The issues surrounding food production in Australia are so overwhelmingly large and urgent that it's hard to pause for a moment and think carefully, weighing the risks and rewards of actions that overlap between complex fields of study and competing interests. There are lists now of which Australian cities are likely to run out of water first -- Melbourne in perhaps 63 weeks -- and irrigation has already been halted for food production in the Murray Darling region. If we widen our scope to include the urgent concerns of our near-Asian neighbours, we're faced with the global threats of bird flu that might mutate into strains able to cross from infected to healthy humans, creating a pandemic. And the world's population is rising fast, with no commensurate increase in our ability to be able to feed everyone.
Australian Government websites, both Federal and State, are appealing to broad ethical concerns, making it appear irresponsible not to genetically retool our foodstuffs to make them more environmentally flexible, gird them to prevent disease, and boost their nutritional value to address world hunger. These are the same as the promises being made by the producers of GMO's. It's hard to calculate the potential benefits, and even harder to imagine the potential risks. And while we rapidly run out of water, we ordinary Australians panic and reach for offered miracles.
The risks seem almost unmeasurably complex. If we start to use food crops to produce medicine how do we regulate the doses? What happens if we unknowingly mix different kinds of medicinal foodstuffs, or mix medicinal foodstuffs with traditional medicines? How do we measure the safety of a processed ready-to-eat meal made with gm drought resistant grains, transgenic frost resistant tomatoes, milk designed to prevent birth defects, and chicken genetically modified to resist bird flu? Are we at risk from genetically modified foodstuffs fed to the animals we eat? What happens if transgenic creatures accidentally mate and it exposes some trait we hadn't bargained on and don't want? No alternate arguments are being presented about the possibility of changes in diet and lifestyle to alleviate the need for so many medicines and no discussion about the business synergies and financial motivations of the global agribusiness concerns.
"This is the key issue for the second generation GMOs" Jack Heinemann told me by e-mail. "The first generation was plants with altered agronomic qualities, intended to be in other respects substantially equivalent to conventional. The second generation are designed to be significantly different either because they produce pharmaceuticals or other industrial chemicals or have purposely altered nutritional qualities."
Jack Heinemann is a professor of molecular biology in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and director of its Center for Integrated Research in Biosafety. He carries out a broad and complex assessment of the risks of genetically modified and engineered organisms with a particular focus on horizontal gene transfer, where genetic material is passed between organisms by methods other than direct breeding.
The Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety is independent of commercial interests in GMO products, transdisciplinary and involved with international collaborative projects. "The centre brings together scientists skilled in biotechnology research and safety assessment and social scientists with experience in the evaluation of the ethical, social, cultural and political impacts of novel technologies. This team is committed to working collaboratively across disciplinary boundaries and to modelling new forms of integrated research." I asked Jack if there's a short description of how this process works.
"No, except to say that it is hard and that is why so few people do it" he replied. "It requires natural scientists like myself to take a genuine interest in law, regulation, gender and culture (at the research level), and for social scientists to acquire a reasonable standard of knowledge about particular aspects of the natural sciences. Not many folks are prepared to do this in such depth, and among them only a handful are interested in this particular topic. More importantly, it is a combination of skills that we don’t find easy to sell to the funding agencies, possibly because they don’t have people who understand the value of the skills mixture or how difficult it is to develop this mixture and maintain it."
In June the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a background study paper he's written called A Typology of the Effects of (Trans)Gene Flow on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Genetic Resources (PDF). The paper, which was reviewed by an expert panel and edited by the author to incorporate their comments and corrections, provides an overview of current research into the effect of transgene flow, as well as a review of past and possible future actions by governments and stakeholders. In the Executive Summary, he writes
The consequences of transgene flow are difficult to generalize. This is because of the variety of transgenes being developed, plants being made transgenic, environments in which GM plants are being introduced, legal systems operating worldwide, and stakeholder motivations. The only generalization that is possible is that transgene flow offers no intended benefits. Gene flow may not always be harmful, but it is highly unlikely to offer a fortuitous or designed advantage for those in the biotechnology industry, farmers that adopt GM crops, farmers that choose not to, those who value the present biodiversity of plants and wildlife, or those who monitor GM presence for safety or regulatory reasons. Gene flow potentially undermines the revenue of developers when those who do not buy transgenic seed nevertheless benefit from its agronomic properties. Simultaneously the industry may have increased costs from protecting their intellectual property, or exposure to additional liabilities. Farmers who do or do not adopt GM crops gain nothing from the flow of transgenes to wild relatives or to neighbors’ farms. They may even incur liabilities if transgenes do flow. Non-GM farmers also risk losing differentiated market certifications. (p. 2)
The weighing up of the safety of genetically modified foodstuffs is the concern of the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) division of the Federal Government. It's a two part process: first the Office of Gene Technology Regulator, reviews the organisms according to the guidelines in the Gene Technology Act 2000 "in order to protect the health and safety of Australians and the Australian environment by identifying risks posed by or as a result of gene technology, and to manage those risks by regulating certain dealings with genetically modified organisms."
If those genetically modified organisms are to become food for human consumption, FSANZ carries out further reviews, "after the OGTR has decided they are safe in the form of crops to be released into the environment, Food Standards Australia New Zealand does its own checks to see whether they are safe for humans to eat. We have a special Food Standard Standard 1.5.2. - foods produced using gene technology – that regulates the sale of GM foods in Australia and New Zealand. The standard has two provisions - a mandatory pre-market safety assessment requirement and a mandatory labelling requirement."
By the end of last year FSANZ calculated that it had approved "31 different GM foods, including modifications of corn, cottonseed (the oil of which is edible), canola, soy, sugar beet and potato." The complexity of dealing with the practical realities of the risks of genetically modified foodstuffs is highlighted in an application to the Office of Gene Technology Regulator. Monsanto wants to bring the LY038 strain of corn into Australia, a strain that has been genetically modified to carry increased levels of the amino acid lysine. The corn won't be imported for use as seeds, but in a processed form as feed for humans and animals.
"There is no indication yet whether farmers will seek this corn for feed, so at present the corn’s main consumer will be human beings," Jack said. "Presently it will be grown in the United States where it will co-mingle in silos with food corn, and cross pollinate corn intended for human food. Most will be harvested for use as animal feed (at least initially), with the rest being milled for processed food with the corn intended for humans. In time, it might be used in food aid (ostensibly to supplement the diets of Africans, for example), or it may be grown commonly because there are no regulatory barriers to its presence in the human corn supply."
The Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety is concerned about the risks that might come from this corn being cooked:
LY038 has high concentrations of compounds that are known to produce food hazards when heated with the sugars found in corn. The modification results in highly elevated concentrations of lysine (total), free lysine (not in protein), saccharopine, α-aminoadipic acid, cadaverine and pipecolic acid, all of which may be converted into advanced glycoxidation endproducts (AGEs) during cooking and processing. AGEs are implicated in the development of complications from a variety of dietary-related diseases including diabetes and Alzheimer's, as well as cancer, and the normal effects of aging. AGE content in food increases with cooking and food processing temperatures and pressures.
Jack Heinemann is one of the sources Denise Caruso drew upon for her appeal to broaden the assessment of risk from genetically modified organisms in her book INTERVENTION: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet. Caruso suggests bringing more voices into the debate, from other branches of science, arts and humanities and the general public to augment the discussions between scientists directly involved in gene research and government agencies and business. "More than a decade ago, risk scholars figured out that the problems with assessing the risks of scientific interventions wasn’t so much a failure of traditional analysis per se, but a failure to involve other people in the process, people who inevitably have important knowledge and perspectives to contribute. With so much at stake, this failure to enlarge the conversation about risk is no longer tenable," she writes. "The mantra in the U.S. has always been 'let the market decide,' but if the market is obfuscating or ignoring the risks of the technologies it invents and sells, how do we intervene to change course? The most effective way is through better regulation and better advice-giving to lawmakers. First, we must ask our governments to adopt these more inclusive assessment methods. And until they do, we can learn to use them ourselves, to powerful effect. Contrary to popular belief, people have consistently proven themselves smarter and more capable of understanding the complexities of risk than decision makers give us credit for. Now we have a way to prove it. "
Photograph of DNA analysis from the National Institutes of Health image bank.