Changes to Australia’s Gene Technology Regulations in the Federal Parliament threaten to irreversibly undermine Australia’s status as a world leader in organic, global organic advocacy group IFOAM has warned.

The rule change would leave the majority of new genetic modification (GM) techniques such as CRISPR/Cas unregulated.

IFOAM says that deregulation would allow any crops or living organisms engineered using these new GM techniques such as wheat, ryegrass, sugar, potatoes, rice, soybeans, maize, and mushrooms to be freely released into the environment with no safety assessment or traceability.

Deregulation opens the door for genetic experimentation, not only in plants but also in animals and microbes. The changes to the Gene Technology Regulations would make Australia one of the first countries in the world to deregulate the use of these techniques in livestock.

“The risks related to the new GM techniques have been downplayed by the industry but recognized as substantial in scientific reports”, says Dr Heli Matilainen of Helix Organics, part of IFOAM’s Expert Working Group on New Breeding Techniques. Organic farming is a huge success story in Australia. It is the fastest growing agricultural sector in Australia – growing at 16% per year. A recent study shows that Australia accounts for 51% of the world’s certified organic hectares.”

Severe economic consequences 
“The deregulation of these new genetic engineering techniques seriously threatens this important agricultural sector. Deregulation would make it almost impossible for organic farmers and conventional GMO free farmers to exclude the presence of GMOs in their production process and to live up to the expectations of consumers. This would have severe economic consequences for Australian agriculture, including the EU and China, and global non-GM certifiers regard the new genetic engineering techniques as GM and have zero tolerance for the presence of unapproved GMOs in their imports. It will be extremely difficult to sell into these markets if the Australian government deregulates these techniques, since there will be no requirement to ensure traceability. When unapproved GMOs have been released historically, Europe and China have simply closed their borders to imports – costing farmers billions in lost income.” – Dr Matilainen concludes.

Australian Greens senator Janet Rice said: “It is time for the Australian Government to protect the environment and consumers by confirming that plants, animals and microbes genetically modified with new technologies will be regulated like existing GMOs, and subject to rigorous risk assessment, traceability and labelling.”

Closed to exports
Australian organic alliance, Organic Industries of Australia, has commented: “Under the new regulations, nearly three decades of work by thousands of farmers is under threat because many GMOs (as defined by our export markets) will no longer be registered, regulated or labelled in Australia, hampering traceability and making organic status almost impossible to verify in Australia.

The groups adds that the new rules would mean that the country’s most important export markets would effectively be “closed to Australian organic exporters”.

Australian Organic, the country’s lead certifying body, says it is “gravely concerned” at the prospect of deregulation. In a statement it says: “Deregulation of the CRISPR-SDN1 method, for which laboratory testing methods are not available, will create a situation where the market is not able to guarantee that ingredients are not derived from organisms produced using CRISPR SDN-1. Without knowledge of the existence of such organisms in production, or being able to detect through testing, the integrity of the entire organic domestic and export markets are at risk.”