Genetically modified (GM) crops were not a threat to the environment or human health and had significant consumer benefits, a University of Queensland scientist told a conference here on Wednesday.

GM crops were now grown in 12 countries on a total area of 40 million hectares, twice the area of Britain, Dr Jimmy Botella told the Australian Biotechnology Association 2000 conference.

Threats of environmental disaster had not materialised, he said.
"Self-proclaimed ecologist groups proclaim that there is a possibility of long-term unforeseen consequences for 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," Botella said.

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

Botella is the director of the University of Queensland'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 including papaya, mango and broccoli by genetic engineering, the university said in a statement.

Almost all plant varieties produced during the last centuries were the result of artificial genetic recombination, he said.

GM TO KEEP FRUIT FRESH LONGER
"GM foods are no more natural or unnatural than the rest but can provide the consumer with enhanced quality and nutritional properties that would (otherwise) be extremely difficult to achieve," he said.

One of the many promising applications of biotechnology was to reduce wastage of fresh fruit after harvest, with between 20 and 80 percent of harvested crops lost before they reached the consumer, he said.
Losses could reach dramatic proportions in developing countries, forcing small farmers to sell sub-optimal produce with an inherent health risk to consumers, he said.

The University of Queensland's laboratory was developing fruit varieties with slower rates of ripening that would last considerably longer than regular varieties without the need for refrigeration or the use of artificial chemicals, he said.

"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," he said.

The new varieties would produce fruit that would remain longer at the nutritional peak and would also last longer, increasing the quality of the fruits and decreasing spoilage, he said.

A trial crop of GM pineapples being grown by Botella's team was ripped from the ground by protesters earlier this year, forcing their removal to a secret location.