We have all heard the facts – more food will be required to feed a growing world population, with less arable land. In short, it is going to get more crowded in here.
There is little doubt that consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about the origin of their food and how it has been produced. More and more consumers are demanding that their food be produced in an ethical and sustainable way and the market for organic fruit and vegetables as well as meat, is increasing.
Ever since the 1906 publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which unwittingly exposed unsanitary practices in the American meatpacking industry, food safety and hygiene have been increasingly important factors for the consuming public.
However, far too often consumers are allowing activist groups to define ‘threats’ to the community’s wellbeing through hysteria whipped up via global social media campaigns that often contain selected and twisted versions of the truth, if they contain any facts at all.
Genetically Modified or GM foods are just one target of such sensationalist campaigns of misinformation. Scaremongering by anti-GM food activists includes everything from environmental damage, to the production of ‘super-weeds’ and resistant pests, to potentially horrible health consequences of eating modified foods.
But the claims made by anti-GM activists that GM foods are unsafe have no basis whatsoever (neither do any of their other claims). In July 2013, the Director of Biotechnology for the American Centre for Science in the Public Interest said ‘there is no reliable evidence that ingredients made from current GE crops pose any health risk whatsoever’ (Food Navigator-USA.com).
Further, in March 2015, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said ‘foods derived from genetically engineered plants must meet the same legal standards, including safety standards, as foods derived from traditional plant breeding methods.’
It is fair to say that almost all of the food that we eat today has been the result of selective breeding processes over thousands of years. Various crop traits such as yield, disease resistance, hardiness and taste, were preferred over time, which has meant that most crops are significantly different to their initial wild cousins.
By way of example, the humble potato is one of the most ubiquitous crops on the planet. But the original wild potatoes were quite toxic as they contained a poisonous alkaloid, a trait of the nightshade family of plants.
Mutagenic techniques (exposing plants to radiation and/or chemicals to produce mutant plant strains) have also been used by scientists for over 70 years to produce desirable traits.
Selective breeding and mutagenic techniques are still practiced, but given that the outcomes are often unknown and the process can take many years before a desirable trait is produced, scientists are increasingly looking to utilise technology that provides greater certainty.
Compared with selective breeding and mutagenic techniques, GM technology allows scientists to be very specific in terms of the outcome they are trying to achieve, often by the insertion of a single gene.
University of California, Davis researchers last year went a long way towards allaying community concerns in relation to the safety of GM technology. They published a ground-breaking study into the health of US livestock straddling the period pre and post-introduction of GM animal feed in 1996.
In summary, the study found that there were no unusual trends in the health of animals since GM feed was introduced, that is, GM feed is just as safe as non-GM feed.
These findings mirror a significant number of prior studies that reached the same conclusion. The difference with this study is the size of dataset involved: 29 years of livestock production and more than 100 billion animals, which represents trillions of GM meals!
GM crops have made farming practices vastly more sustainable, by decreasing the use of herbicides, removing the need for tillage (which increases the potential for soil erosion and degrades the soils potential) and increasing yield.
The West Australian Government is considering lifting the ban on GM foods completely – WA is currently one of 5 states that have banned GM technology with a moratorium on canola. GM canola production has quadrupled in WA since 2010 with more and more farmers taking up the GM option for the benefits it provides, such as protection from weeds and increased drought resistance.
But the move to lift the ban completely, which would enable GM wheat production, is meeting with resistance from some sectors concerned that our ‘brand’ may be spoilt and that overseas markets (particularly Europe – a large GM free market) could shy away from Australian product.
Queensland and NSW have not banned the commercial production of GM cotton and canola crops. The benefits of GM cotton have become clear to the Australian cotton industry, as essentially the entire Australian cotton crop is based on transgenic varieties.
GM technology has unfortunately become a flash point in some quarters, and it has earned an unfair and unjustified reputation. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to the misinformation campaign, and industry participants across the production spectrum should focus on the many benefits that can be derived from this technology.
By way of example, the 2010 Seventh Annual Report on Crop Biotechnology, amongst other things, determined that ‘crop biotechnology has contributed to significantly reducing the release of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices. This results from less fuel use and additional soil carbon storage from reduced tillage with GM crops. In 2010, this was equivalent to removing 8.6 million cars from the road for one year.’