Australia is poised to become the first country in the world to deregulate the use of a range of new genetic modification (GM) techniques in animals that are being collectively referred to as ‘gene editing’.

These new genetic engineering techniques, such as CRISPR, are being used, for example, to try to develop more muscular and disease resistant livestock that can be housed in intensive conditions without getting sick; and to produce animals that don’t reach sexually maturity so they eat less food. Scientists are also attempting to develop ‘gene drives’ – a GM technology that is deliberately designed to spread, with the aim of suppressing populations of mosquitoes and driving invasive species to local extinction.

There has been a great deal of media hype surrounding CRISPR applications in animals, with some scientists claiming this technology offers a new degree of precision and therefore doesn’t need to be regulated. However, the use of this technique in animals raises serious animal welfare, environmental and food safety concerns. The technique is not as precise as has been claimed and results in high levels of unexpected genetic mutations in mammals. Gene editing techniques can inadvertently cause very low live-birth rates; abnormal sizes – rendering animals incapable of natural movement; and respiratory and cardiac problems. Recent studies also suggest that editing cells’ genomes with CRISPR might increase the risk that the altered cells will trigger cancer.

In July 2018, the European Union’s top court ruled that new GM 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 be regulating these techniques as GM. Even the US Food and Drug Administration, which is not known for its precautionary approach to gene technology, has proposed that gene edited animals be assessed for food safety.

In stark contrast to overseas regulators, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) and Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) have both recommended that a number of these new GM techniques be deregulated. Furthermore, they have relied on advice from biotechnology scientists with clear commercial conflicts of interest in making their recommendations.

Research shows that the majority of Australians are not comfortable with the idea of eating GM animals. Yet if these techniques are deregulated anyone would be free to use them in animals and the resulting animal products would enter our food chain with no labelling and no safety testing.

There is zero tolerance for unapproved GM content in many of Australia’s major export markets. That makes it essential to have prior assessment of not just the environmental and human health impacts, but also the economic impacts of any use of GMOs. As a major agricultural exporter, if Australia were to exempt any of these techniques from regulation it could result in serious trade implications.

Gene edited animals pose novel risks to human health and the environment and raise a raft of ethical issues. It’s vital that we have a robust regulatory system in place to assess these risks. Products derived from these techniques also need to be labelled so that the choices of consumers, farmers and the food industry are protected.

Australia’s GMO regulations should be interpreted as they were initially intended, to encompass all modern biotechnological processes that directly modify genomes. Otherwise, the Australian Government will be failing its citizens.

Friends of the Earth is calling for:

  • These new GM techniques and the products derived from them to be subject to a comprehensive case-by-case risk assessment, including full molecular characterisation and independent safety testing to minimise any potential risks to human and animal health and the environment;
  • All products derived from these new GM techniques to be labelled to protect choice for farmers, producers and consumers;
  • The precautionary principle to be enshrined in both the Gene Technology Act and the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act, given the experimental nature of these technologies and the risks associated with them;
  • A moratorium on the development of gene drives until our regulatory system for GMOs is adapted to deal with the potential risks posed by them.

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