Will GMO Crops Save the Planet?

Focus: MARKETS

Alex Daley Image Alex Daley Chief Technology Investment Strategist, Casey's Extraordinary Technology

The debate of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), agricultural crops in particular, has raged for decades. But while the debate has been raging, and passions flare, GMO plantings are up and we're feeding a growing population around the world, observes Alex Daley of Casey Research.

Last month, a group of Australian scientists published a warning to the citizens of the country and of the world who collectively gobble up some $34 billion annually of its agricultural exports. The warning concerned the safety of a new type of wheat.

As Australia's number-one export, a $6-billion annual industry, and the most-consumed grain locally, wheat is of the utmost importance to the country. A serious safety risk from wheat-a mad wheat disease of sorts-would have disastrous effects for the country and for its customers.

Which is why the alarm bells are being rung over a new variety of wheat being ushered toward production by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) of Australia. In a sense, the crop is little different than the wide variety of modern genetically modified foods. A sequence of the plant's genes has been turned off to change the wheat's natural behavior a bit, to make it more commercially viable (hardier, higher yielding, slower decaying, etc.).
Franken-Wheat?

What's really different this time-and what has Professor Jack Heinemann of the University of Canterbury, NZ, and Associate Professor Judy Carman, a biochemist at Flinders University in Australia, holding press conferences to garner attention to the subject-is the technique employed to effectuate the genetic change. It doesn't modify the genes of the wheat plants in question; instead, a specialized gene blocker interferes with the natural action of the genes.

The process at issue, dubbed RNA interference or RNAi for short, has been a hotbed of research activity ever since the Nobel Prize-winning 1997 research paper that described the process.