Australia’s gene technology regulator is proposing to deregulate new genetic modification (GM) techniques deemed “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation” in the US Government’s annual worldwide threat assessment report. Several of the options outlined in the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR)’s discussion paper released this week would leave dangerous new GM techniques such as CRISPR-Cas unregulated.

Louise Sales from Friends of the Earth’s Emerging Tech Project said “if the OGTR deregulates these new GM techniques anyone from amateur biohackers – to industry – to terror groups would be free to use them to genetically modify plants, animals and microbes. And they could enter our food chain and our environment with no safety testing and no labelling. The risks could be catastrophic.”

“Even the way that some of these techniques work is still hotly contested among scientists. The idea of deregulating something we still don’t fully understand is frankly mind-boggling.”

Reviews commissioned by the Austrian and Norwegian governments concluded that there is insufficient knowledge regarding the risks posed by these new GM techniques and that products derived from them should require a comprehensive case-by-case risk assessment.

“Other countries have taken a more cautious approach, with New Zealand recently announcing that it will regulate organisms derived from these techniques as GMOs” said Ms Sales.

The European Union has yet to make a decision on whether it will regulate these techniques as GM. The question has been taken to the European Court of Justice which will rule in 18 months whether or not new GM techniques, including ODM, ZFN1, TALENs, and CRISPR-Cas, fall under EU GMO law.

“These techniques are quite clearly genetic engineering – the fact that the OGTR is even considering not regulating them demonstrates how captured the agency has become by industry interests,” said Ms Sales.

Recent documents obtained by Friends of the Earth under Freedom of Information laws reveal that the OGTR has also been consulting with industry for at least two years on whether to regulate these techniques urging them to ‘make the case.

“Following extensive consultation with industry, the rest of us have just 6 weeks to make the case why these techniques should be regulated. It’s time our regulators stopped letting industry write the rules for them and put public health and our environment before private profit”, concluded Ms Sales.

Public submissions to the OGTR’s review close on 2 December.