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 http://apvma.gov.au/) 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.