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Gene Bill survives ambush

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Intergrain chief executive Tress Walmsley in the glass houses with noodle wheat.
Camera IconIntergrain chief executive Tress Walmsley in the glass houses with noodle wheat. Credit: Danella Bevis

A last-ditch attempt to derail legislation allowing new gene editing technology — hoped to lead to better crop varieties — has been foiled in the Senate.

Debate over gene editing legislation hit Parliament last month after amendments to the Gene Technology Act were signed off earlier this year.

The Federal Government amendments marked the first changes to Australia’s Gene Technology Regulations in nearly 20 years.

Importantly, the amendments mean the SDN1 gene-editing technique falls outside the definition of a genetically modified organism.

This means scientists, including plant breeders, can use the technique to remove unwanted genes from DNA without the practice being regulated as a GMO.

For plant science, the SDN1 technique has been spruiked for its potential to boost drought-resistant characteristics or help crops survive diseases.

It can also help find genes associated with desired crop traits much more quickly.

The Government is now trying to implement all recommendations of the 2018 Review of the Gene Technology Scheme, after they were signed off last year.

The changes had bipartisan support from the Liberal and Labor parties, but faced staunch opposition from the Greens and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. Greens senator Janice Rice introduced a disallowance motion in the Senate last month to try to stop the Gene Technology Amendment Bill.

But the motion failed 42-13, with only Greens and PHON members supporting it.

Speaking in Parliament, Ms Rice said it was vital to protect the “clean, green reputation of Australian agriculture” and agricultural exports.

“Potentially, vast amounts of Australian produce currently guaranteed to be free from GMOs will no longer be so,” she said.

Labor senator Kim Carr shot back, saying gene editing was “no different from what has happened in selective breeding”.

Supporting the changes, WA Senator Slade Brockman said Australia needed to improve agricultural productivity and remain competitive.

“We need to embrace techniques such as these to supply the world with the food and fibre it needs,” he said.

The SND-1 technique works by producing a double-stranded break in the genome, or cutting the DNA in a specific place.
Camera IconThe SND-1 technique works by producing a double-stranded break in the genome, or cutting the DNA in a specific place. Credit: Countryman

The Government’s decision not to regulate SDN-1 technology as a GMO has divided Australia’s agriculture industry.

The technique works by producing a double-stranded break in the genome, or cutting the DNA in a specific place.

Most gene-edited plants have no new DNA inserted into them. After the cut, the cell then repairs itself without further intervention — without the unwanted gene.

Comparatively, traditional genetic engineering — classified as GMOs — involves the less precise insertion of foreign DNA into an organism.

Proponents argue the ruling has brought Australia in line with major trading competitors, provided clarity to Australian seed breeders, and will give farmers access to better seeds.

But National Association for Sustainable Agriculture chairman Glenn Schaube said the Government had not given Australia’s agriculture and food sector enough time to “reassure people the food produced in Australia” was GM-free and met the Australian National Organic and Biodynamic Standard.

Australia’s approach has broadly been described as “middle ground” between the relaxed approach in the US and Brazil, and the tight regulations in the EU and New Zealand.

While scientists can now use the SND-1 technique and not have it classed as a GMO, the food regulator must also have a say before gene-edited foods go on sale in Australia.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand is reviewing how it will deals with foods developed using gene editing, which it has called “new breeding technology”.

It expects to release a final report, including whether to propose to amend the Food Standards Code to allow gene-edited food to be sold, in coming months.

Intergrain chief executive Tress Walmsley said access to more genetic tools was “highly beneficial” for plant breeders.

“Australia’s position of deregulating SDN-1 technique is a good commercial approach,” she said.

“I expect that Australian breeding companies, like InterGrain will rapidly expand their use of this technology as we can now easily test the material in our normal field trials and no longer need to use quarantine facilities.”

However, Ms Walmsley said any use of SDN-1 technique needed careful consideration.

“Whilst Australia has taken this approach to allow the use of gene-editing, we rely on selling much of our grain to international markets, therefore we need to be very mindful of how our export countries view this technology,” she said.

“For maximum impact, we need global harmonisation on the acceptance of gene-editing or we face the risk of having to develop onerous supply chain monitoring and potential segregation systems.”

Australian Seed Federation general manager Osman Mewett urged the Government to implement the recommendations.

The changes to the Gene Technology Act followed two consultations and public submission periods between 2016 and 2018 which attracted 740 public submissions during the first round and 450 during the second.

THE CHANGES

The amendments mean SDN-1 organisms are not GMOs, provided that:

No nucleic acid template is added to cells to guide genome repair following site-directed nuclease application.

The organism has no other traits from gene technology (ie the cas9 transgene, expressed SDN protein).

Before the changes, gene-editing was considered a genetic modification process, with gene editing classified as SDN-1, SDN-2, and SDN-3.

The main difference between SDN-1 and the others is the “repair process” to a gene.

In SDN-1, it occurs naturally and is “un-guided”. This natural repair process is a key reason why its not considered a full GMO.

The legislation change means crops that have been developed using the SDN-1 technique are now considered non-regulated and can be grown without restriction in Australia.

SDN-2 and 3 are still considered GMO and regulated crops.

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