Opinion: Making the Gene Technology Act 2000 fit-for-purpose

March 15, 2018

Professor Mike Jones

Red tape: Professor Mike Jones says changes should be made to laws to reflect developments in gene science

By Mike Jones
Professor of Agricultural Biotechnology

If Australia wants to contribute fully to global food security as our population grows and our climate changes, it is now time to update what is or is not designated as a genetically modified organism (GMO).

The Gene Technology Act 2000 was originally enacted to ensure that GMOs, including GM crops grown in Australia or imported from overseas, were safe for human consumption and the environment.  With the associated Gene Technology Regulations 2001, this legislation also regulates research involving recombinant DNA (combining different sequences of DNA together).

Some of the original concerns about GMOs included possible risk to human health, or impact on the environment.  In fact, to date, there have been no documented ill effects to human health, and GM crops have increased farm productivity, reduced the use of environmentally-damaging pesticides, and increased the options for farmers to control weeds.

As the genomes of all major crop species have been sequenced, the focus is now moving to using this new information to produce healthier and more nutritious food for consumers.

We have nearly two decades experience of the safe use of GM crops, which currently account for 10 per cent of the world’s food production. It is now time for the definition of what is or is not a GMO to be updated.

The Act defines all forms of plant and animal breeding as genetic manipulation, and then excludes certain categories based on a history of safe use.

Under the Act, crossing different species to create new genetic combinations of crop germplasm, or lab-based mutagenic treatments, are excluded from being defined as GMOs. Whereas more precise changes made using recombinant DNA technology result in an organism being defined as a GMO.

In fact, we know much less about what new genetic combinations occur in conventionally bred plant crops than we do for products of new breeding technologies which may use recombinant DNA.

Conventional breeding technology is much less precise than genetic modification, and yet it is not regulated because it is deemed to be safe.

For example, fruit and grain varieties developed by exposing plant cells to gamma irradiation and harsh chemicals that cause mutations, are grown without regulation from the Act, and are often labelled as non-GM in organic stores.

In reviewing the impact of regulations on agricultural production in Australia, the 2017 Productivity Commission White Paper concluded that many areas, including GM technologies, were being held back by red tape and excessive regulation.

Law makers should also consider new gene editing advances that were not foreseen in the original Act. These can be used to make precise changes in specific genes without the introduction of any external DNA.

If there is no introduced DNA, or the resultant changes are the same as those arising from current unregulated breeding technologies, then the products should not be regulated as GMOs.

Peak industry bodies like CropLife Australia and leading researchers in the field are not advocating wholesale changes to the Gene Technology Act 2000. We would simply like to see a greater focus on the properties of the end products, rather than the method used to achieve them.

Changes to the Gene Technology 2000 Act that better reflect current genetic developments and experience would be a boon for crop research and improvement both in Australia and worldwide.

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