On the day before the Federal election was called, the Government quietly announced changes to Australia’s Gene Technology Regulations that will allow a raft of new genetically modified (GM) animals, plants and microbes to enter our environment and food chain with no safety assessment and potentially no labelling. These include super-muscly pigs, non-browning mushrooms, and wheat with powdery mildew-resistance.

The deregulation comes as a new study adds to the growing body of evidence that new GM techniques such as CRISPR are not as safe as claimed.

The study found that in 50 per cent of the cells looked at, the use of CRISPR resulted in unexpected effects, including the production of new proteins.

Louise Sales, Coordinator of Friends of the Earth’s Emerging Tech Project said, “There is a risk that these proteins could be novel toxins or allergens. It is vital that GM animals, plants and microbes produced in this way are assessed for safety before being released into our environment and our food supply.”

London-based molecular geneticist Dr Michael Antoniou said, “The discoveries described in this study add to the increasing number of ways in which gene editing can go wrong. Regulators need to fully take on board these and other findings of off- and on-target unexpected outcomes from gene editing and subject all products produced with these methods to a comprehensive health risk assessment before considering market approval.”

Louise Sales said “We are deeply concerned that the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) has failed to revisit its claim that these GM techniques result in no greater risk than natural mutations – when the science is showing us just the opposite.”

“In July 2018, the European Union’s top court ruled that gene editing techniques such as CRISPR pose similar risks to older GM techniques and need to be assessed for safety in the same way. Our key agricultural competitor New Zealand will also regulate these techniques as GM, potentially disrupting Trans-Tasman trade.”

Several Institutional Biosafety Committees opposed the proposed deregulation of the GM techniques on safety grounds, including the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC), Victoria University IBC, Children’s Medical Research Institute and Children’s Hospital Westmead IBC, and the University of Woollongong IBC.

“We are concerned that the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator has ignored the advice of so many biosafety experts, instead relying on advice from scientists from institutions with clear commercial conflicts of interest, and partnerships with Monsanto, when making its recommendations.”

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