GMO Wheat on Trial – Q & A

by Guest Blogger

July 22, 2011

What action have Greenpeace activists taken?

Greenpeace activists have taken non-violent direct action to stop Australia’s environment and food supply from being contaminated by genetically modified wheat. The GM wheat that has been released across Australia has not been proven safe. It hasn’t been tested for toxic and allergic effects. All evidence shows that GM wheat cannot be contained; it will contaminate our food supply and the environment.

The Australian Government has refused to protect Australians from harm caused by the release of unsafe genetically modified wheat. GM organisms are living organisms that can multiply and cross-breed. They pose a threat of irreversible damage to Australia’s environment and our food supply. Greenpeace has taken action to prevent contamination of our food supply and environment.

Why is Greenpeace opposing research – isn’t research necessary to test the impact of GM?

Greenpeace does not oppose safe research; we oppose open, risky experiments with something as fundamental as our food and the environment we depend on for life. Greenpeace does not oppose GM research in the lab, but we do oppose experiments known as ‘GM field trials’. These ‘GM field trials’ involve open, genetic experiments in the environment.

Greenpeace opposes field trials of GM organisms as the risks from such open experiments cannot be contained. The many incidents of contamination of the food chain with GM arising from field trials (e.g. the case of the experimental GM rice LL601, which had not undergone any prior assessment for its safety for feed, food or environment)* provide a clear illustration of the wider risk to the environment and society.

GM field trials cannot be justified on the basis that they support impact assessment as the impacts are then already real, potentially widespread and may be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.

Why is Greenpeace targeting CSIRO?

Greenpeace’s work is targeting the release of unsafe GM wheat into our food supply. The CSIRO is working with foreign GM companies to release unsafe GM wheat into our food supply. These foreign GM companies include Limagrain, one of the biggest investors in GM in the world, and Arcadia Biosciences.

CSIRO’s closeness with foreign GM companies has created a clear conflict of interest within the CSIRO. The GM wheat field trial which Greenpeace has removed from the environment was proposed and approved while two directors of Nufarm were serving on the board of the CSIRO.  Nufarm is the exclusive distributor of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready products in Australia and Monsanto owns 90 per cent of GM products worldwide. Monsanto and its GM partners stand to make billions from the genetic modification of Australia’s wheat.

CSIRO’s closeness to these GM corporations compromises their ability to make decisions in Australia’s public interest and has resulted in the release of unsafe genetically modified wheat into the Australian environment.

Why aren’t these GM wheat trials safe?

Open, genetic experiments in the environment are never safe, because they can’t be contained. There are massive gaps in the safety assessment that allowed experimental GM wheat to be released into the field.

  • All evidence shows GM contaminates. The Government’s own data documents extensive GM contamination in Australia. The biggest GM contamination incident in global history started from a small field trial like the one Greenpeace has taken action to contain.
  • GM hasn’t been proven safe to eat. No evidence has been produced to demonstrate that GM wheat does not have toxic or allergic effects on humans or animals, and yet the Government approved release of GM wheat into the environment anyway.
  • There was no proof that the GM wheat released into the field was genetically stable. Genetic instability is one of the greatest risks associated with genetic modification. The Australian Government acknowledged this risk, stating that “Gene technology has the potential to cause unintended effects due to the process used to insert new genetic material or by producing a gene product that affects multiple traits.” They approved release of GM wheat regardless of such a serious risk.

Are the CSIRO really planning to test GM wheat on humans?

Yes, the CSIRO planned to test potentially unstable, experimental GMOs on Australians in the first ever human feeding trial of GM wheat in the world. They planned to test GM wheat on Australians even though there is no evidence that GM does not create toxic and allergic effects. Nor did the CSIRO intend to use these human feeding studies to test for any toxic and allergic effects of GM wheat. All of the available information indicates the CSRIO only intended to test the corporate parameters of the GM wheat; or put simply, that the product did what it was genetically modified to do, regardless of any unintentional effects.

Greenpeace entered a request under Freedom of Information laws for the ethics and health and safety papers relating to these human feeding trials. The CSIRO rejected this request and ask that Greenpeace remove any request for documents that related to CSIRO and its partners ‘corporate interests’.

Hasn’t Greenpeace created a GM contamination risk by penetrating the controlled research grounds?

Greenpeace has followed strict HAZMAT protocols in removing this experimental GM wheat from the environment. Our action was also taken prior to the GM wheat plants flowering. Greenpeace’s action has been taken to reduce the risk of contamination by GM wheat during field trials.

Has Greenpeace destroyed a farmer’s crop?

No. Greenpeace has removed a GM wheat experiment that is owned by the CSIRO and run in partnership with foreign GM corporations.

Has Greenpeace destroyed GM food that could feed the world’s hungry?

The GM industry has done nothing to feed the world’s poor and contrary to GM industry claims, the independent evidence shows that GM seeds do not produce more food. Hunger is not caused by a shortage of food. In 2010, almost one billion people went hungry, and millions died from malnutrition, despite the food system producing enough food for double the global population.

Hungry people need money to buy food or land to grow it. GM provides neither. In 2008 a UN report on the future of agriculture by 400 leading international scientists found no evidence that GM increases yields. The report warned that GM in fact hurts  poor farmers, because the patents attached to GM crops are expensive and stop farmers from saving seeds, which they have done for generations.

GM companies are saying there is nothing to worry about, is the threat of GM bread a reality?

The GM industry has responded to Greenpeace’s concerns about GM field trials by saying that GM bread is seven to ten years away. However, CSIRO documents claim that GM wheat will be ready for the market by 2015. If CSIRO and their corporate partners adhere to this timeframe, Australia could be facing GM field trials on a commercial scale within the next two years.

It suits the GM industry to have minimum scrutiny of their GM wheat commercialization push. Until the Australian Government commits to no further field trials of GM wheat, Greenpeace will continue to raise the alarm about the threats GM wheat commercialization poses to Australia.

Why should people trust Greenpeace over the CSIRO?

Greenpeace supports transparency and accountability.  We encourage people to ask questions and to be informed.  In this case, we have exposed the corporate links to these GM wheat trials and the compromised position of CSIRO in order to better inform the public about where their taxes are going. CSIRO has done the opposite – rejecting all requests by Greenpeace made under Freedom of Information legislation for information relating to their contracts with GM corporations and their intention to test experimental GM wheat on Australians.

There’s no proven health risk of GM, aren’t Greenpeace just scaremongering?

There is evidence of health risks for animals like rats, which have been fed GM plants under test conditions.  Some of the health impacts identified in animal feeding studies include increased organ size, reduced fertility and increased allergic responses. The CSIRO’s own animal feeding study documented that GM caused an allergic response in mice and prevented the animals from gaining weight.

These studies raise significant concerns about the potential impact of GM on people. The safety of GM for humans is unknown and our current testing regimes are inadequate. GM crops are also subject to unexpected and unpredictable results. That means that no amount of preliminary testing can guarantee the ongoing safety of living, GM products. The Australian Government has been negligent in investing in the commercialization of GM wheat without any evidence that it is safe.

CSIRO claims that this GM wheat could prevent bowel cancer. Can GM really stop bowel cancer and is Greenpeace preventing work that could reduce bowel cancer rates?

No, GM wheat will not stop bowel cancer. According to the Public Health Association of Australia and earlier statements made by the CSIRO themselves, no one food can reduce the risk of disease, which is affected by total diet and lifestyle.

CSIRO is currently claiming that its GM wheat could help reduce bowel cancer rates because it has more ‘resistant starch’ in it. Resistant starch is good for digestive health.

There are already a lot of safe, healthy food products available with high resistant starch contents that haven’t been genetically modified and don’t come with the risks attached to GM. CSIRO themselves have already developed a number of high resistant starch products without using GM. Hi-Maize and BarleyMax for example, are already on the market.  These non-GM products have a higher amylose content than the GM wheat CSIRO is spending millions of taxpayer dollars to develop.

A non-GM wheat product high in resistant starch is not needed to supplement Australians already diverse, natural diet in Australia. If CSIRO wanted to develop high-amylose wheat, it could do so easily without using risky GM techniques. Non-GM methods however, would not attract big biotech company dollars, as corporations are only interested in GM products that can be patented for super profits.

CSIRO is also on the record arguing that only a balanced diet and exercise can reduce the risk of disease. This is in line with policy form the Public health Association of Australia, which states that the reduction in risk for disease is affected by the total diet and lifestyle pattern, not by use of an individual food.

How does Greenpeace expect CSIRO to test for health risks if they don’t test it on humans?

It is never safe to test GM products on humans, because GM crops are subject to unexpected and unpredictable results. That means that no amount of preliminary testing can guarantee the ongoing safety of GM products.

The testing regime CSIRO has proposed to follow for testing experimental GM wheat on Australians is inadequate. CSIRO documents state that GM wheat will be tested on humans in stages of just one day, for example. This is incredibly lax when compared with pharmaceutical regimes, for example, where experimental products are first tested on animals for two years, to to provide evidence of potential carcinogenic, developmental, hormonal, neural, and reproductive dysfunctions.

The lax standards surrounding CSIRO’s testing regimes raise the concern that CSIRO testing will be nothing more than a PR exercise for the GM industry.

Greenpeace agrees with most of the science on climate change, but when it comes to GM tells us not to trust a lot of what scientists say. Is this a contradiction?

Greenpeace encourages people to read science critically and to be aware of vested interests.  There are many vested interests of concern in relation to the development of GM wheat.  Greenpeace’s recent report on the corporate links to the GM wheat trials highlights some of these.

Greenpeace is saying that the trials are linked to Monsanto, but in fact they are funded by CSIRO.  Aren’t you being misleading?

These GM wheat trials are being conducted by CSIRO in collaboration with Limagrain.  Other GM wheat trials being conducted by CSIRO are done in partnership with Arcadia Biosciences, a company that is linked to Monsanto.  The web of public-private partnerships that sits behind these research programs is misleading and makes it challenging for the public to know where and to whom their tax dollars are being spent.  This lack of transparency makes it difficult for the public to exercise its right to hold the government to account.

This difficulty is exacerbated by the secrecy surrounding government documents related to GM plants.  Greenpeace’s Freedom of Information request for documents about the commercial partnership between CSIRO and Limagrain was refused.  The documents are ‘commercial in confidence’.  Australian taxpayers cannot properly exercise their rights to hold the government to account under these conditions.

What does Greenpeace want?

Greenpeace is asking the Australian Government to:

  • halt all field trials of GM wheat;
  • increase transparency around public spending on agricultural research and development, disclosing all details of public-private partnerships
  • increase support for Australia’s world-leading sustainable farming industry

How can I help?

Help us tell the Australian Government to stop all GM wheat trials and keep Australian bread healthy, safe and fair. Go to and write to the Australian Government and demand an end to the GM wheat trials.

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