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ecoglobe [yinyang] news (16 September 1999)

RSNZ General Meeting and [UK flag] Guest Speaker on Genetic Engineering

The opportunities and responsibilities from genetically modified crops
Philip J Dale, John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK

Monday 20th September, 7:30 pm Science House, 11 Turnbull St, Thorndon, Wellington.

    There have been significant advances in genetics over the past decade and the subject is frequently reported in the popular media. It is now possible to isolate genes from a range of different organisms and to introduce them into many of our crop plants. Advances in science and technology provide new opportunities, but also responsibilities to manage carefully for the benefit of society.
    One of the most attractive potential benefits of genetic modification (GM) is to provide new sources of resistance to pests and diseases. In the UK over 30 thousand tonnes of sprays are used in agriculture each year. There are also possibilities to modify plants in many other ways, including sustainable supplies of oils for detergents and biodegradable plastics, starch for packaging and pharmaceuticals for medical use.
    In considering the potential impact of GM, it is important to place it into the context of conventional breeding practices. Over this century conventional breeding has become very sophisticated and uses a range of advanced procedures, including: (a)in vitro culture to rescue hybrid embryos that would not survive in nature, (b) moving many thousands of genes into crops from wild species that sometimes have weedy or toxic properties, and (b) the random process of induced mutation.
    As GM makes it possible to introduce a wide range of genes into crops, there is international agreement on the need for assessment procedures, in addition to those used in conventional breeding. A substantial amount of research over the past 12 years has been directed to making this assessment procedure more scientifically informed. This has included studies on the likelihood and consequences of introduced genes moving to other crops and to wild species.
    There are several significant challenges for the future. One of the largest impacts of GM crops is likely to be on agricultural practices. There is extensive debate in Europe about the desirability and practicalities of monitoring the long term environmental impact of GM crops as we move forward to commercial scale production. There is also discussion about the potential impact of intensive agriculture on wildlife biodiversity. There is evidence, gathered over the past 30 years, that there has been a decline in the number of certain bird species. This change is a result of continuing efforts to control weeds, pests and diseases more efficiently. The consequence is that there are fewer left-overs from agriculture to support a diversity of organisms, and the food chains that depend on them. In the future, genetic modification has the potential to aggravate or alleviate this trend, depending on how we use it.
    One of the most challenging issues is in explaining our science with a media that thrives on sound-bites and controversy. Unfortunately balanced debate is boring and does not sell newspapers. There are signs that some of the pressure groups are intent on demonising the process of genetic modification. There are passionate debates about herbicide tolerant crops from genetic modification, while similar varieties produced by conventional breeding methods are commercialized with little or no comparable attention. It is illogical to be required to assess the ecological impact of one and not the other.
    It is important that there are authoritative and respected sources of scientific information that the general public can rely on. In the UK various organisations, including the Royal Society, the Nuffield Bioethics Committee and various government Select Committees are contributing to this.
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    Biographical details:
    Dr Philip Dale worked in agriculture before obtaining a BSc in Agricultural Botany and a PhD in Plant Genetics. In the 1980s he was involved in the first UK field experiments with GM crops. As Research Group Leader in Genetic Modification and Biosafety Assessment at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, he is involved with studying the stability and environmental impact of GM crops. He has been a member of ACNFP (Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes) since 1998 and was a member of ACRE (Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment) from 1993 to 1999.
    Phil Dale is a expert on gene flow in nature and in agriculture. He was a key player in the recent UK conference "Gene flow in agriculture: relevance for transgenic crops." which has been in the news prominently recently and some of this work has been misquoted by Jannette Fitsimons (See Growing today July 1999, page 36/37). The issue of gene flow seems to be coming increasingly the only major technical issue of significance in GMO crops.
    Information: "George Jones" <jones.g@rsnz.govt.nz> -------------------------------------------------------

ecoglobe [yinyang] news (16 September 1999)
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