CSIRO Has Questions To Answer

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Today NM published a report by Katherine Wilson into CSIRO’s GM field-pea. We sought comment from CSIRO and in particular former Plant Industry scientist Dr TJ Higgins and sent a number of detailed questions to CSIRO more than a fortnight ago. At publication, we have received no specific responses to these questions, but rather a general response from communications manager Leon Braun:

“CSIRO welcomes the recently published peer-reviewed research that increases the global understanding of gene technology. This research provides more information related to CSIRO’s discontinued research in alpha-amylase inhibitor (αAI) field peas. CSIRO has no plans to resume the development of alpha-amylase inhibitor GM field peas.

“CSIRO’s current research is focused on ways to protect cowpeas and chickpeas, two important food crops in developing countries, against storage pests. This research is part of our larger program of research addressing global food security issues. CSIRO plays a significant role in global development delivering science that assists developing nations with food security and farming issues.

“Further information on our discontinued field pea work is available on our website.”

These are the questions that were sent to CSIRO.

1. Do these new 2013 results overturn the results of the 2005 study? 

2. In 2005 news outlets were told by CSIRO that the GM field-pea's DNA would be destroyed under strict supervision. But the new study states the 2013 used "the same batches of seeds produced at CSIRO." Can you explain the discrepancy, and also what is meant by "the same batches"?

3. The 2013 study speculates that “the source of the mice and their normal baseline diets may play a role” in the opposing results of each study (the 2005 study and the 2013 one). How and why the peas were preserved, and the effect of preservation on nutritional profile, are not discussed. The possibility of degradation in the pea proteins and attendant sugars in the eight years since the earlier study are not discussed. Could you please provide a statement addressing these points?

4. According to the EC funding application, the new (2013) study received € 2,606,622 from the European Commission. Other funds from undisclosed sources bring costs to € 3,424,843. Who contributed the difference?

5. Casting doubt on both studies, the 2013 study allows that "it is still not clear that these immune responses are biologically relevant for humans… or indeed be relevant in human disease." Would further safety studies have been conceived had the 2005 study found no immune responses or possible risks? 

6. In 2008, CSIRO was among those in GMSAFEFOOD body that applied to the EC for funds to study the GM field-pea to identify biomarkers “for the detection of harmful effects of GM foods". The grant application rationale was to help "predict harmful GMO effects after product authorisation". The application allowed that "risk assessment cannot predict all the possible untoward effects of GM consumption". Only weeks earlier, CSIRO had sent a controversial letter to Australian chefs urging them to embrace GM foods because “tests have not found any connection between health problems and GM.” Does this present a contradiction if tests cannot predict these?

7. Since the GM field-pea is not an authorised post-market product, could you explain why GMSAFEFOOD, set up to conduct “post market monitoring” to “assess possible nutritional and health effects of authorised GM foods on a mixed population of human and animal consumers”, is receiving funds for the GM field-pea?

8. According to the 2013 study, CSIRO's Dr Higgins “conceived and designed the experiments”, “analysed the data” and “wrote the paper” with others. Dr Higgins also co-authored the previous study. Is it common and appropriate for the developer of a biotech product to assess its safety?

9. Casting doubt on both studies, the 2013 study allows that "it is still not clear that these immune responses are biologically relevant for humans… or indeed be relevant in human disease." Such assessment, it adds:

"cannot predict all the possible untoward effects of GM consumption by a genetically varied population of animals and humans… [nor]undesired effects of GM foods fed to animals that are then consumed by humans."

If this the case, could you explain the value of such feeding tests?

10. Given that these feeding trials are not required by Australian or US regulators, and are excluded from regulatory assessments, how does this study contribute toward "improving safety-testing for GM products with the potential of being placed on the market in the future" as claimed in the funding application? Is CSIRO looking toward Europe to pave the way to commercialise its GM legumes for human consumption?

Read Katherine Wilson's report into CSIRO's GM field-pea here.

New Matilda

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