GM offers broad benefits: Barr

GM offers broad benefits: Barr

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In this week's letters to the editor, Andrew Barr details what he sees as the biggest benefits of GM technology, particularly for developing countries.

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Your prolific correspondent Alex Hodges ('Scrapping GM crop ban is a disappointing decision', Stock Journal, August 22) raises some often repeated claims about genetically-modified crops that require comment.

GM technology is too expensive for the third world. The cost of GM technology is indeed very high and includes the initial research and development, the variety development, the pre-release testing but mostly the cost of deregulation in the country growing the crop and buying it. Despite that, GM technologies do have a role in the third world.

GM eggplant or brinjal is widely grown commercially in Bangladesh as it improves crop yield and quality and saves weekly sprays for caterpillars. It has been so successful that farmers in neighbouring India are desperately seeking approval to grow it.

While working with CIMMYT - one of the 15 major crop centres with the responsibility of improving food security in the developing world - projects were undertaken breeding maize for sub-Saharan Africa with GM resistance to corn borer.

Major life science companies were offering their GM technologies through their charitable foundations or at a discount to the technology fees charged in developed countries. Furthermore, several of the Bt genes for insect resistance are nearing the end of their patent life and after that expires, the technology is freely available.

It is also worth noting that the rate of adoption of GM crops has been higher in developing than developed countries since about 2000 and since 2011 the developing countries account for more than half the global area sown to GM crops.

Breed drought tolerant crops using conventional means rather than GM. Australia has a long and proud history of breeding for drought tolerance. But, this is an extraordinarily difficult technical task and so all tools available to a plant breeder should be considered whether they be 'conventional', GM (transgenic approaches) or the newer gene editing approaches.

In my opinion, there is nothing to fear and much to gain from combining these approaches. Indeed, we will not deal with the projected impact of climate change on our cropping systems without this integrated approach.

Giant biotech companies fund university research. Yes, and why wouldn't they? Much of the work in gene discovery and innovative genetics and genomics comes from the universities - and government research agencies - but given the cost of deregulating a GM event for commercial use there are very few universities that could contemplate taking a new gene discovery to market by themselves.

We should encourage our governments to invest more in agricultural research and simplify the regulatory environment so that the public sector can play a greater role in technology delivery.

GM organisms cannot be corralled. GM versions of our major crops do not have super powers to leap tall buildings and studies have shown that they are no more likely to spread from point of origin than conventionally-bred varieties of those crops.

Experience in NSW, Vic and WA clearly shows that GM and non-GM canola can be successfully separated both on-farm and in the supply chain.

Health dangers of GM crops. GM crops are grown on more than 190 million hectares in 26 countries, for more than 25 years and so there is large-scale evidence of the safety of GM crops to complement smaller lab-scale studies.

The European Union supported extensive research into the health and safety issues associated with GM crops and concluded that there was no reason to suppose GM crops presented any new risks. Indeed, they commented that GM crops were probably safer due to the additional scrutiny and tighter regulation compared with conventional crops.

Organic crops are the future. I am a big fan of organic principles for your backyard veggie patch, and many of the principles of organic farming - integrated pest management, use of animal manures, crop rotation - are key parts of modern farming, but the reality is that for the world's staple crops, using current organic technology, yields will be 60 per cent to 70pc of current practices.

That is fine for affluent and well-fed countries in Western Europe, North America and Australia but try telling a farmer living on $2 a day in sub-Saharan Africa or Asia that there is suddenly one-third less food.

Andrew Barr,

Former University of Adelaide professor of plant breeding and CIMMYT board member, Pinery.

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