International experts are gathering in Melbourne this evening 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, “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 Judy Carman, a world expert on the risk assessments of genetically modified crops from the Institute of Health and Environmental Research, Adelaide said “assuming that foods derived from these techniques are safe is not good enough. You need to assess them for safety before you feed them to the entire Australian population.”

Professor Rob Sparrow a bioethicist from Monash University’s School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, Melbourne said “if the new methods for genome editing are as revolutionary and powerful as their proponents advertise then it is even more important that they be regulated. Products derived from these techniques also need to be labelled to protect consumer choice.”

Dr Nick Rose, Executive Director of Sustain and Lecturer at William Angliss Institute said “the integrity of the food system is fundamental to our wellbeing and prospects for sustainability. We need to know what major changes are planned and to make informed choices about the technologies we use on our food, which is why this public forum is so important.”

Public forums are also being held in Canberra and Sydney next week.