GROUPS against genetically modified (GM) food crops are protesting against a proposal from the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) to alter the regulatory status of a series of new plant breeding techniques.
The OGTR recently made a series of recommendations regarding proposed amendments to the 2001 Gene Technologies Regulations.
The key proposals from the OGTR included removing some examples of RNA interference (RNAi) technology, colloquially known as ‘GM Lite’ and gene editing processes, such as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) from the technologies regarded as genetic modification.
RNAi works by neutralising gene expressions.
The OGTR recommended that plants bred using RNAi remain classed as GM, but said plants treated topically with an RNAi created product should not be regarded as GM.
In terms of CRISPR, the regulator said as the gene editing process was no more dangerous than the mutagenesis method used to breed plant varieties conventionally, it should not come under the auspices of the regulations.
The move has angered anti-GM groups which claim the relatively recently discovered techniques need to be monitored.
“They have no history of safe use and are prone to unpredictable off-target impacts,” Bob Phelps, director of Gene Ethics said.
“GM laws and regulations are required to focus on protecting human health and safety, and the environment, but the governments and OGTR boldly admit that they have commercial agendas which should be irrelevant to how our GM regulatory and safety systems are designed and operated,” Mr Phelps said.
Louise Sales, Friends of the Earth’s Emerging Tech Project, was also against the proposed changes.
“If the OGTR deregulates these new GM techniques anyone would be free to use them to genetically modify plants, animals and microbes,” Ms Sales said.
“They could enter our food chain and our environment with no safety testing and no labelling and the results could be catastrophic.”
However, Matthew Cossey, chief executive of CropLife, Australia’s plant science peak body, welcomed the proposed changes, although he said CropLife felt the OGTR could have gone further in some cases.
He said the announcement of the interim outcomes of the 2016 Technical Review of the Gene Technology Regulations was welcomed by the plant science industry.
“The move to clarify the regulations by the OGTR will provide some level of certainty for researchers and industry and will enable innovative agricultural tools to be made available to Australia’s farmers in a more timely manner,” Mr Cossey said.
“It was the plant science and agricultural sectors’ clear preference to have a pure scientific and technical basis for regulation of breeding innovations based on the outcomes they produce rather than the breeding process.
“However, the plant science industry supports this interim measure recognising the constraints of the policy settings under which this review was conducted.”