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Gene technology and the environment

CSIRO : 07 December, 2000  (Technical Article)
New research by CSIRO is exploring the safety of genetically modified crops once they are released commercially into the environment, a National Science Briefing was told in Parliament House Canberra today.
Dr Joanne Daly, CSIRO Entomology, told MPs that the CSIRO research complements Australia's existing advisory and new regulatory processes to ensure that any new GM crop poses only low risk to the environment.

'All human activity carries some risk. New gene technologies that produce GM crops will also carry some risks.

'As a community we need to know what these risks are, how large they might be and, if we choose to accept them, how the risks can be managed.

'Some scientific questions about the impact of GM crops in the environment can only be examined after crops are grown over large areas and under commercial conditions.

'In particular, we need to know if the GM crop changes the number of harmful organisms such as insect pests, weeds or plant diseases, or if there is an impact on helpful insects such as those that eat pests or weeds.

'Our research will test whether GM crops evaluated as 'low environmental risk' by current scientific procedures prior to release, are indeed 'low risk' when commercially released,' she says.

'CSIRO scientists at Narrabri have evaluated the impact of commercially-released Bt cotton (containing a bacterium gene producing toxins to kill some caterpillars) on a variety of insects, spiders and mites found in cotton fields.

'Overall, the Bt cotton supported a wide range of harmless and helpful insects and this is a plus for biodiversity. Over 400 different species of insects, mites and spiders were observed in the crops. The sprayed conventional cotton had considerably fewer insects in it than the Bt cotton or the unsprayed conventional cotton - this was predictable because insecticides kill many different kinds of arthropods, not only the harmful ones.

Professor Colin Thompson, University of Melbourne, told the Briefing that mathematical models had been developed to carry out risk analysis of the impact of genetically modified crops.

'We have constructed these models to analyse the possible competition and interaction between GM crops and related wild species growing nearby,' he says.

'They are built on concepts of what happens in natural systems. These concepts are developed by a whole range of experts in the field, agricultural scientists, geneticists, molecular biologists, environmentalists, mathematicians. And from these concepts, we produce evolution equations.

'The model equations in effect simulate nature, including environmental fluctuations.

'Interestingly, similar methods are used in risk analysis of financial markets.

'We believe these methods can help the gene technology regulators in the decision-making process, for example by estimating the likelihood of regulations not being met.

'We are also developing models to help farmers with benefit-cost analysis of farming gm crops.

Dr Oliver Mayo, CSIRO Livestock Industries, said that gene technology in livestock has five main goals:

to improve animal welfare and environmental sustainability
to improve animal product quality and quantity
to develop new medical and veterinary products
to study animals as an aid to understanding human disease
exploring animals as possible organ donors
CSIRO and Adelaide University first developed a transgenic merino sheep 15 years ago. After a decade of careful tests, sheep with enhanced growth rates are now undergoing field trials under GMAC-approved contained on-farm conditions.

'From an environmental perspective, the sheep is a good test animal, because in 200 years sheep have never become feral animals in Australia,' he explained.

'Indeed, sheep which grow more efficiently may well prove to have environmental advantages.'
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