Scientist warned agency of GM danger

16:00, Mar 27 2013

A Government agency was warned 10 years ago about the potential risks of new genetically modified molecules creeping into our food.

In 2002, Canterbury University geneticist Professor Jack Heinemann first tipped off the new defunct Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) about the type of GM molecules which are now in the spotlight.

New Zealand foods containing modified soybeans, such as margarines, chocolate and mayonnaises, contain the double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) material which researchers say has not been properly scrutinised by regulator Food Standards Australia-New Zealand (FSANZ).

The concern is that the molecule can survive heating and digestion and potentially switch off human genes from functioning normally.

Erma is now part of the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), which is responsible for regulating new organisms in New Zealand.

Heinemann told The Press he first informed Erma about the molecules in 2002. He then warned the authority about their effects on insects and wildlife in a detailed report in 2007, three years after alerting Food Standards Australia-New Zealand (FSANZ) about their possible dangers.


In his book Hope not Hype, Heinemann takes issue with Erma's 2006 definition that dsRNA molecules "are not genetic material".

He also quotes in the book a 2005 email released under the Official Information Act showing some Erma staff were also perplexed by the definition.

"The incompatibility was evident to some Erma staff who said during policy development that 'no matter how hard I try, I cannot bring myself to say that RNA, per se, is not genetic material'."

Heinemann, the director of the university's Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety, told The Press there had been no update on thinking by the EPA since.

"To say these molecules are not genetic material is an arbitrary policy position of the EPA and not a scientific position. Exposure to them can cause changes that can be passed on to children."

EPA principal scientist Dr Geoff Ridley said that as a regulator, the authority worked under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act, drawing on the best scientific information available.

"If the process changes an organism's genome, it is effectively creating a new organism and so is regulated under the HSNO Act. If it does not change the genome, it cannot be considered to be creating a new organism."

Heinemann said that difference was wrong.

"What they are saying is the product would be regulated if the plant were changed with a piece of DNA that specified the product of dsRNA.

"But if I directly spray dsRNA on to the plant and it causes changes, as a herbicide, then they would not regulate it. If that spraying of dsRNA caused the production of secondary dsRNAs, they would not capture that risk."

The Sustainability Council said the highlighted shortcomings were serious enough for the EPA to review its approach.


Scathing criticism of the latest study of genetically modified molecules in food has sparked a strong response from researchers.

Federated Farmers food safety spokesman Dr William Rolleston, chief executive of the University of Adelaide's Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics, Professor Peter Langridge, and University of Melbourne senior lecturer in food biotechnology Dr David Tribe have labelled the findings of Professor Jack Heinemann and his co-researchers "scare tactics", saying they are unbalanced.

They were commenting on the Science Media Centre website.

Rolleston also accused Heinemann of acting as "both referee and player".

In reply, Heinemann said the research article was subject to the "highest standards of international blind peer-review".

"It is impossible for authors to be referee and player through such a process.

"I note that Rolleston's views on this and many other matters has never been put to blind peer-review so I wonder if perhaps he is simply out of touch with how scientific research is conducted and reported.

"I would welcome comments of substance directed to our work, especially those that have also passed through the rigorous process that our paper has.

"As a research scientist dedicated to the public good I don't believe in hiding the results of research that matter to the public even if some find the results inconvenient.

"I also do not believe it is the prerogative of Rolleston to decide for the public or for me what science to read or when to read it."

Heinemann also questioned how much peer-reviewed research on double-stranded RNA Langridge and Tribe had published.

The Press