Remember how the biotech industry has told us for years that all crops are genetically modified (GM) and that GM is just an extension of what farmers have been doing for millennia? Well now they’ve changed tack and are claiming a range of new GM techniques aren’t really GM at all. Referred to innocuously as ‘new plant breeding techniques’ or ‘gene editing’, there is a global push by the GM giants to deregulate these techniques. By arguing that these techniques are precise and not really genetic engineering at all, companies are attempting to circumvent regulation, labelling and public opposition.

Austrian government agencies are among the few globally to consider the risks posed by these techniques. They concluded that there is insufficient knowledge regarding potential risks, and that products derived from these techniques should be regulated in the same way as those created using older GM techniques – and require a comprehensive case-by-case risk assessment.

The response of international regulators so far has varied. US regulators informed US company Cibus that its herbicide tolerant SU canola – developed using one of these techniques – is not legally a GMO and therefore doesn’t have to undergo regulatory clearance. SU Canola has already had a limited release in the US and could be rolled out commercially as early as next year.

In order to decide how to regulate these techniques, the joint food regulator for Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) convened an ‘expert panel’ comprised almost entirely of genetic engineers with gene technology patents. Predictably, the panel recommended that a number of these techniques be deregulated – recommendations that documents obtained under of Freedom of Information laws reveal FSANZ has accepted in full.

Meanwhile, the European Commission is conducting a legal analysis to determine whether these techniques are covered by existing GMO laws. The analysis is due to be released sometime this year.