Archive for September, 2013


GM Technology – The Future in Agriculture

A Free Public Event

Hosted by the Pastoralists & Graziers Association of WA (PGA)

Where: Tattersall Lecture Theatre, University of WA

When: Monday 7 October 2013

Time: 6pm

This public GM Forum is an opportunity for city-based consumers and decision-makers to further their understanding of this beneficial technology. Come and join farmers, agronomists, scientists and consumers to hear how future advances in GM technology are set to revolutionise grain growing in WA and benefit our farmers. You will hear from Australia’s leading experts in GM technology, including scientists, agronomists and farmers on why they support this safe, affordable and effective technology.

Chair: Prof Alan Robson, past Vice Chancellor of UWA

Speakers: Professor Lyn Beazley, Professor Jim Peacock, Dr John Manners, Dr Bryan Whan, Mr John Snooke, Mr Bill Crabtree

RSVP by 1 October as seats are limited.

Phone Sonya at the PGA 9479 4599 or email [email protected]


Curse of the Frankenfoods

15 September 2013. Source: ABC Radio National

Health and safety fears have restricted the growth of genetically modified foods for decades. But is a hungry world, a new generation of consumers, and the weight of scientific evidence loosening the grip of the Frankenfoods curse? Ian Walker set aside his long standing antipathy towards GM foods to investigate.

Frankenfood. It’s the meme that keeps giving…the brainchild of an English professor from Boston named Paul Lewis, whose timing was as impeccable as his rhetorical flourish was devastating.

‘Ever since Mary Shelley’s baron rolled his improved human flesh out of the lab,’ Lewis wrote, ‘scientists have been bringing such good things to life… If they [the GMO corporations] want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it’s time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle.’

It was 1992 and the first GM crops were coming online for approval by America’s Food and Drug Administration.  Lewis’ turn of phrase was fabulously alliterative, catchy as a car commercial, and conjured powerful notions of something amiss.  Fish genes in tomatoes.  Nature being tampered with.  Humans playing God.  Mad scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life.

In reality, though, scientists have been tinkering with crops since the dawn of agriculture, making them more productive, resistant to disease…shorter, fatter, bigger, better.  The development of hybrid crops in the 1930s was a game-changing moment.  Then, in the 90s, ethical, environmental and food safety concerns collided with panic about mad-cow disease to produce a backlash against the notion of crop science gone too far.  Frankenfood provided the frightening metaphor that tilted the war of words wildly in favour of the anti-GM warriors.

‘It feeds into a very deep-seated and long-held fear of technology that people have,’ explains former anti-GM activist Mark Lynas.  ‘And that’s where the Frankenstein association is so powerful.  It’s something humans are doing which they shouldn’t do.  You even get this back in Genesis with the Tree of Knowledge.  So it’s a very strong myth that goes right through human culture.’

And, while scientists weren’t exactly being burnt at the stake, some took Lewis’ rallying cry to heart and found righteous cause to destroy important scientific experiments in the trial crop stages. Lynas excelled in this for nearly two decades, leading campaigns in the UK and Europe.

‘It was my life,’ he says. ‘We did all of these kinds of night-time actions against GM crops, going and chopping them down. We thought we were decontaminating the landscape. We thought what we were doing was environmentally responsible and important.’

What he didn’t realise at the time, Lynas says now, was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but the reaction against it by people like him and his anti-GM cohorts.  Back in January 2013, his public apology to the Oxford Farming Conference for what he now describes as his ‘years of wrongheadedness’ made headlines around the world.  At the time, it was nerve-wracking and heartfelt.

‘I’d kind of had enough, and I just wanted to put all of my cards on the table and speak from the heart, really, and say, “I got this wrong”. I think everyone else in the anti-GM movement has got this wrong. We need to take stock of where we are and I for one am issuing an apology.’

Oxford was a fitting place for such a dramatic change of heart, being the same venue where Lynas had earned notoriety for throwing a cream pie in the face of Bjorn Lomborg, an outspoken critic of eco-apocalyptic agendas.  ‘Pies for lies,’ yelled Lynas as his underarm lob hit its target.

This time, he was asking for forgiveness from a gathering of farmers and scientists, soberly recanting ‘demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment…I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path.’  No-one preaches better than a convert.

Lynas is a respected environmentalist, and a strong campaigner on climate change who’s written award-winning books. What irked him was the slow realisation that his passionately held views on GM were inconsistent with his reliance on evidence-based science when arguing his position on human-induced climate change.  When it came to GM, he admits, he actively ignored the weight of evidence in favour of biotechnology.

The argument he puts is that an estimated three trillion meals containing food derived from GM-bred plants have been eaten in 29 countries over 15 years without one single substantiated case of harm. ‘You are more likely,’ he quips, ‘to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food.’

Mark Lynas was a big fish in the anti-GM pond.  Within days of his conference appearance, the video of his speech went viral.  There are now versions in more than a dozen languages, translated by volunteers in different countries around the globe.

The Lynas conversion was a revelation for journalist Jon Entine, who wrote up the story for Forbes magazine. Entine saw it as the potential dynamite it was for the ongoing GM debate. But, he says, it also pointed to a turning point in our thinking about the interface between technology and the natural world.

‘Every once in a while our society faces major inflection points when certain technologies come into play,’ Entine explains. ‘We saw it in the 1800s with the railroad, we’ve seen it with nuclear technology, we’ve seen it with computer technology. And I really think that we’re in this kind of inflection period with biotechnology.’

‘It is literally changing the way we can think about nature.  And I mean in a good sense. I don’t believe we’re violating God’s way, or any kind of natural order of things, but it is a profound experience, which is why it’s scary to many people.’

As Entine pointed out in his article, Lynas took a somewhat slow-road to Damascus. It happened over a number of years of realising that, while he was backing the claims in his various books about climate change with scientific evidence, he was doing the opposite when it came to GM.  He actively ignored the weight of the evidence in favour.  Finally, Lynas says, he had to admit his own cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than ‘green urban myths’.

‘There were so many myths,’ he recounts. ‘Probably first off was this idea that somehow there’s a unique property that genes have when they belong in different species, so that there’s something carroty about carrot genes or fishy about fish genes. So I don’t think I realised that DNA is this universal code, and it’s just a number…you know, four sequences of letters, basically, is how we interpret it, and you can chop and change it between different species with actually very little impact.’

As a new convert, Lynas has joined the likes of Jon Entine, as a champion of the potential benefits of biotechnology.  His conversion has coincided, or highlighted, a new urgency to feed a hungry world, a new generation of consumers, more scrutiny of anti-GM activism, plus the weight of scientific evidence showing it is safe.

Lynas makes the case strongly that it’s time for scientists to speak out about the benefits of biotechnology.  For too long, he says, they’ve been cowed by the strident fear campaigns around Frankenfood.  And, it seems, some are fighting back and talking up a new phase of the technology.  Like Australia’s Professor James Dale.

‘We’re just starting to see the revolution,’ says Dale, the Director of the QUT’s Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities.  ‘Virtually all of the really big crop genomes have been sequenced, we’re now starting to identify what genes in those genomes are going to be really useful.’

The prospects and potential of what’s to come has been dubbed ‘Biotech Version 2.0’.  And, Dale is convinced, it’s likely to further sway the debate.

‘A lot of it is going to be targetted towards the things that we’re really concerned about, with climate change, with drought, with flooding, submersion. So we’re starting to see those traits coming through and the next generation of GM crops are going to be of much greater benefit to humanity than round one.’

Dale’s Banana 21 Project is a case in point. It’s funded by the Gates Foundation and is tackling Vitamin A deficiency in some of the poorest parts of Africa by enriching a staple food—in this case, bananas for Uganda—via GM. 

It might help save the 670-thousand or so kids who die from micronutrient malnutrition every year, and half as many again who go blind.  These genetically-modified ‘golden bananas’ have been developed in Australia and Professor Dale claims the results so far are very promising.

‘We have provitamin A Cavendish bananas with double our target level of provitamin A, so that’s fabulous. We now know which genes to use and which promoters to use. We transferred that technology to Uganda, and they now have their bananas in the field. Just very recently they identified a line which also has double the target level of provitamin A.  It’s really exciting, so we’re now moving into development phase.’

The project’s on track to produce enriched bananas ready for human eating trials by next year.  But not if some of the NGOs in Uganda have their way.  Lynas has just returned from a visit there with some hair-raising tales of treachery by anti GM activists.

He says he’s heard stories from local MPs who have had activists going into their Muslim constituencies telling people that the scientists are putting pig genes into bananas—the bio-fortified and the bacteria-resistant bananas—which you wouldn’t be allowed to eat as a Muslim.

‘Literally, people have been going crazy about this,’ Lynas reports.  ‘There’s almost been violence breaking out. So, the anti-GM activists have stooped so low as to cause religious violence in order to stop this technology.’


GM bananas: from nutrition to disease resistance


This article outlines biotechnology research underway involving bananas (vitamin enhanced and disease resistant) led by Professor James Dale at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

Professor James Dale and his team at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have come far since gaining support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) in 2005. Initially focused on vitamin-rich genetically modified (GM) bananas for growers in Uganda, work has extended to India with disease resistance thrown into the mix, while Dale mentions the possibility of collaboration with Nigerian and Indonesian scientists in the future. Catching up with him in Brisbane, hears why transgenic bananas may face less resistance than other GMO crops, and their potential if consumers accept the technology.

…“In the early 1990s we decided we were going to get involved in genetic modification. I should say that was before anybody said that it was a naughty thing to do – we thought, ‘wow, what a fabulous opportunity to actually improve bananas’, and there’s a huge number of vegetatively propagated crops which you can’t breed from the already accepted cultivars.

This fact has likely been instrumental for the establishment of QUT’s GM field trials south of Innisfail in North Queensland; the heart of Australia’s banana-growing district.

“We invited any of the banana growers who wanted to come before we planted the field trial, and we went through everything. It took a couple of hours, and they were really comfortable with what we’re doing,” he says.

“There’s no threat because there’s no transgene flow.”

Disease resistance

Dale says his team of 15 people is still working on resistance to Bunchy Top but hasn’t “quite got there yet”, and has also developed a way of controlling Panama Race I – which wiped out previous staple banana variety Gros Michel – through stress tolerant genes.

“For the original genes we’d put in, the best one was from a nematode and that gave us a hint of what we should do, and then we went and looked for the plant equivalents and we’ve been able to use those.

“That’s one strategy. Another is we’ve gone to a wild diploid banana called musa acuminata [spp.] malaccensis which grows in Indonesia and Malaysia. Some of those plants are absolutely immune to Tropical Race IV.

“There are about 25,000 types of genes, so it’s needle in a haystack type of stuff. So we’ve got to identify the right gene; we haven’t got the results from the field trial in the Northern Territory yet.

“Because it’s a slow-forming disease, we’d want to have the results probably by the end of next year. We’d be confident if we had lines there that are still standing up, and none of them are diseased, that there’s real resistance there.”

He adds that this variety is also resistant to Black Sigatoka, but his team is not working on that fungus.

“We know that malaccensis is also resistant to Black Sigatoka, so that will come. And it would be interesting to see how some of the big banana companies cope with that, when they’d say, ‘gee, we wouldn’t have to spray if we had these GM bananas’.”

Nutrition for the developing world

Dale’s work received a boost in 2004 when the BMGF put out a call for expressions of interest around grand challenges in global health.

“Most of those global challenges were new vaccines, antibiotics and the control of insect vectors of human diseases; there was one grant challenge nine, which was to develop staple crops with a complete set of micronutrients.

“We’d already started to work with the National Agricultural Research Organization in Uganda so I suggested we make an expression of interest.

“In Uganda their staple food is bananas, and in that whole region there’s very high banana consumption, very high levels of Vitamin A deficiency, and very high levels of iron deficiency; anemia.”

QUT received the funding to collaborate with their Ugandan counterparts, and Dale says “remarkable” progress has been made since then.

“So we’ve now got bananas with more than double our target levels that we wanted for provitamin A.”

He says bananas already have vitamin A through beta-carotene and alpha-carotene, but genetic modification has allowed the scientists to augment the level.

“We were able to take the genes from one of them [beta-carotene] that makes very large amounts and put that banana gene into East African Highland Bananas and into Cavendish.

“The whole issue of vitamin deficiency is really complex – micronutrient deficiencies particularly. There is still this very poor population that don’t buy food and don’t access health clinics, and that can be anywhere between 30-50% of the population in developing countries.

The first field trial for Vitamin A was in 2009, with a plan of developing the technology in Australia and then transferring that technology but not the plants to Uganda.

“Now that project is moving into the development phase where we can go and develop an elite line that we’ll take all the way through to farmer release in Uganda, and that will be available to other countries in the region if they want it.

He adds the next part of the Ugandan project is to increase iron levels, which is “much harder”.

“But we’re getting there. We’ve got a 50% increase but we actually want a 400% increase. We’ve got our next field trial in Australia already happening.”

On the back of the Ugandan collaboration’s success, QUT was approached by the Indian government to work on a similar project with its Department of Biotechnology.

“They wanted disease resistance as well, which we put in – they want resistance to bunchy top and Panama wilt.”



19 August 2013. Source: University of California, Davis

A new gene that will equip wheat plants to resist the deadly stem rust disease has been discovered by an international team that includes plant scientists from Australia, United States, and China

The research team, which included co-author Jan Dvorak, a professor and wheat geneticist at UC Davis, succeeded in cloning the Sr33 gene, known to exist in Aegilops tauschii, a wild relative of common bread wheat.

“We are hopeful that the Sr33 gene and the Sr35 gene, which our colleagues at UC Davis helped to isolate, can be ‘pyramided,’ or combined, to develop wheat varieties with robust and lasting resistance to wheat stem rust disease,” Dvorak said.

The discovery of genes that confer resistance to wheat stem rust disease is vitally important for global food security, as a new, highly aggressive race of the fungus that causes wheat stem rust appeared about a decade ago in Africa and has been spreading from there. That new UG99 race, which causes rust-colored bumps to form on the stems and leaves of the wheat plants, threatens global wheat grain production.

Identification and cloning of resistance genes is expected to enable plant breeders to use traditional breeding techniques to develop new wheat varieties that will be resistant to the new strain of wheat stem rust disease, before it grows into a global pandemic.

Lead author on this study was Evans Lagudah from CSIRO Plant Industry.