In October this year, state governments thwarted the federal government's plans, and a massive global push by the biotech industry, to deregulate a range of new genetic modification (GM) techniques that are being referred to as 'gene editing'. At the recent Legislative and Governance Forum on Gene Technology meeting, State and Federal Ministers agreed that further consideration of the potential risks posed by these techniques is needed before a decision can be made.1
The federal government's incredible plan is to deregulate these techniques by changing the definition of GM so that these gene editing techniques are magically no longer GM at all. These techniques are not as precise as has been claimed and can result in high levels of unexpected genetic mutations – raising serious environmental and food safety concerns.2
Powerful, clear scientific evidence shows the potential risks these new GM techniques pose. It's vital that organisms produced using these techniques are assessed for safety before being released into our environment and supermarkets.3
In July 2018, the European Union's top court ruled that gene editing techniques such as CRISPR pose similar risks to older GM techniques and need to be assessed for safety in the same way.4 Our key agricultural competitor New Zealand will also be regulating these techniques as GM.5
Australian regulators are letting industry write the rules
In shocking 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. To add insult to injury, they have relied on advice from scientists from institutions with clear commercial conflicts of interest, and partnerships with Monsanto in making their recommendations.6
These techniques are quite clearly genetic engineering – the fact that our regulators are even considering not regulating them demonstrates how captured they have become by industry interests.
There is a global push to deregulate these new GM techniques
The global push by industry to deregulate these techniques began a few years ago. Puff pieces started appearing in the science media about this amazing new 'gene editing' tool called CRISPR that could precisely edit DNA and could apparently solve everything from world hunger to HIV. Those of us old enough to have seen similar claims made for the first generation of GM crops ‒ and fail to materialise ‒ viewed these utterances with a healthy level of scepticism.
The language being used has clearly been carefully workshopped by the biotechnology industry to maximise the public acceptance of these new technologies. The term 'gene editing' implies that you could just go in and change a DNA letter as easily as you could a letter in a Word document.7 Others have likened the technique to a molecular pair of scissors that can cut DNA at precise points.8
Such analogies fail to acknowledge that when these techniques are used in plants the same methods used to produce first generation GM crops are being used – i.e. particle bombardment with genetic material and cell tissue culture - with all the resultant mutation risks. They also conveniently ignore the fact that CRISPR, and other similar gene editing techniques, are all prone to cutting unintended bits of DNA. If an analogy is to be used, gene editing with CRISPR is more akin to doing a 'find and replace all' in a Word document in a language you don't understand. And as recent studies show, the technique is also prone to deleting and rearranging random bits of text.9
Industry has argued that the genetic differences caused by these techniques are really no different to traditional breeding – and therefore they don't need to be regulated. And, unfortunately, these claims have been uncritically repeated by our regulators – the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator and Food Standards Australia New Zealand.10
Let's be clear what the real agenda is here. The GM crop industry hoped that the tacit endorsement of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by our regulators would result in us happily eating them. This approach has completely failed. People remain quite rightly concerned about the safety of GMOs and their role in the global food system. So now industry has changed tack, and is trying to argue that these new techniques aren't really GM at all – so they can sneak them into the food chain with no safety testing and no labelling.
After a lengthy deliberation, in July this year the European Court of Justice ruled that these gene editing techniques such as CRISPR pose the same risks as older GM techniques and need to be assessed for safety in the same way.11 This finding is consistent with similar reviews commissioned by the Norwegian and Austrian Government on the topic.
The GM crop industry response to the ruling has been quick and vicious. Straight away industry funded cheerleaders Mark Lynas and Kevin Folta took to social media slamming the ruling. And the industry funded Science Media Centre released a series of scathing comments.12 Soon the mainstream media followed suit, with The Observer declaring the ruling "illogical and absurd". Writing in The Times, Matt Ridley (author of Genome) accused Europe's highest court of pandering "to the views of a handful of misguided extremists."13And now scientists are arguing that the ruling is having a 'chilling' effect on research.14
Contrary to the industry orchestrated hyperbole, Europe has not banned these experimental new GM techniques – just required that organisms produced using them be assessed for safety before they are released into our environment and our food chain.
And lots of scientists agree. In their submissions to Office of the Gene Technology Regulator Monash University, University of Melbourne and the Institutional Biosafety Committees of the University of Wollongong, Victoria University, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, and Children's Medical Research Institute and Children's Hospital Westmead all agreed that these techniques should be regulated. So why are our regulators letting the GM crop companies write the rules?
The issue will be discussed again at the next Legislative and Governance Forum on Gene Technology meeting in a few months' time. No doubt CropLife and other industry players will be using this time to pressure the state ministers – we need to do the same!
Please contact your state minister and urge them to protect our environment, our health and our food markets by ensuring that these risky new GM techniques are regulated: www.gmfree.org.au
Louise Sales is the coordinator of Friends of the Earth's Emerging Tech Project.
[email protected], www.emergingtech.foe.org.au
- The Department of Health (2018) Legislative and Governance Forum on Gene Technology Communique, 11/10/18, www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/ohp-gene-tech-oct18-comm.htm
- Le Page, M. (2018) CRISPR gene editing is not quite as precise and as safe as thought, www.newscientist.com/article/2174149-crispr-gene-editing-is-not-quite-as-precise-and-as-safe-as-thought/
- Court of Justice of the European Union (2018) Press Release no 111/18: Organisms obtained by mutagenesis are GMOs and are, in principle, subject to the obligations laid down by the GMO Directive, 25/7/18, https://curia.europa.eu/jcms/upload/docs/application/pdf/2018-07/cp180111en.pdf
- Smith, N. (2016) GMO regulations clarified, 6/4/16, www.beehive.govt.nz/release/gmo-regulations-clarified-0
- FoE (2018) Mutant meat: Will Australia deregulate genetically modified animals? http://emergingtech.foe.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Mutant-Meat-Friends-of-the-Earth-Australia-2018.pdf
- For example, e.g. Molteni, M. (2018) The Wired guide to CRISPR, 27/4/18 www.wired.com/story/wired-guide-to-crispr/
- Crossley, M. (2018) What is CRISPR gene editing, and how does it work? The Conversation, 1/2/18, https://theconversation.com/what-is-crispr-gene-editing-and-how-does-it-work-84591
- Le Page, M. (2018).
- FoE (2018) Mutant meat
- Court of Justice of the European Union (2018)
- Sourcewatch: Science Media Centre, www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Science_Media_Centre#Funding; SMC (2018) expert reaction to Court of Justice of the European Union ruling that GMO rules should cover plant genome editing techniques, 25 July 2018, www.sciencemediacentre.org/expert-reaction-to-court-of-justice-of-the-european-union-ruling-that-gmo-rules-should-cover-plant-genome-editing-techniques/
- Barrangou, R. (2018) CRISPR Craziness: A Response to the EU Court Ruling, The CRISPR Journal, 4:1, www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/crispr.2018.29025.edi
- Wight, A. J. (2018) Strict EU ruling on gene-edited crops squeezes science, Nature, 25/10/18, www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07166-7
Published in Chain Reaction #134, December 2018. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia. www.foe.org.au/chain_reaction
Whilst you are here, please make a tax deductible donation. Friends of the Earth relies on donations from people like you to keep running campaigns for social and environmental justice.