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Researchers probe environmental impacts of GMOs

Australia is preparing to make a major contribution to increasing global understanding of the environmental impacts of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

A new $3 million 3-year CSIRO project will examine the effects of genetically modified plants, animals and other organisms on the environment on a large scale.

The project will improve our understanding of the wider ecological impacts of GMOs to allow more informed and factual national debate on their use.

"Gene technology can expand our options to improve our health, create a safer, more secure food supply, generate prosperity and attain a more sustainable agriculture," says Dr Paul Wellings, Deputy Chief Executive, Environment and Natural Resources, CSIRO.

"A lot of work has already been done to assess the impacts of GMOs at the field trial scale. However the application of GMOs has reached the point where larger scale, longer term environmental assessments are necessary," Dr Wellings says. "We ought to look as carefully at risks as we do at benefits from our research, and to share what we find with the Australian community," he says.

Dr Mark Lonsdale, leader of the project says "this new phase in CSIRO's GMO research is about providing further information on the broad scale effects of GMOs on biodiversity. We will act in consultation with government regulators and the wider community."

"We will run trials of genetically modified cotton, clover and canola that will help determine what impact these might have on the natural environment," says Dr Lonsdale.

"A study will also consider possible ecological impacts of GMOs that are still only at the research stage and haven't been released, such as insect resistant eucalypts, livestock gut micro-organisms, oysters and a virus that induces mouse sterility."

"Understanding the impacts of GMOs on agricultural sustainability is a major focus for this research," Dr Lonsdale says.

"The Australian community demands that environmental impacts be based on impartial and scientific information," he says, "and that is exactly what we are aiming to contribute."

The new project has three components:

1. developing new tools for assessing the risks of GMOs;
2. studying ecological impacts of existing GM crops; and
3. assessing the potential risks and ecological impacts of various kinds of GMOs that may be developed in future.

"This is a fresh field of research worldwide. It is one in which many nations, governments, environmentalists and farming communities are taking a keen interest," says Dr Lonsdale.

"Ultimately the insights from this project can be applied in many countries that are seeking to assess the relative benefits and risks of GMOs", he says.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

To foster meaningful public debate about GMOs and their implications for Australian agriculture and ecosystems, there is a pressing need for scientific data on risks and benefits presented in a balanced and factual manner.

Ecological risk analysis, which is the science of understanding risk as it applies to changes to our environment, is the appropriate discipline with which to address questions of sustainability and impacts of GMOs.

Ecological risk analysis is a new and developing field. Ecological risks of GMOs have been carefully studied and regulated to date in Australia but there is a need for broader scale implications of GMOs to be considered than has been possible using the available data, which, of necessity, have come from fairly small scale studies. As the scale of GMO plantings increases, the kinds of risks they pose also change and we need to understand what these risks are likely to be.

In order to gather more data to understand the ecological risks of widespread planting of GMOs, large scale trials must be conducted. CSIRO has the capacity to undertake these trials and can also make a great contribution to the overall research effort by building capacity in ecological risk assessment and strengthening links between groups working in ecological modelling, climate matching and studies of resilience of different ecosystems.

The potential benefits of GMOs for sustainable agriculture will depend largely on the rate at which they are adopted by farmers and a farmers' willingness and ability to comply with the necessary changed practices. The indirect effects of GMOs for farm management and for the natural environment are difficult to predict.

There are three parts to CSIRO's new research project:

1. CSIRO will build an ecological risk assessment group that networks ecological modellers, risk analysts, ecologists working in systems ecology and on the ecology of pests and weeds, and climate matching specialists. They will help develop risk assessment tools for GMOs that considers effects at a wider, landscape scale, and at longer time-frames. They will also initiate a number of case studies to follow through each stage of introduction of a GMO and the possible consequences.

2. The second part of the project will look at GM agricultural plants to examine whether there are indirect (or knock-on) impacts. It will to take into account landscape (or large) scale interactions that will occur after commercial release. Small-scale field studies, while useful, may not always predict what might happen on a large scale or over a long time-frame. The project will address both positive and negative consequences of widespread GMO adoption.

The field studies will focus on the impact of insect-resistant genetically modified (GM) cotton on beneficial insects; the potential of GM clover to invade natural environments and its impact on beneficial organisms; and the effects of GM cotton and GM canola on important processes like nutrient cycling.

3. The third part of the project will look at the theoretical risks posed by four very different GMOs that are considered to be technically feasible for release over the next three to ten years. These studies will provide a broad range of issues to aid the development of a system for pro-actively identifying and assessing risks associated with new genetic technologies. We will work closely with government bodies such as the Interim Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (IOGTR) and Environment Australia to ensure that their concerns are met.

The four study organisms for this theoretical risk study are:

>> Eucalypts - the genetic and ecological impacts of gene flow between exotic eucalypt plantations and native populations
>> Rumen biota - risks to man, other organisms and the environment from livestock gut micro-organisms modified to break down less digestible feedstuffs
>> Oysters - ecological risks associated with the development of oysters genetically modified to prevent invasion into natural ecosystems
>> Mouse cytomegalovirus (MCMV) - ecological risks of releasing a genetically manipulated virus to induce sterility in mice to reduce the incidence of mouse plagues.

The results from this research will help Australia and other countries coming to grips with Genetically Modified Organisms and the risks, benefits and changes associated with this new technology. It will also aid in Australia's fast-growing biotechnology industry by allowing for the wise and sustainable use of gene technology.


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