The Curious Case Of CSIRO's GM Field-Pea


CSIRO is again steeped in scandal. CSIRO — an organisation leaning on industry partners — has been besieged by accusations of improper industry influence. In the past decade, it has had to fend off several exposés revealing coal industry influence on research, and scientists in Nature and elsewhere attacked claims in the bestselling CSIRO Wellbeing Diet, funded by meat and dairy industry bodies. It was accused of "gagging climate debate", and its principal research scientist of 23 years, Dr Maarten Stapper, claimed he was sacked after CSIRO "tried to gag his criticisms of GM crops".

In this context, the following is a provocation for CSIRO to answer some questions about money and power. At the centre of my case is an expensive transgenic pea and its spectacular reversal of fortune. Eight years ago, the pea was doomed to "never be seen on the planet again". The world was told the pea's DNA would be destroyed. But in a backflip from its 2005 decision to abandon its GM field-pea, CSIRO is now reviving the pea's reputation. It is now casting doubt on the studies that suggested the pea is unsafe for consumption.

The GM field-pea took $3 million and 10 years to develop by (then) CSIRO Plant Industry Deputy Director, Dr TJ Higgins. Higgins and his team copied a bean gene and spliced the copy into a pea. They engineered the GM field-pea to be resistant to weevils. But the pea was abandoned when a 2005 feeding trial study found significant immune responses and inflammation in the lungs of mice. These types of feeding trials are not required by Australian or US regulators of GM food for human consumption. But Higgins said of the 2005 feeding study:

“If there was any chance it would have the same effect on humans, the responsible thing to do was to stop the research immediately.”

At the time, the trial was a landmark in its suggestion that the GM process could create novel and potentially hazardous proteins (later, it was thought that novel sugar-chains were responsible). Other feeding-trials found the GM field-pea caused digestion problems in pigs and poultry when it was added to their feed. In 2005,  Higgins said: "This is a very big setback… hopes have been dashed." He said the pea crops would be destroyed under strict supervision and:

“The DNA of our GM peas dies with them, and will never be seen on the planet again.”

But it has now come to light that not all peas were destroyed.

They were exiled to Europe, where Higgins, CSIRO and other scientists sought millions of euros for further overseas research. In an August 2008 grant application, they applied for a millions from the European Commission to identify biomarkers “for the detection of harmful effects of GM foods". So the GM pea's role in science was recast. The grant application rationale was to help "predict harmful GMO effects after product authorisation". It allowed that "risk assessment cannot predict all the possible untoward effects of GM consumption". Weeks earlier, Higgins 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”.

This January, CSIRO promoted the new 2013 study.

Conducted at the Medical University of Vienna, it finds "only minor differences in the immune response of mice compared to significant differences observed in the 2005 study". It finds the GM peas “are not specifically allergenic in mice” and the immune responses to the GM pea are similar to responses for other (non-GM) legumes. These results have been reported as if they overturn the results of the previous study. (Most science bulletins reproduced verbatim the study's media release.) The new 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 2013 study suggests flaws in the 2005 one, which Dr Higgins co-authored and at the time upheld as a gold-standard indication that the "system" of safety testing is working. The new study's leader Dr Michelle Epstein now "questions the utility of rodents for evaluating biotech crops".

It is not the aim here to quarrel with the 2013 study, but to show how each study’s conception, rationale, methods and promotion raise broader questions of political and commercial bias.

Commercial interests do not automatically suggest scientific dishonesty. But it is well-documented that they may influence the results, interpretations and promotion of science research. More, they influence which research gets funded in the first place. At the time CSIRO applied for the European grant, Higgins was no stranger to controversial GM industry promotion, and in this context, CSIRO's involvement in the new study’s design, funding and interpretation raises many political questions.

First, let’s consider the study’s funding.

It received € 2,606,622 from the EC. Other funds from undisclosed sources bring costs to € 3,424,843. The funds were granted to a recently established body called GMSAFOOD, set up to conduct “post market monitoring” to “assess possible nutritional and health effects of authorized GM foods on a mixed population of human and animal consumers”. (The GM field-pea is not an “authorized GM food”, nor one that is “post-market”.) Among GMSAFOOD’s listed partners are the authors of the new study, including Higgins and CSIRO.

According to his own CSIRO page, toxicology, immunology and food safety assessment are outside Higgins’ principal field of expertise: his honorary role at CSIRO is to develop "gene technology for plant improvement" in its profit-seeking Plant Industries division.

It is not uncommon for a biotech product inventor to put their name to such studies, but according to the 2013 study, Dr Higgins “conceived and designed the experiments”, “analysed the data” and “wrote the paper” with others (he did not conduct the experiments). The study declares that “no competing interests exist”.

It is difficult to have confidence in a process in which a product-developer assesses its safety. This was a lesson offered by the CSIRO Wellbeing Diet, when the scientists who created the product had very different interpretations from the many independent scientists who scrutinised it. In the case of GM pea studies, the famously flawed peer review process (like democracy, the 'least-worst' system we have) failed to screen inherent conflicts of interest. CSIRO is regarded as a public body, but its Plant Industries division is geared toward profit and bound in contracts with biotech companies, the terms of which are exempt from disclosure by FOI requests. More, CSIRO’s biotechnical products such as GM legumes are patented commodity forms. So CSIRO has a questionable role as partners in the “independent” GMSAFOOD body that receives public funds to assess health risks.

Let’s turn our gaze to the new study itself. It used "the same batches of seeds produced at CSIRO". This contradicts earlier reports that the field-pea DNA "will never be seen on the planet again" and “will be burned or otherwise destroyed under strict supervision”. How and why the peas were preserved, and the effect of preservation on  nutritional profile, is not disclosed. The possibility of degradation in the pea proteins and attendant sugars in the eight years since the earlier study are not discussed. 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."

Australians are already eating such animals (for example, Ingham's chickens are sometimes fed GM grains). The field-pea itself was not developed for human consumption. It was promoted as a weevil-resistant rotation crop to fix nitrogen in the soil, and was tested to assess its effects on livestock. Independent scientists have argued that these tests should be required for GM food for human consumption. 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 the authors claim.) Is CSIRO looking toward Europe to pave the way to commercialise its GM legumes for human consumption?

CSIRO is also invited to explain why the favourable 2013 study is discussed and linked on CSIRO's information page (updated on 10 Jan 2013), but unfavourable studies are not discussed, nor linked. They are referenced in endnotes as if to support CSIRO's proponent story, but the originals paint an unfavourable picture. A 2006 feeding study co-authored by Higgins found chickens fed the GM field-pea “reflected the lower starch digestibility” compared with those fed the non-GM pea. Another 2006 feeding study of pigs, also co-authored by Higgins, found “digestibility was significantly reduced in the transgenic [GM field-] peas compared with the non-transgenic peas”. Another 2012 study, not authored by Higgins, concludes that "insect herbivores have developed various adaptation mechanisms to overcome the defensive effects of [transgenic]plant inhibitors." This study spans many transgenic plants with pest-resistance genes, but it casts doubt on the long-term weevil-resistance of the GM field-pea.

Would further safety studies have been conceived had initial studies been favourable? What is their public-interest value?

CSIRO argues that such studies contribute to broad understandings of GM food risks. This seems a circular argument, because such studies help bankroll the GM legume industry that poses such risks. Untold millions of public funds flow to assess products that promise crop improvement but have no evidence of public demand or long-term benefit. These products are spruiked by CSIRO as “addressing global food security issues” and “delivering science that assists developing nations” — unrealised promises for such GM crop products for the past 25 years that have been comprehensively debunked by international development bodies. Without proven long-term benefits of CSIRO's GM legume products, and with acknowledged shortcomings of the studies that assess their risks, is good public money being thrown after bad?

NM put several questions to CSIRO about the GM fieldpea research to which CSIRO provided no formal response by publication. Read the list of questions.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.