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2-Plants: Australia launches program on environmental impacts of GMOs

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TITLE:  A) Researches probe environmental impact of GMOs
        B) Background informations: Researches probe environmental
           impact of GMOs
SOURCE: SCIRO, Australia
DATE:   both August 28, 2000

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A) Researches probe environmental impact 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 

The new project has three components:
- developing new tools for assessing the risks of GMOs;
- studying ecological impacts of existing GM crops;
- and 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.

Further information:

Dr Mark Lonsdale, CSIRO Entomology 0061-2-6246 4360
Mobile: 0409 743 103

Julian Cribb, CSIRO 0061-2-6276 6244
Mobile: 0418 639 245

Media Liaison: Sharon Corey, CSIRO Entomology 0061-2-6246 4136


B) Background information: Researchers probe evironmental impact of 

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 

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 

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 
- 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.

Further information:

Dr Mark Lonsdale, CSIRO Entomology 0061-2-6246 4360
Mobile: 0409 743 103

Media Liaison: Sharon Corey, CSIRO Entomology 0061-2-6246 4136


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