Scientists Professor Jennifer Doudna and Assistant Professor Kevin Esvelt will speak at a forum in Melbourne tonight on the need for precaution and transparency in the application of the new genetic modification (GM) technique CRISPR[i]. Meanwhile our Federal Government is proposing changes to our Gene Technology Regulations that would make Australia the first country in the world to deregulate the use of this technique in animals, plants and microbes.

Louise Sales from Friends of the Earth’s Emerging Tech Project said “the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) is proposing deregulating this technique in some circumstances, claiming that it is precise and safe. However, new research has shown that CRISPR can result in hundreds of unexpected mutations.”

“Reviews commissioned by the Austrian and Norwegian governments concluded that not enough is known about the risks posed by new GM techniques such as CRISPR. They recommended that products derived from them require comprehensive case-by-case risk assessments. Because of these risks, over 60 international scientists have signed a statement calling for these techniques to be strictly regulated as GMOs.

“If the Government deregulates this technique there will be no monitoring or surveillance. Anyone from amateur biohackers, to industry, to terror groups would be free to use it to genetically modify plants, animals and microbes. Entirely new diseases and poisons could be made. And they could enter our food chain and our environment with no safety testing and no labelling. The risks are enormous and the results could be catastrophic.”

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

The European Union has yet to make a decision on whether it will regulate these techniques as GM, although its longstanding concern with GM suggests regulation is likely. The question has been taken to the European Court of Justice. This will rule later this year whether a number of these new GM techniques fall under EU GMO law.

“These techniques are quite clearly genetic modification and need to be regulated. The fact that the OGTR is even considering not regulating them demonstrates how captured the agency has become by industry interests,” said Ms Sales.

The OGTR recommended that these techniques be deregulated following advice from scientists in its Gene Technology Technical Advisory Committee (GTTAC) with serious conflicts of interest.

“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.

[i] Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats