New GM positions, tools and products

Portrait of Richard Di Natale

Australian Greens leader Richard Di Natale.

Greens considering policy change

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The Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia (ABCA) is a joint initiative of AusBiotech, CropLife Australia, the GRDC and the National Farmers’ Federation. ABCA has been established to help shape a new era for Australian agriculture by encouraging informed debate on biotechnology through the dissemination of credible, balanced, science-based information. Through the creation and sharing of research and knowledge, ABCA’s work aims to place biotechnology and gene technology into context as another invaluable innovation for Australian agriculture, ensuring that science guides public policy for the future of farming.

The Australian Greens political party is considering changing its policy on GM foods and crops, according to its leader Richard Di Natale.

Despite Australia’s successful use of GM crops over the past two decades the Greens oppose GM crop production citing fears about the potential for negative effects on human health and the environment.

Senator Di Natale is reported as saying he has no personal objection to the science of GM crops, and that the Greens’ goal is  to connect more with rural and regional communities.

Dr T. J. Higgins, an Australian Academy of Science GM expert and the GRDC’s representative on the ABCA’s Board, says it was a great step forward to see Senator Di Natale as Greens leader recognising the indisputable safety of GM technology.

“I think he deserves support for taking this position, for being cautiously positive and recognising the validity of the science [behind genetically modified organisms (GMOs)], as the Greens do for climate change, as well as the complexities of the issue,” Dr Higgins says.

“I think it is a hard thing for him to do because of his constituency … but I admire him for listening to the science and now saying all the data points to food from GM crops being as safe as non-GM food.”

Grain Producers Australia chair Andrew Weidemann says Senator Di Natale’s acceptance of GM crop science represents an enormous shift in attitude.

“The leader’s recognition of the science behind this technology is significant,” Mr Weidemann says.

“The Greens’ GM policy has been a point of angst among growers since we first started talking about introducing this technology into Australia about 20 years ago.

“I would encourage the Greens to look at all angles of this debate and understand that any potential change of policy – which Grain Producers Australia is open to discuss further – would be an important step in building closer ties with Australian agriculture and growers.”

Regulating biotech tools

The production of foods from crops and animals developed using new gene-editing tools is in the spotlight as countries around the world determine how such products will be regulated.

In Australia, an expert scientific panel was established to advise Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) on the issue, and media reports suggest that the final decision on regulating these so-called ‘new plant-breeding techniques’ is imminent.

The expert scientific panel was chaired by Professor Peter Langridge from the University of Adelaide, who said the panel had advised FSANZ that some of the techniques should be deregulated, but others should be classified as GM.

One such technique is the gene-editing tool known as CRISPR-Cas9, which allows scientists to make small edits in the genetic material of an organism. In Sweden, the Swedish Board of Agriculture has recently indicated that some plants in which the genome has been edited using CRISPR-Cas9 technology do not fall under the European GMO definition.

This means that plants created with CRISPR-Cas9 can be grown without restriction in Sweden. Argentina has also announced a similar approach to gene-edited plants.

Genetic edits made using the CRISPR-Cas9 technique can also occur naturally through recombination, but instead of waiting for this to occur, researchers can deliberately edit genes.

In Australia, a workshop report produced for FSANZ in 2014 by Professor Langridge and his colleagues concluded: “Providing any transgenes have been segregated from the final food-producing lines, derived foods would be similar to food produced using traditional mutagenic techniques. Such foods should therefore not be regarded as GM. When used to introduce a new gene however, the techniques would be equivalent to transgenesis, and any food products should be regarded as GM.”

WA GM crop ban repeal

Legislation to repeal the ban on GM crops in place since 2003 in Western Australia was introduced into the WA Parliament at the end of November. The Bill, if passed, will allow any crop approved by the national regulatory agency, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, to be grown in WA.

The WA Government cited the potential to grow commercial crops of GM cotton in WA’s far north as a factor in its moves to repeal laws restricting use of the technology.

“Another 50,000 hectares of agricultural land is coming on-stream in WA’s north. We need to think about our future, not shut off opportunities,” WA Agriculture Minister Ken Baston said.

GM salmon in the US

The US Food and Drug Administration has approved the production and commercial sale of AquaBounty’s fast-growing GM salmon.

The go-ahead for the AquAdvantage salmon is a significant milestone for agricultural biotechnology, as it is the first approval of a GM animal raised for the human food chain.

“AquAdvantage Salmon is a game-changer that brings healthy and nutritious food to consumers in an environmentally responsible manner,” said Ronald Stotish, chief executive officer of AquaBounty.

More information:

Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia

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