As Australia is poised to become one of the first countries in the world to deregulate several new genetic modification techniques in animals, a new report highlights the urgent need for safety assessment and regulatory oversight.

The Federal Government has tabled changes to the Gene Technology Regulations that will allow the unregulated use of a number of gene editing techniques in animals, plants and microbes. Senator Janet Rice has introduced a motion to disallow the proposed changes that will be voted on in the Senate on 13th November.

The new report from Friends of the Earth and Logos Environmental reveals that the use of gene editing in farm animals poses risks to human health, the environment and animal welfare. The report follows the discovery by US Food and Drug Administration scientists that gene-edited hornless cattle contained unexpected antibiotic resistant bacterial genes, despite researchers’ original claims that the gene editing did not result in any genetic errors. This new report highlights the likely unintended consequences of gene editing and the need for regulation.

The report compiles evidence from peer-reviewed scientific studies demonstrating research gaps and unknown and unintended consequences of gene editing in animals. For example, published studies have found enlarged tongues in engineered rabbits and extra vertebrae in pigs, as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2018. Recent cell studies linked CRISPR to DNA damage and cancer concerns.

Report co-author Dr. Janet Cotter of Logos Environmental said “the scientific evidence shows that gene editing, particularly in animals, is far from ‘precise’. Instead, it can produce unintended changes to genetic material and disrupt genetic processes. Such effects could have far reaching consequences for food safety, so these applications will require a rigorous assessment if they are to be used in agriculture.”

Louise Sales, Coordinator of Friends of the Earth’s Emerging Tech Project said “these techniques can result in high levels of unexpected genetic mutations in mammals. This raises serious animal welfare, environmental and food safety concerns that our regulators are simply ignoring.”

Many genetically engineered farm animals are currently in development, funded by private companies or governments and enabled by new gene editing technologies such as CRISPR. Examples include super-muscly cows and pigs, hornless cattle, chickens and pigs made to resist certain diseases, cows with human genes, and other genetic experiments. Production of these gene-edited farm animals is often done without public awareness or input.

“Friends of the Earth is calling on Federal senators to preserve our science based approach to GM regulation and to ensure that all genetically modified organisms continue to be assessed for safety before being released into our environment and food chain,” concluded Ms Sales.