An A$3m research project has been launched to determine the environmental impact of a number of GMO crops. For three years, CSIRO will study the large-scale production of cotton, clover and canola in a follow up move to a completed small-scale field study. It will also investigate the ecological influence of new GMO organisms.

CSIRO Deputy Chief Executive of Environment and Natural Resources, Dr Paul Wellings, explained that “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.”

What remains unknown however, is the effect that modifying genes in living organisms can have on the non-GM organisms otherwise present in the environment. Risk assessment at this level involves complex networking between ecologists, climate specialists, statisticians and modellers. For CSIRO it will also involve the development of new tools. On an unprecedented scale, the altered genes will be studied for their ecological impact. For example, scientists will look at the effects that a GMO insect-resistant eucalypts has on a harmless insect population, or a GMO crop has on the weeds present. As the numbers of GMO plantations increase, it is essential to evaluate the risks, and the benefits, posed for the long-term.

Project leader Dr Mark Lonsdale is positive about the study: “The Australian community demands that environmental impacts be based on impartial and scientific information, and that is exactly what we are aiming to contribute. Ultimately the insights can be applied in many countries that are seeking to assess the relative benefits and risks of GMOs.”