Australia: Tougher GM laws needed now

GM Watch reports that widespread non-compliance with Australia’s  Office of Gene Technology Regulator’s safety rules and licenses have been confirmed, a report from the NGO Gene Ethics says.

“The OGTR is now assessing options to deregulate a tsunami of completely new GM techniques (CRISPR; Talen; ZFN; RNAi) and their products, recently invented,” says Gene Ethics Director, Bob Phelps.
Many scientists and the GM industry want the OGTR’s regulations amended so the new GM techniques and their products are exempt from regulation immediately. But the Gene Technology Act 2000, passed by the Howard Government, clearly mandates that all new GM techniques – most not even imagined then – must be assessed, regulated and licensed under the OGTR’s national regime. The Precautionary Principle enshrined in the Act should also apply.

The new GM techniques have no history of safe use, experimental or commercial. And two recent scientific papers confirm that many off-target genome disruptions and effects occur in experimental animals when CRISPR is used to manipulate their DNA. Novel GM food and crops, humans and animals; fish, trees, insects, and a cornucopia of other living things are being genetically manipulated and created with these new and untried GM tools.

Food Standards Australia NZ appears set to allow some products of radical new GM methods into our food supplies. All Australian Government Health and Agriculture ministries are party to the national GM regulatory system. They must intervene now to ensure that the Gene Technology Act is rigorously applied so that all new GM techniques and the living organisms created are fully and strongly regulated before any releases are contemplated. “Anything less is intolerable and will encounter public opposition,” Mr Phelps says.

University of Canberra scientists failed to comply with genetic engineering safety protocols while researching a mosquito-borne virus linked to brain damage.
Fairfax Media can reveal 32 separate incidents of non-compliance committed by universities, government laboratories and large agricultural companies, including:
* Sheep being accidentally allowed to graze in a GM trial site in Victoria
* GM seeds spilling off the back of a truck on a highway in New South Wales
* Canberra researchers storing engineered material in an unauthorised laboratory
* GM disease vaccines being tipped down the sink

.In 2015 the University of Canberra contravened GMO licence conditions during an experiment with the Murray Valley encephalitis virus, a mosquito-borne virus that can cause brain damage. Scientists were attempting to create a new vaccine by engineering the virus with two genes from the virus that causes Dengue fever.

“At the time of the inspection the University of Canberra notified inspectors that dealings with GMOs had been undertaken in a facility that had not been authorised by the licence,” a government report read.

Last year agricultural giant Bayer Crop Science was moving planting equipment from a trial site in country NSW when a small batch of GM cotton seeds were spilled. A report of the incident showed the seeds could have been spilled over a 29 kilometre patch of road in Moree, including the busy Newell Highway.The seeds had been modified with genes linked to insect or herbicide resistance.
The Nuseed agri-tech company was involved in an incident in 2016, in which sheep were mistakenly allowed to graze in a paddock containing GM canola in Colac Otway, Victoria.

In 2016 there was a non-compliance incident at the University of South Australia in which material was taken out of a facility without labelling to indicate it contained GM material. “Persons conducting dealings with the GMO who are not fully trained in licence conditions are at risk if exposed to the GM organism,” a government report concluded.

Australia is currently undertaking a “technical review” of its federal gene technology regulations, with a view to ensuring they reflect technological and scientific advancements. A spokeswoman for the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator said none of the 32 incidents of non-compliance reported since 2011 represented a failure of the current regime. “Australia’s regulatory system is considered world leading with a science and risk based approach that is timely and predictable, providing a clear regulatory pathway for the industry to follow,” she said.