One of those subtle yet significant changes in legislation is currently before our national parliament – it’s being spruiked as a win for science and business but it also happens to take away our ability to tell whether a plant or animal is genetically modified.
Called the Technical Review of the Gene Technology Regulations(2001) it aims to redefine new strains of plant, animal and bacteria created by the CRISPR SDN-1 gene editing technique as no longer classified as genetically modified organisms.
Scientists use CRISPR, aka clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, to create mutations in an organism’s existing DNA that can then hopefully be turned into new commercial products.
The first CRISPR food predicted to hit supermarket shelves in the States are white mushrooms that go brown slower. Also on the CRISPR menu are cows that don’t grow horns – so they can be confined more easily without injuring each other.
Because CRISPR SDN-1 is not introducing new genetic material from other organisms, like the infamous fish genes into a tomato experiments, CRISPR is being touted as no different from existing plant breeding techniques and therefore should not be regulated as GMO’s.
The difference with CRISPR however, is that scientists can do lots more mutating, specifically in parts of the DNA existing plant breeders can’t manipulate.
Global lawfirm BakerMcKenzie talks up the changes…..
The amendments will have wide ranging benefits for agricultural research in Australia, allowing animal and plant breeders to utilise new available gene editing technology to develop and bring to market improved varieties at a quicker pace and at a lower cost than traditional breeding methods.
To industrial ag CRISPR is much like the theme song to The Love Boat; “exciting and new”, however its various opponents aren’t so keen to set a course for CRISPR adventure.
They say if CRISPR is no longer classed as a gene technology then we wont know if our mushroom risotto or Thai beef salad are genetically modified or not.
According to an alliance of small farmers, consumer and green groups this has big implications;
The Australian Government has removed regulations designed to keep us and our food safe. This means that from now, many genetically modified (GM) animals, plants and microbes will enter our environment and food chain with no requirement for safety testing or traceability.
Unsurprisingly organic farmers aren’t too happy about having untraceable GMO’s in our food chain.
For the $2.6 billion Australian organic industry losing export markets into the EU and Japanese markets, where products containing CRISPR genetically modified plants or animals are banned, is a major worry.
Industry loves deregulation – less red tape means we can all just get on with business and creating jobs and building a strong economy which everybody agrees is good for all Australians, especially the quiet ones.
But the thing about industry deregulation is that it creates the kind of environment where “good businesses” find themselves charging dead people account-keeping fees years after they’ve passed on or building apartments that leak, crack and/or spontaneously combust.
And in this environment businesses under pressure to return dividends to shareholders are inevitably optimistic when it comes to the safety of their products – think DDT, breast implants, cigarettes, asbestos, certain models of airbags, Oxycontin, CFC’s, lead in pipes, lead in petrol, lead in paint, tanning beds, those SUV’s that used to rollover if you swerved to avoid something.
With CRISPR perhaps it might pay to be a little cautious.
If you’d like to contribute to the debate our friends at Friends of the Earth – have put together a nifty web messaging thing that automatically connects with your local federal member – you can use their form letter, adapt it or write your own.
Have a great week