A letter campaign to Australia’s top chefs — including Kylie Kwong, Maggie Beer, Stephanie Alexander, Stefano de Pieri and Margaret Fulton — has again raised questions about the CSIRO’s alliances with industry.

In copies of a letter forwarded to Crikey, Deputy Chief of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Plant Industry, TJ Higgins, has written to more than 50 chefs who signed Greenpeace’s GM-free Chefs Charter, asking them not to boycott Genetically Modified products.

Higgins, whose claims about the safety of GM foods have attracted criticism from some scientists and support from others, is CSIRO’s co-inventor of the GM field pea. The pea, spliced with a bean gene, cost more than $2 million to develop but was abandoned because it caused immune issues and lung-damage when fed to mice.

Despite this, Higgins’ letter urges chefs to “think more broadly about the implications of your opposition”. Higgins says “it is untrue to say that GM food has not been tested for human safety.” It has, he notes, “and very widely” — independent studies have found no “connection between health problems and GM food”.

But Greenpeace spokesperson Louise Sales told Crikey that Higgins’ claims have been refuted by peer-reviewed studies and that “Higgins has clearly, and not for the first time, crossed the line between being a scientist and biotechnology industry lobbyist.”

Claims of safety are also challenged by public health scientists, including Australian epidemiologist Judy Carman and nutritionist and biochemist Rosemary Stanton, who say there is mounting evidence to suggest some GM foods currently on the market are unsafe, and these have not undergone the rigour of testing that found health hazards in Higgins’ ill-fated GM pea. While Australian food regulation bodies don’t require such testing, in Europe and Japan, many GM foods are banned because of perceived inadequate testing.

CSIRO’s public comments policy forbids advocacy and calls for “care… when speaking about work with commercial potential.”

CSIRO Plant Industry has commercial partners and holds several GM product patents that depend on market acceptance of GM food. Many of these products are co-invented by Australia’s Chief Scientist Jim Peacock, who has lobbied to overturn GM bans.

CSIRO policy also states: “where diversity of scientific views exists make reference to the range of scientific perspectives held within CSIRO.” In the case of GM food, a senior scientist who spoke publicly about hazards of GM crops was sacked from the organisation.

CSIRO was contacted for a response to the latest claims, which follow a spate of accusations besieging CSIRO, including accusations of gagging scientists who express opinions on climate change policy, and a Canberra Times exposé of CSIRO’s coal industry influence on boosting fossil fuel research and reducing renewable energy research.

Scientists in Nature and within the CSIRO have also attacked some claims in the bestselling CSIRO Wellbeing Diet, which was funded by meat and dairy industry bodies.

CSIRO Communications Spokesperson Sophie Clayton said Higgins would like to respond to the latest claims but could not in time for this story. CSIRO’s position statement on gene technology is here.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW