Friends of the Earth is concerned that proposed changes to the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act 1991 that would delete the definitions of GMO (genetically modified organism) and GM product from the Act are an attempt to deregulate risky new genetic engineering techniques by stealth. The Food Standards Australia New Zealand Amendment (Forum on Food Regulation and Other Measures) Bill 2015 is scheduled for debate in the House today. Furthermore, it appears that the Government has not discussed these proposed changes with either the state governments or the New Zealand Government.[1]

Louise Sales, Emerging Tech Project Coordinator with Friends of the Earth said “the Government is pretending that these changes are simply technical amendments to the Act but they are substantive changes and we believe that this is an attempt by the Government to deregulate GMOs by stealth.”

“There is a global push by the GM crop industry to bypass regulation for a range of new genetic engineering techniques – despite the evidence suggesting that they pose the same risks as traditional genetic engineering.”[2]

“The concerns associated with the use of these new GM techniques include food safety concerns,[3] environmental impacts – including those on biodiversity[4]– and GM contamination of neighbouring non-GM crops or wild relatives.[5]

The proposed amendments would delete the definitions of GMO (genetically modified organism) and GM product from Section 4 of the Act.[6] Once they are gone the only definitions remaining are those in the Food Standards Code (Standard 1.5.2) which are not as broad and could be amended without Parliamentary debate. The Bill also removes FSANZ’s requirement to notify the Gene Technology Regulator of any of its food regulatory measures that relate to food that is or contains a GMO or a GM product. There is no coherent justification for these changes in the Explanatory Memorandum for the Bill.[7]

In 2012[8] and 2013[9] our food regulator Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) convened an expert panel – comprised almost entirely of genetic engineers with a vested interest in the technology – to look at whether a range new techniques would be considered genetic engineering. It concluded that “when used to introduce small changes only, such techniques do not present a significantly greater food safety concern than other forms of mutagenesis.”[10] This conclusion is in marked contrast to recent research papers on the topic, which have found numerous unintended mutations in organisms modified using these techniques.[11]

“We are concerned that if the Food Standards Act definition of gene technology is deleted, certain new GM techniques such as RNA interference will not be covered under the Food Standards Code definition. The full implications of these changes needs to be looked at before these amendments are considered”, said Ms Sales.

Friends of the Earth is calling for:

  • All members of the Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation to be consulted on the changes.
  • The matter to be referred to Committee to examine the full implications of the changes.
  • A moratorium on the commercialisation of these techniques until our regulatory system for GMOs is adapted to deal with the potential risks posed by them.

Read our Briefing on the Bill.

[1] Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation communiqués, http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/foodsecretariat-communiques.htm; Food Standards Australia New Zealand Amendment (Forum on Food Regulation and Other Measures) Bill 2015 Second Reading Speech, 17th September 2015, http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/genpdf/chamber/hansardr/108deaf7-f29c-4e1f-96aa-3f9b4ff9bf1a/0029/hansard_frag.pdf;fileType=application%2Fpdf

[2] Eckerstorfer, M. et al. (2014) New plant breeding techniques: risks associated with their application, Austrian Environment Agency, http://www.ekah.admin.ch/fileadmin/ekah-dateien/New_Plant_Breeding_Techniques_UBA_Vienna_2014_2.pdf; Agapito-Tenfen, S.G. & Wikmark, O-G (2015) Current status of emerging technologies for plant breeding: Biosafety and knowledge gaps of site directed nucleases and oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis, p. 4, http://genok.no/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/250615_Emerging_technologies_final.pdf

[3] Hilbeck, A. et al. (2015) No scientific consensus on GMO safety. Environmental Sciences Europe 27: 4 doi 10.1186/s12302-014-0034-1

[4] Pleasants, J.M. & Oberhauser, K.S. (2012) Milkweed loss in agricultural fields because of herbicide use: effect on the monarch butterfly population. Insect Conservation and Diversity 6:135–144. Holst, N., Lang, A., Lövei, G. & Otto, M. (2013) Increased mortality is predicted of Inachis io larvae caused by Bt-maize pollen in European farmland. Ecological Modelling 250: 126– 133.

[5] Price, B., & Cotter, J. (2014) The GM Contamination Register: a review of recorded contamination incidents associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), 1997-2013. International Journal of Food Contamination, 1: 5.

[6] The Food Standards Australia New Zealand Amendment (Forum on Food Regulation and Other Measures) Bill 2015, http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/legislation/ems/r5542_ems_0c02f9d0-bbf2-4b81-8f05-21b496ccc90e/upload_pdf/503834.pdf;fileType=application%2Fpdf

[7] http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/legislation/ems/r5542_ems_0c02f9d0-bbf2-4b81-8f05-21b496ccc90e/upload_pdf/503834.pdf;fileType=application%2Fpdf

[8] FSANZ (2012) New Planting Breeding Techniques: Report of a Workshop Hosted by Food Standards Australia New Zealand, http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/publications/Documents/New%20Plant%20Breeding%20Techniques%20Workshop%20Report.pdf

[9] FSANZ (2013) New Planting Breeding Techniques: Report of a Workshop Hosted by Food Standards Australia New Zealand, August 2013, http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/publications/Documents/New%20Plant%20Breeding%20Techniques%20-2013%20Workshop%20Report.pdf

[10] FSANZ (2013) p. 10.

[11] For an overview see Eckerstorfer, M. et al (2014) and Agapito-Tenfen, S.G. & Wikmark, O-G (2015)