5 July 2000

Genetically modified crops are not a threat to the environment or human health, and have significant consumer benefits, a University of Queensland scientist told delegates today at a Brisbane conference.

"GM crops are now grown in 12 different countries with a total area of 40 million hectares (twice the area of Great Britain)," Dr Jimmy Botella told delegates today at the Australian Biotechnology Association 2000 conference in Brisbane.

"But we are still waiting for the threat of environmental disaster to materialize."

"Data from large-scale commercial fields of GM plants clearly show that there has been a dramatic decrease in the use of insecticides, herbicides and other nasty chemicals."

Dr Botella is the Director of UQ's Plant Genetic Engineering Laboratory, which employs 20 scientists working on diverse aspects of plant biology and biotechnology. Its main interest is the improvement of fruits and vegetables such as pineapple, papaya, mango and broccoli by genetic engineering.

Dr Botella said genetically modified (GM) food was the centre of a worldwide debate about its safety for human consumption and the environment.

"Self-proclaimed ecologist groups proclaim that there is a possibility of long term unforeseen consequences for the human health but the fact remains that after 13 years of consuming GM food there hasn't been as much as a skin rash caused by this kind of food," he said.

"So, how natural or unnatural are GM foods? Almost all plant varieties produced during the last centuries are the result of artificial genetic recombination.

"The natural parentals do not resemble in any way the products that we serve everyday on our table. GM foods are no more natural or unnatural than the rest but can provide the consumer with enhanced quality and nutritional properties that would be extremely difficult to achieve by other less reliable classical (but still artificial) methods."

Dr Botella said one of the many promising applications of biotechnology was to reduce the wastage experienced in fresh fruits and vegetables after harvest. Twenty to 80 percent of harvested crops were lost before they reached the consumer.

"In developing countries the losses can reach dramatic proportions and force small farmers to sell sub-optimal produce with the inherent health risk to consumers," he said.

"Our laboratory is developing fruit varieties with slower rates of ripening that will last considerably longer than regular varieties without the need for refrigeration or the use of artificial chemicals.

"We have cloned and characterised a gene that regulates the production of the plant hormone that controls the rate of ripening in papaya fruits. Through genetic manipulation we are producing transgenic plants in which the gene has been partially silenced therefore increasing the effective life of the fruits.

"The new varieties will produce fruits that will remain longer at the nutritional peak and will also last longer therefore increasing the quality of the fruits and decreasing spoilage."

After obtaining a degree in Nuclear Chemistry at the University of Madrid (Spain) and a PhD in Biochemistry by the University of Malaga (Spain), Dr Botella specialised in molecular biology and genetic engineering at the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania (USA) before joining The University of Queensland in 1994.

Dr Botella is the author of 26 papers in international scientific journals and several book chapters. He teaches several Plant Biotechnology and Molecular Biology courses at The University of Queensland.

Media: Further information, contact Dr Botella, telephone 07 3365 1128, mobile 0412 245 566 email: j.botella@botany.uq.edu.au or conference media co-ordinator David Harris telephone 0411 528055.

Enquiries can also be directed to communications@mailbox.uq.edu.au