Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Chief science honcho a radical?

I recoil at the authoritarian overtones in the description of someone as Australia’s 'Chief Scientist', although, to be fair, it is only a name. The CS provides advice on science, technology and innovation issues to the PM and Ministers and provides a link between government and science.

The previous CS Robin Batterham resigned after controversy over conflicts of interest in working for Rio Tinto. The new CS is the CSIRO Scientist, Dr Jim Peacock, who initially at least looks more interesting than Batterham whose views I found clichéd. Peacock is a plant scientist and a supporter of GM crops. At a National Press Club meeting he points to the public health benefits of developing GM crops. He states:
In the near future, agriculture, more than ever before, will be linked directly to ... public health. The diseases of our western societies are largely a consequence of lifestyle changes, including diet. Many diet-related diseases, like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, colonic cancer, result in large part from the way we live.

We can change our foods so that our most common staple foods will help guard against the onset of these diseases and will make a significant contribution to reducing the enormous expenditure of therapeutic medicine.

Diabetes is the epidemic of the 21st century. This is true in developing countries as well as in western countries like Australia.

People in different countries consume the staple cereals, wheat, rice or maize. If the important starch component of these cereals had a low glycemic index, we would be a long way to reducing the incidence and severity of diabetes. It is possible to modify cereal grains so that they will be of greater nutritional value and more closely meet our requirements. ...our cereals are not very far removed from the wild
plants from which they were derived during the last 10,000 years. It is highly probable that we will be able to modify their biochemical constitutions to our
advantage.

An example in barley is where a single genetic letter change in one gene, .... changes the starch composition of the grain to a situation where clinical trials have already demonstrated its value as a low glycemic index food. This variety can be introduced to the market right now, not as a transgenic barley, but as a barley changed by mutagenesis and conventional breeding. We are likely to see it soon in breads and breakfast cereals.

The grain is a sophisticated delivery package of a variety of ingredients essential to our health. As well as starch, proteins, fatty acids and antioxidants can all be adjusted to better fit human nutrition requirements.

We can now teach plants to make long chain omega 3 fatty acids, oils that we currently mostly get now through the consumption of fish. Fish do not make these oils, they are made by microscopic algae in the ocean, and the fish just store the oils from their food supply. Researchers have been able to take the genes from the microscopic ocean plants and put them into our crop plants so that they too can make long chain omega 3 oils, so important for cardiovascular and other body systems.

Our food will increasingly be an important component of our preventative health system.
It will be interesting to see the impact Peacock’s views have on government. In 2004 Peacock slammed the ARC’s attempts to promote money-spinning science at the expense of basic ‘public good’ research. He also supports a broader approach to dealing with global warming issues includuing solar, wind and nuclear options - his predecessor Batterham pushed technological fixes such as 'clean coal' and 'geosequestration'. An interesting man, and perhaps a worthwhile appointment.

Update: In 2004 Peacock criticised Batterham for holding a part-time job with the private firm Rio Tinto. Peacock himself however maintains a position with the part publicly-funded CSIRO.

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