International genetic engineering experts are gathering in Canberra tomorrow for a forum to discuss a range of new genetic modification (GM) techniques – such as CRISPR – that the Federal Government is proposing to deregulate. These techniques are already being used in food crops, animals and microbes and could soon be making their way into our food and environment without safety testing or labelling. The Federal Government’s Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) is expected to advise on its preferred option for regulation in the coming weeks.

Dr Michael Antoniou, a genetic engineer and Head of the Gene Expression and Therapy group at King’s College London (UK) whose group uses these techniques to address gene disorders in people says, “the science is clear. These new genetic engineering techniques pose very similar risks as older techniques and need to be assessed for safety before being used in our food.”

“In my field of medical research there is no question that gene editing techniques are GM and can have unintended effects. In the field of GMOs for food use these effects could result in unexpected toxins or allergens or negatively impact crop performance. Therefore gene editing techniques need to be regulated at least as rigorously as older GM techniques.”

Dr Jack Heinemann, a genetic engineer and Professor of Genetics at the Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety and the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand said “there has always been commercial pressure to reduce regulation on products of new technologies, but the international consensus on safety assessment remains firmly on the side of continued regulation.”

“Conventional breeding does not create the diversity of safety issues that gene technologies can and for the foreseeable future safety assessment will be better informed by ongoing regulation based on how these organisms are made.”

A public forum is also being held in Sydney on Thursday.