Australian critics target biotech wheat
GMO crop could 'silence' human genes, opposition group says
By MATTHEW WEAVER
Critics in Australia are calling for more safety testing as genetically modified wheat is developed, but industry officials say the concerns come from a group known to be opposed to biotech crops.
The Safe Food Foundation in Australia claims genetically modified wheat could "silence" some human genes. Silencing means interrupting the gene's creation of a protein.
Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization is developing high amylose wheat, with more starch, for several years. Genetically modified and non-genetically modified versions are under development.
The wheat could benefit bowel health and people with diabetes, according to the organization.
In the U.S., National Association of Wheat Growers director of communications Melissa George Kessler said the Australian claims were published by known anti-biotech groups, and U.S. researchers have found them to be "highly speculative."
The human genome would have to be similar to the small RNA of the wheat molecule to have the speculated effect, Kessler said. CSIRO scientists can control the process to avoid the "theoretical threat" claimed, she said.
"Any biotech wheat, like biotech crops commercialized today, will be subject to rigorous scientific testing and extensive government approval processes before it becomes available to farmers or consumers," Kessler said.
Scott Kinnear, director of the Safe Food Foundation in Australia, said the concern is that genetically modified foods in general have not undergone the safety testing the technology should require.
"Wheat is the most important grain worldwide and farmers would be well-advised to hold off supporting the technology, given the level of consumer concern and the level of safety issues uncovered by our scientific experts," Kinnear said.
"The benefit of this for industry will be high consumer confidence in products that do emerge," he said.
All of CSIRO's work is managed in accordance with Australia's Commonwealth Gene Technology Act under the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator.
Genetically modified technology is often a quick fix rather than a permanent cure and can lead to other problems that
drive the search for "imperfect" solutions, said Jack Heinemann, professor in the School of Biological Sciences in the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. He called for new investment in safety research, conducted by scientists who can choose career pathways independent of industry influence.
Safe Foods Foundation: www.safefoodfoundation.org