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A genetically modified variety of corn remains approved for use in Australia despite the withdrawal of applications for approval in Europe and serious concerns about its assessment raised by a New Zealand university research team.

Monsanto’s high lysine corn (LY038) is a genetically engineered corn variety intended as an animal feed, and was approved by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand in late 2006. LY038 has also been approved in Canada, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.

The approval was criticised by the University of Canterbury’s Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety (INBI). INBI, headed by anti-GM campaigner Professor Jack Heinemann, was critical of the fact that FSANZ had not sought testing from Monsanto on cooked LY038.

When cooked, lysine — an amino acid — forms chemicals called AGEs that are implicated in conditions such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes and some cancers. LY038 also contains a protein called cDHDPS, which INBI says was not tested for, despite the potential for cDHDPS in cooked form to elicit an immune response.

Once introduced, there is potential for LY038 to contaminate corn used for human consumption, and FSANZ noted that potential.

Recently, Monsanto withdrew the corn from the European Food Safety Authority assessment process after EFSA declined to approve it without further studies, prompting the NZ Greens to call for the approval of LY038 to be overturned.

Concerns raised by the Europeans include the failure of Monsanto to provide results from cooked LY038.

FSANZ rejects the claim that LY038 has not been subject to a rigorous assessment process, saying that its approval system uses the process used by other government food regulatory agencies and that has been accepted by the WHO’s international food regulatory body Codex Alimentarius.

“Our safety process was independently peer reviewed last year by a Canadian expert, who found it to be one of the best in the world,” FSANZ spokesperson Lydia Buchtmann said. “We did an extensive study of the claims by Heinemann as part of the safety assessment for high lysine corn and concluded there were no safety issues.” FSANZ’s (very detailed) response to the INBI claims is here.

FSANZ insists that Monsanto’s withdrawal of LY038 in Europe was entirely a commercial decision, which Heinemann disputes. “We have been in contact with our food regulatory colleagues in Europe and Monsanto,” said Buchtmann. “(The) application was withdrawn on commercial grounds by Monsanto because it is not being commercially grown anywhere in the world and it would have been costly for the company to continue to provide more information requested by European Union country members. There were no food safety concerns.”

Critics of FSANZ and anti-GE campaigners claim it is a rubber stamp for genetically-modified foods, pointing out that it has never rejected an application. GM foods must be approved by FSANZ, usually via a comparison of the GM food with a similar, commonly eaten conventional food. FSANZ uses data provided by applicants (as do drug and chemical regulators) in its assessment process.

“We’ve approved 38 different GM foods as safe in the last 10 years and in some cases, we have requested and received additional information,” Buchtmann said. “We haven’t rejected any applications to date but obviously would were there safety concerns. We also note that GM food has been extensively eaten in the US and Canada for more than 10 years with no scientific link to any ill effect.”

Peter Fray

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