Nov 4, 2013
by NATASHA LONGO
Australian researchers have revealed serious issues over a new kind of genetically engineered wheat that could induce major health threats for people that consume it.
University of Canterbury Professor Jack Heinemann announced the outcomes of his genetic study into the wheat, a kind engineered by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), at a conference last month.
Recently additional claims came from researchers in Australia to have developed a form of salt-tolerant wheat that would allow farmers to grow crops in soil with high salinity.
Heinemann discovered that the molecules developed in this wheat, intended to silence wheat genes and can match human genes. With consumption, these molecules can enter the human body and potentially silence our genes, he explained. "The findings are absolutely assured. There is no doubt that these matches exist."
Flinders University Professor Judy Carman and Safe Food Foundation (SFF) Director Scott Kinnear accepted Heinemann's analysis.
Just last year, scientists from Rothamsted Research, based in Hertfordshire, used biotechnological tools to genetically engineer a wheat plant that produced high levels of an aphid repelling odour.
That strain of wheat would not require treatment with insecticide because it would repel colonisation by the aphid pests and also attract natural predators. Critics charged that there are natural symbioses that take place between aphids and crops which are essential to their survival and the initiative to repel colonisation is another direct attack on much larger ecosystems. "These scientists are very short-sighted and they aren't looking at the whole picture and consequences of introducing GM wheat. There are many bacterial symbioses that take place between aphids and other microorganisms that will affect their entire ecosystem should an intolerant species be introduced into the food chain," said microbiologist Joseph Sagarese.
"If this silences the same gene in us that it silences in the wheat -- well, children who are born with this enzyme not working tend to die by the age of about five," stated Professor Carman.
Based on the research, long-term testing must be performed before the wheat is offered to grocery retailers.
"We firmly believe that long term chronic toxicological feeding studies are required in addition to the detailed requests made by Heinemann for the DNA sequences used," Kinnear stated.
"The industry routinely does feeding studies anyway, so it should not be too much more difficult to do long term (lifetime) studies and include inhalation studies," Heinemann added. "These should be tuned to the way people would be exposed to the product."
The researchers also cautioned consumers against eating the wheat if it is approved prematurely. "I would advise citizens to request that these tests be done and the evidence meet with their standards of scientific rigour if in the end it is approved for use," said Heinemann.
If the concerns surrounding CSIRO's GM wheat are not resolved, the issue could end up in court, according to Kinnear: "If CSIRO was to consider moving towards human feeding trials without conducting these studies, we would be looking at what legal avenues are available to stop them."
Approximately 700 million tons of wheat are now cultivated worldwide making it the second most-produced grain after maize. It is grown on more land area than any other commerical crop and is considered a staple food for humans.
In July 2009, Monsanto announced new research into GM wheat and industry groups kicked their promotion of GM wheat into high gear. "Widespread farmer and consumer resistance defeated GM wheat in 2004 and this global rejection remains strong, as demonstrated by today's statement," said Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.
Natasha Longo has a master's degree in nutrition and is a certified fitness and nutritional counselor. She has consulted on public health policy and procurement in Canada, Australia, Spain, Ireland, England and Germany.