – ie big corporations.
And – Failure to require corporate applicants to provide evidence that GM will not cause toxic or allergic effects in animals and humans. No amount of testing on animals or humans can prove that GM is safe.
Apart from the fact that no amount of testing can prove that non-GM or conventionally-bred food is safe either, I can only assume that Greenpeace are referring to the CSIRO wheat with altered starch trait at the stage of the research it is at now, in which case this statement is true. But the point is that the CSIRO wheat trials are research trials only. That is, they are trials designed to understand if the technology is working as they want it to. That is, the genes they silenced are having the desired affect. Should they decide that they can take this knowledge into a commercial variety then the research testing for toxicology and to determine if any unintended affects such as increases in allergenic compounds or anti-nutrients are present will be done. In fact, it is mandatory as part of any FSANZ assessment application.
As Greenpeace point out there may be all sorts of unintended affects caused by inserting chunks of DNA into a genome. This is well acknowledged and as pointed out is part of any research process to understand what unintended affects have occurred, what caused them and why. As far as the CSIRO wheat goes this stuff is par for the course. I guess the question for the consumer is whether this is sufficient testing? How safe does our food need to be before we are prepared to eat it?

Human feeding trials

The Greenpeace report states that The CSIRO announced that GM wheat from this year’s field trials in the ACT will be used for human feeding trials. This will be the first time in the world that GM wheat will be tested on humans. CSIRO and its global biotech partner, Limagrain, intend to test GM wheat on rats and pigs before testing it on Australians. However, there is currently no publicly available information on the parameters of these animal-feeding studies
CSIRO have been granted approval for human feeding trials, but they have yet to decide if they will conduct them. This approval came following a full application to the OGTR in addition to approval from a human ethics committee that is made up of external experts and operates under the NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research) guidelines.

The human feeding trials – these ones anyway – have nothing to do with safety testing. If conducted, they will assess if the altered starch characteristics are having the desired affect. That is, the wheat has been altered to have higher levels of the resistant starch, Amylose, which is important for bowel health. For this type of analysis, one or two days are apparently all that is required to establish any effect.

Initial tests on rats have shown improvement in indices of bowel health. This research was published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in February 2006. You have to scroll down a bit. It is under the heading Biological Sciences.
Full reference below.
They have also done further trials on rats and pigs. The data from the rat trial and pig research is still being crunched and written up and will be released in a peer-reviewed publication soon. Further animal trial will be conducted.
Suffice to say that there is publicly available information on the parameters of the animal feeding studies. What isn’t soon will be once the data has been analysed. If Greenpeace think this is limited information, it is because the status of the research is still preliminary.

Greenpeace research on health risks of GM crops

Doubtless that in many cases Greenpeace’s claims about difficulties in obtaining GM seed for testing are true, but it can be done and there are loads of independent and peer-reviewed papers out there. In their open letter to CSIRO and report, Greenpeace highlight three papers relevant to the safety of GM food – see below. Two of the three papers (I have yet to check out the last one) have been soundly rejected by scientists as dodgy, the second one wasn’t even peer-reviewed and the claims have since been withdrawn.
Pusztai A. and Bardocz S. (2006). GMO in animal nutrition: potential benefits and risks. In: Biology of
Nutrition in Growing Animals, eds. R. Mosenthin, J. Zentek and T. Zebrowska, Elsevier Limited, pp. 513-
Velimirov, A., Binter, C., and Zentek, J. (2008) “Biological effects of transgenic maize NK603xMON810
fed in long term reproduction studies in mice” Bundesministerium für Gesundheit, Familie und Jugend
Report, Forschungsberichte der Sektion IV Band 3/2008, Austria
Dona A. and Arvanitoyannis I.S. (2009) Health Risks of Genetically Modified Foods. Crit Rev Food Sci
Nutr., 49: 164–175.
Commentary on these papers can be found t the following:

Who you calling whitebread?

Greenpeace’s report says the following:
They (CSIRO and Limagrain) claim that GM white bread is the answer to reducing bowel cancer rates in Australia.
CSIRO’s Dr Morell would disagree with that. In my conversation with him, Dr Morell is suggested that this wheat is just one potential solution among many that can contribute to better health. Morell says at the population level it can help provide a better diet to consumers.
And yes, I did push him on this, suggesting that wouldn’t it be more beneficial to get people to eat more wholegrains and a healthier diet all round rather than spending 20 years and millions on one wheat plant that might make a minor contribution overall?
He did agree with this, but he pointed out that too many people don’t and won’t ever make the effort to eat a healthy diet, and so much of the processed food available uses refined flour.

Barleymax – a digression

I guess, there is a marketing decision here as well similar to CSIRO’s BarleyMax which is out there at the moment, which is another story because it has been bred by a process of mutagenesis, a standard way of plant breeding that has been used for decades. In this case CSIRO researchers exposed the barley seed to a chemical mutagen which randomly mutates and scrambles the barley’s DNA in weird and unknown ways. One of those mutations produced the BarleyMax individual which was used to breed the line now seen in cereals and health products in Australian supermarkets. It is branded as such, so you can’t miss it and you pay for it too.
The point of my digression is that all the health claims Greenpeace are making about a wheat that hasn’t even got to the health testing phase yet can equally apply to this BarleyMax grain, so why aren’t they also complaining about it? And BarleyMax, nor any of the 2500-odd cereals, fruits and vegetables bred via this method over the years, have had any safety testing or regulatory scrutiny. Equally, there is corporate ownership and IP/patents attached to the product.

Back to the report – PR diet

Greenpeace say, false promises of the benefits of GM crops are nothing new for the biotech industry and ‘functional’ GM crops are the latest misleading PR exercise. ‘Golden Rice’ is still being pushed as the answer to malnutrition in Asia, despite its failure to offer real solutions to Vitamin A deficiency.
I have no idea how they can justify this claim. First, Vitamin A rice isn’t commercially available anywhere yet. It is in the final stages of testing and integration into regional cultivars so it can hardly fail to offer solutions when it hasn’t been grown or eaten yet to establish this. And I have yet to talk to or read about any scientist/plant breeder working with nutritionally enhanced crops that thinks or says such crops are the answer to malnutrition. Such crops are viewed as one tool that offers the potential to help with the problem. The same people all agree that such crops much be integrated into other programs (social, political and agronomic) to help sort this problem. See the YouTube vid comments made at our National Science Week event in Adelaide last year discussing this very topic. And a reminder we are running a similar event in Melbourne this year on 10 August.

GM versus MAS

According to Greenpeace, Dr Matthew Morell, admits that a conventional equivalent of the high Resistant Starch wheat has been developed using marker assisted selection (MAS) alongside the GM variety, but the preference is to commercialize the latter if possible.
Well when I spoke to Morell, he made a point of saying that the current GM wheat trials are purely research trials and if they prove fruitful they will use this knowledge to develop a commercial wheat variety with these characteristics. This may be via marker-assisted selection or via transgenic (GM). The preference for transgenics mentioned by Green
peace is because wheat has a tricky genome made up of between two and six genomes (sets of chromosomes) that eventuated through natural hybridisation over hundreds of years. This characteristic makes it difficult (often impossible) to isolate and introduce new traits via marker-assisted selection. Hence the preference for transgenics.

The CSIRO GM wheat

There is actually also barley bred for similar traits that are part of the same trial application. Both the wheat and barley are bred to contain high levels of the resistant starch amylose, which is important for bowel health – read more on the CSIRO publication.
Essentially, they found two genes associated with starch synthesis in the wheat plant. Via a technique called gene silencing they down regulated the activity of these genes (made them less active) which led to the proportion of amylase starch in the grain rise to about 70%.
CSIRO explanatory on gene silencing – PI_info_genesilencing
To achieve the equivalent result in the barley they only had to silence one of these genes.
So far the research program into understanding starch synthesis and the genes involved in cereals has been going for nearly 20 years. The research in transferring this knowledge to generating a cereal with altered starch characteristics has been going for about 12 years – ie obviously the two research streams have been happening alongside each other for some of this time.
And as mentioned, assuming the current research proves fruitful and everything goes without a hitch with regulators, etc, then it won’t be until at least 2017 that a commercial variety is available.
So, is the criticism justified? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Other references

Food Standards Australia New Zealand – safety assessment of GM foods. A guidance document
PNAS paper
High-amylose wheat generated by RNA interference improves indices of large-bowel health in rats.
Ahmed Regina, Anthony Bird, David Topping, Sarah Bowden, Judy Freeman, Tina Barsby, Behjat Kosar-Hashemi, Zhongyi Li, Sadequr Rahman and
Matthew Morell.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published 27 February, 2006,



  1. In my opinion it’ s clear that GM crops are over-regulated.
    But with people like greenpeace activiest any regulation to potentially improve the safety of our food will be NEVER enough in the case (and ONLY for this case) of food coming from gm vegetables.
    At the bottom of their noising and boring complaining there is a lot of fear and disgust.
    And you cannot convince even your little child to eat any healthy food like cabbages or lattuce if he feels disgust about it.

  2. Millions already eat gm maize and soy with no ill effects. Greenpeace are a multinational who make money by selling fear. they should focus on the real issue of climate change and stop fueling the anti science agenda.

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