Issue 33 / 31 August 2015

MAKING use of modern biotechnology, including genetic modification, is one way to reduce pressure on our agricultural resources by improving food quality, increasing crop productivity and helping crops adapt to environmental stresses such as drought and salinity.
Environmental benefits from genetically modified (GM) crops, such as reduced pesticide use and lowered agricultural CO2 emissions, are already being experienced, as well as research and development of added health benefits such as wheat that could reduce cholesterol and vitamin A-enriched rice that addresses malnutrition in the developing world.
With these benefits in mind, it was disappointing to read about GM food safety concerns in MJA InSight last week. The claims made about the safety of GM foods in the article simply do not stack up to evidence-based scientific scrutiny.
GM crops and the food they produce have been widely tested and repeatedly declared safe by independent scientific bodies and regulators. This includes Australian regulators responsible for pre-market assessment of live and viable genetically modified organisms — the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) — and for food containing GM ingredients — the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ). 
 A number of scientific and regulatory bodies that have examined the evidence have arrived at the conclusion that GM crops and the foods they produce are as safe as their conventional counterparts. This includes the WHO, the Australian Academy of Science, the European Commission, the US National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society UK and many more.
Labelling of GM foods and food ingredients allows consumers to make an informed choice about the foods they buy. Australia has some of the most stringent food labelling requirements in the world, with any foods containing more than a negligible amount (1%) of approved GM ingredients to be clearly labelled. These requirements are overseen by the FSANZ.
The reference in last week’s MJA InSight article to the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) listing of glyphosate and 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid as probable and possible carcinogens was also taken out of context and misleading. 
The IARC’s remit is to identify the potential hazard of a product. However, it is the job of regulators to conduct risk assessments, taking into account hazard and exposure, to ensure that crop protection products are only approved for use when shown to be safe for humans and the environment.
The IARC clarifies this distinction in a question and answer document on its website which states: “The IARC Monographs Programme evaluates cancer hazards but not the risks associated with exposure.”
Calls for regulatory action on crop protection products such as glyphosate, based on the IARC’s hazard identification, are therefore unfounded — risk assessments carried out by the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues and by major regulatory agencies around the world (including the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority remain valid. 
Likewise, while a recent New England Journal of Medicine article quite rightly draws attention to the importance of managing herbicide resistance, the article is a confused conflation of two separate, but related issues — the use of GM crops and the use of herbicides. 
Yale academic Dr Steven Novella writes on the Neurologica blog that the NEJM authors “falsely equate GMOs with herbicides, and falsely create alarm about non-existent risks of GMOs, while downplaying the fact that there is no specific risk to the technology itself”
It was also disappointing that a pig study was referred to in the MJA InSight article without reference to a critique of the study by OTGR. OTGR found the study was “of poor quality” and that “there are many problems with the study design, execution, data analysis and reporting that severely limit its value”. It said the “data do not support the authors’ claims and the publication does not bring into question previous regulatory assessments or approvals”.
In its response to the study, the FSANZ concluded that “there are many deficiencies with the design, conduct and reporting of the study. These deficiencies are sufficient to invalidate the study conclusions”.
Misinformation and misleading claims have no place in the discussion of our food production and alarmist unfounded claims should be disregarded. 
Matthew Cossey is the chief executive officer of CropLife Australia, the national industry organisation of the plant science industry including Monsanto, Syngenta and Nufarm Australia. 

9 thoughts on “Matthew Cossey: GM benefits

  1. Dr Trilochan Mukkur says:

    I, as an Australian citizen, am concerned about the adverse health effects of the pestides/herbicides used to produce GMO foods. As a member of the public, it will be highly unusual for  Matthew Cossey, CEO of the national industry organization [NIO] including private commercial enterprises to state other than what he has said. If he did state the opposite, his job will be likely at risk as the CEO.

    I have the following suggestions for the NIO:

    1. Support research of medical scientists/practitioners in an organisation, completely non-aligned with the industry, on the effects of the GMO products and herbicides on the physiological functions of humans using appropriate placebo controls.

    2. Improve labelling of food products indicating the percentage of GMOs used and the countries where they were produced.

    I certainly would welcome such information as a consumer and theoretically should be helpful in allaying fears of public about the safety of GMO foods.

    3. Then there are countries where there is food shortage owing to destruction by pests. In such cases, the choice is limited – Eat what ever is available or face the alternative undesirable outcome of leaving this dimension of life!

  2. Communicable Disease Control Directorate says:

    The problem, Anonymuos Australian Citizen, is that as soon as the NIO, or any of its members, supports in any way (financial or otherwise) any research, interpretation, or statement  that is challenging the “GMO is inherently dangerous” narrative, the fallacious counter-argument against the rigour of the science is trotted out. Of course, industry sponsored research does add bias to any study, but that is why scientists as a group, and science as a process/concept tries to declare and appreciate the biases whilst drawing conclusions, including trying to grade the independence of the research as a total body of work.  The studies which you request have already been  performed, and can be found with minimal effort – they have been interpreted by independent academics as well as those with vested interests, and the answer is the same : GM foods are very likely to be very safe.  Generating a Strawman (herbicides, which are used by all farmers, and most lay people in their own gardens) in an attempt to discredit GM crops doesn’t provide any reassurance, and certainly doesn’t lead anyone closer to the truth. Herbicides and pesticides are the issue, not GM crops (which require a variable amount of such chemicals, depending on the context.)

    Increased labelling regarding the presence, absence or origin of GM components would not allay anyone’s fears. Those who understand the safety and utility of such products have already allayed their fears by reading and interpreting the vast  literature on the subject, and those who are frightened by the Frankenstein factor will have their unfounded fears validated, thus strengthening them. 

    The research should continue, but the hungry need to eat!

  3. Jack Verbeek says:

    FSANZ and the OGTR rely on GM applicants to do their own safety testing (think tiobacco) – your article is further propaganda for the benefit of the biotech industry – why are you promoting them, of what benefit is it to you?

  4. Jon Singleton says:

    CEO of CropLife Australia is selling an honest statement, “Misinformation and misleading claims have no place in the discussion of our food production…” They ARE scared cos the average citizen is becoming increasingly aware of a bad smell in the science lab. 

  5. SA Health Library Network says:

    Genetic modification of crops occurs in all programs for breeding new varieties. The oldest way is to breed from organisms which have arisen by chance and we take advantage of random natural mutations. 

    In developing the crops that gave the world the “Green Revolution” the mutation rate of the plants being screened for desirable mutations was increased by irradiating the seeds so that there would be more random mutations to chose from. 

    Most of the mutations occuring under these techniques are deleterious but the odd one was beneficial and the plant that grew had a useful characteristic. 

    Modern methods of genetic modification mean we have a much greater control of what mutation (genetic change) we have available to investigate.

    We already use genetically modified organisms all the time to make complex biologically active molecules, things from Insulin and growth hormone to all sorts of drugs with names ending in -mab and -ib.

  6. Jon Singleton says:

    With respect Helen, “[taking] advantage of random natural mutations.” is really NOT the same thing as using a modified agricultural production technology in the majority of GM crops — CaMV promoter (used as a gene switch to turn genes on and off).  The conventional, perfectly safe version of the CaMV plant virus is everywhere in nature.  But in GM it has been changed, becoming structurally unstable depending on basepair length of the transgene construct — it’d help to read the 2012 research, “Possible consequences of the overlap between the CaMV 35S promoter regions in plant transformation vectors used and the viral gene VI in transgenic plants”. By Nancy Podevin and Patrick du Jardin.  

  7. Christoph Ahrens says:

    To me the real problem is that I don’t know anymore who to trust. This is a widening problem. Mainstream media is controlled by links to industry, the same accounts for our government. On the other side you have self proclaimed independent “sources” who paint a catastrophic picture close to no return scenario. Their apocalyptic views are abviously in stark contrast to the “all is well” message from industry and regulators. Who do you choose to trust???


  8. Sue Ieraci says:

    Who to trust? As experts in medical care, we should look to advice from those who know as much about GM (or climate change, or any other scientific area) as we do about the science and practice of medicine. Just like in medicine, we want opinions from independent experts, backed up by evidence, and with any COIs declared.

  9. Dr Horst Herb says:

    The biggest risk in GMO seems the dependence on buying seedstock – it destroys the autonomy of farmers and makes small scale farming unviable. Genetic modification would not do this as such, but currently all available GMO stock is expensive and heavily patent protected.

    Given that small scale farming is environmentally far less destructive and creates jobs and has been proven over millenia to be long term sustainable, whereas large scale farming is an environmental disaster and destroys jobs, the worry about health implications of GMO becomes secondary. The business model behind it is evil and destructive and not compatible with long term sustainability.

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