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GM food tarnished by urban myths

Sydney Morning Herald

Thursday February 17, 2011

Mark Tester - Mark Tester is a professor of plant physiology at the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics at the University of Adelaide.

The bigger cities grow, the more insular they become. This truism is ever so apparent in the recent rekindling of debate about the production of genetically modified foods and crops.Urban communities are becoming so disconnected with how food is actually produced that conventional farming faces growing problems of public perception and trust.This is not helped by the constant, ideologically driven doubt-mongering about GM technology by professional activists, such as Greenpeace, which undermines public confidence in the science that underpins our modern, efficient and sustainable food production system.We are told GM technology is unnecessary, yet the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates the number of humans on the planet will rise from 6 billion in 2000 to nearly 9 billion in 2050, and that food demand will rise by 70 per cent. Given historical increases in food production, it is improbable that farming systems based on conventional science and organics would be able to supply this increase in demand. There are more hungry people now than at any time in history.GM science will be an essential tool for food security in the decades ahead. In fact, it already is. In 2009, 134 million hectares of crops bred with the aid of the technology were planted in 26 countries. It is estimated that GM varieties of corn, soybean, cotton and canola have delivered tens of millions of tonnes of extra food and fibre since 1996.As for the contention that agri-corporations will "control seed supplies", farmers appreciate that research and development businesses need a return on their long-term investments. Most modern plant breeding is now done by public-private collaborations, and patents and royalties are required to fund the work. It is the global mechanism to provide incentive to innovate. Farmers make economic decisions to use GM; they do not have to use it and can equally use non-GM seeds.Eco-alarmist opponents of GM technology repeatedly refer to studies which purport to have discovered something harmful about its use. But such studies have, without exception, been discredited by the weight of mainstream scientific evidence, opinion and peer review, and by recognised independent regulatory agencies around the world. The truth is that approved GM varieties are safe for human health and the environment; they are subjected to far more intense, transparent and accountable analysis than conventionally bred varieties.Australia's world-class regulatory system is designed to pick up anomalies and look for potential problems. Safety is the first priority. Why would it be anything other than that?The proof of the safety of approved GM varieties is, literally, in the pudding: billions of meals containing GM ingredients have been consumed. In our stomach, all the proteins, starches, fats and oils that are in lettuce, carrots, potatoes, pumpkin, tomatoes, corn, soybeans, canola, dairy products, beef, lamb, chicken, fish and shellfish are all broken down into the basic biochemical amino-acid building blocks, and no genetic material becomes incorporated into our genes.While city people are urged to stop the use of GM canola, our farmers are heading in a different direction. In only the third year of its commercial production in Australia, hundreds of our farmers chose to grow nearly 133,300 hectares of GM canola in NSW, Victoria and WA last year - nearly12 per cent of the total canola crop.Incidentally, more than 90 per cent of Australia's cotton crop is grown from GM varieties. City folk should compare the hullabaloo over GM canola to the non-issue of GM cotton. Both crops use Roundup-Ready technology, both crops use few agricultural chemicals and both crops produce edible oils for cooking and meal for livestock supplements. So why the fuss about canola?What will the activists decry when more GM varieties come to market? Australian researchers are using GM to help develop papaya, pineapple, sugar cane, grape vines, carnations, chrysanthemums, rice, white clover, wheat, Indian mustard, banana, barley, perennial ryegrass, tall fescue, corn and rose varieties with new traits that reduce production risks and underpin yield.It is a good thing that people have a view about how their food is produced. It is best to have an informed view.

© 2011 Sydney Morning Herald

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