Starting this week, every state in mainland Australia will allow genetically modified crops. Here is why there is nothing to fear

On July 1, the government of New South Wales lift a ban on genetically modified (GM) crops after an 18-year moratorium. This means that GM crops can now be grown in all Australian states except Tasmania.

Large agricultural groups have welcomed moving. Proponents of GMOs say biotechnology leads to better crop yields and can solve food shortages and reduce weed and pest infestations.

But the adversaries say GM crops are a potential threat to the environment and human health. They fear the technology will encourage superweeds, increase resistance to antibiotics and food allergies in humans, and may have other unintended effects.

So where is the truth? Academic research suggests that GM crops are generally safe for humans and the environment, so I think the decision of the NSW government should be welcomed.

GM crops will be allowed in all states on the continent, despite opposition from some.
Greenpeace / AAP

What is genetic modification?

Genetic modification is the use of technology to change the genes of living things. This involves scientists injecting the DNA of one organism with genes from another, to give it a desirable trait such as resistance to drought, temperature extremes or pests.

Genetically modified crops were introduced commercially in the 1990s. The NSW moratorium began in 2003 following concerns from some importers and manufacturers. For example, countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia have been refusing GM grains, and Canada and Saudi Arabia had indicated they did not want GM-fed cattle.

Announce After the ban was lifted in March, NSW Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall said his government had worked to ensure that the trade and marketing problems surrounding GM foods were well managed. He said the Commonwealth Gene Technology Regulator will assess all applications for GM crops, making sure they are safe for people and the environment.

NSW’s move follows similar steps taken by other states on the continent in recent years, including South Australia, which lifted the GM ban in 2020 (with an exemption for Kangaroo Island). A moratorium remains in the ACT.

The NSW government says allowing the cultivation of GM crops will increase agricultural competitiveness and productivity and bring up to A $ 4.8 billion in profits over the next decade.

Read more: Combating the Wars of Disinformation in Africa: Applying Lessons from GMOs to COVID-19

woman in lab coat
Genetic modification involves injecting the DNA of one organism with the genes of another.
Alexander Plavevski

Benefits of lifting the ban on GMOs

So, are the benefits of GM crops real? To answer this question, we can look to three precedents: GM canola, cotton and safflower, which have been grown in Australia for many years. These crops were exempt from moratoria in New South Wales and other states, and evidence suggests their cultivation was successful.

GM cotton has been modified with insecticidal genes, which research shows makes it more resistant to parasites. Modified cotton also requires less insecticide use.

GM canola has been transformed to make it resistant to herbicides, allowing better weed control.

State moratoria have delayed the introduction of GM canola, including in New South Wales. Research in 2018, it was found across Australia that the environmental costs of the delay included an additional 6.5 million kilograms of active ingredient applied to canola land and an additional 24.2 million kg of greenhouse gas. greenhouse and other emissions released. The economic costs included a net loss to canola growers of A $ 485.6 million.

In recent years, Australian regulators permit canola crop modified to contain long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, prized for their health benefits. The canola variety has been hailed as the world’s leading vegetable source of omega-3s and may reduce reliance on fish stocks.

Safflower has been genetically engineered to contain higher amounts of oleic acid. These renewable oils can be used instead of oil, a finite resource, in products such as fuels, plastics and cosmetics.

Read more: The quest for delicious decaffeinated coffee could change appetite for GMOs

Harvesting with agricultural machinery
GM crops can be made resistant to herbicides.
Greenpeace / AAP

What are the risks ?

Experts concede there is only so much we can know about the long-term health effects of any food. however, scientists widely okay, the evidence so far suggests that GM crops are eat safely. This view is supported by the World Health Organization.

Foods derived from GM plants are consumed by millions of people in many countries. And in Australia, the authorities rigorously assess all GM foods before they are sold to consumers.

However many countries ban again the cultivation of GM foods. And some people remain concerned about the effects on human health. Concerns include that antibiotic resistance can be transferred from plants to humans, or that GM foods will trigger allergic reactions.

Read more: GM crops: to ban or not to ban? This is not the question

Experts have concluded that the risk of antibiotic resistance is not significant. There is some evidence that a small number of GM crops are allergenic. But since GM crops undergo extensive allergen testing, they shouldn’t be riskier than conventional crops once cleared for sale.

Other GM opponents say the technology poses environmental risks – for example that herbicide-resistant GM crops can become “super weeds”.

Research found resistance of weeds to the herbicide glyphosate is a problem, and there is some evidence of glyphosate resistant canola off-farm in Australia. Management strategies can reduce the possibility of developing super weeds, but more research is needed.

And it should be noted that while the use of herbicide resistant crops sometimes leads to less herbicide use, the decrease is often not sustained. Researchers also say a reduction in the kilograms of pesticides used does not necessarily predict environmental or health effects.

spray field of people
More research is needed to prevent herbicide-resistant superweeds.

Some critics oppose GM crops on the grounds that they allow a few large companies – which breed and market seeds – to control the food supply. For example, in 2015 it was reported South Africa’s GM maize seed sector was owned by only two companies, which meant that small farmers could not compete.

The researchers have proposed measures to counter this concentration of corporate power, by strengthening competition policies, stimulating public sector support for various food systems and limiting corporate influence in the political process.

The issue of cross contamination is also a concern for organic farmers and consumers. In a well-known case from Western Australia, organic farmer Steve Marsh’s harvest was contaminated in 2010 with GM canola, causing it to lose its organic certification.

Look ahead

The lifting of NSW’s ban on GM crops means that mainland Australian states have a cohesive approach and provide new opportunities for Australian producers and consumers.

There are still issues with GM crops to be ironed out, and strict regulations need to be maintained to ensure human and environmental safety. Opposition to the practice will undoubtedly remain in some quarters. However, this may decrease over time as the technology develops and the long-term results become clearer.

About Alma Ackerman

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