Thursday, April 25, 2024

Gene tech office spring-cleans Aussie rules

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Australia’s Office of the Gene Technology Regulator is having its third revamp to better manage rapidly advancing GE technology.
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New Zealand farmers are not alone in facing the challenge of striving for value while mitigating their environmental footprint. Senior reporter Richard Rennie is in Australia to find out how our neighbours are approaching the issues of gene technology, carbon farming and sustainability.

Back in the 1990s Australian cotton growers working with science body CSIRO developed Bt cotton, a genetically modified cotton plant containing a gene that enables the plant to produce the “Bt” protein, capable of killing the cotton bollworm, a voracious pest.

This locally developed solution for a local problem helped put the country’s genetic modification regulations that followed on a practical, outcome-focused path. Growers and researchers welcomed it, says Gene Technology Regulator Dr Raj Bhula. 

Grower engagement early on meant its benefits were understood, wanted, and appreciated from the start.

Bhula and Gene Technology Regulator Office assistant secretary Neil Ellis say the latest review of the nearly 25-year-old Gene Technology Act will be a “game changer” that modernises the rules to allow for technology including the ever-evolving CRISPR gene editing tech, while keeping those practical outcomes at its core. The legislation was last reviewed in 2018.

The review will mean revamped regulations will better cater for vaccination platforms, genomic editing and clinical trials for gene therapy. 

“The technology started off focusing upon agricultural solutions, but the human side of the tech is growing quickly. That includes gene therapies for rare diseases like spinal muscular atrophy,” Bhula says.

“Detection of the disease via a heel-prick detection at birth means the therapy can be administered very early in life to treat it.”  

Whether for human, animal or plant production, the Australian legislation has always had a practical, outcomes-focused approach.

In the past year, the office issued five licences permitting release into the environment. These included two for GM plants, a herbicide-tolerant canola, a commercial release of a GE mustard seed, and importing a genetically modified chrysanthemum. 

The animal vaccines included a GM vaccine to treat the endangered Tasmanian Devil’s facial tumour disease, and the human treatment was for a potential cancer treatment.

Bhula notes that to date the only true food that has gained approval has been the recent licensing of the GE banana in Queensland that is tolerant to an infectious fungal disease. 

Meantime a raft of trials are underway across the food and crop spectrum to include high tannin clovers, improved seed quality sorghum, and drought-tolerant wheat. 

Both acknowledge the small number of food types that have gained approval but suspect as the technology evolves around GE this will pick up.

“And where there is an agricultural or environmental problem with a food that needs to be solved, as there was with bananas, the door will open up.” 

Bhula says GE modification on pests like varroa, or mouse plagues, could be a next step.

They both see a softening in the general public’s view of the technology, based on their regular surveys of sentiment.

“Originally transgenic technology drove early concerns. GE is much more constrained way to manipulate genetics. 

“Now GE is no longer front of mind among as many people. You have 10-15% that are committed against it, but we have seen more people move into that middle area of acceptance,” Ellis says.

He says anti-GE groups appeared to have quietened in recent years in regard to applications for release of GE agricultural crops.

He notes the European Union continues to debate the technology, and globally New Zealand still sits closer to the EU in terms of its level of restriction for trialling. 

The Global GE Regulation Tracker site classes NZ as “highly regulated”, against Australia’s “lightly regulated” classification. 

Critics of NZ’s system include the heads of Crown Research Institutes, who have noted the NZ system’s preoccupation with older transgenic science, and the highly restrictive controls on trials conducted here.

John Caradus, CEO of Grasslanz, has his company currently undertaking trials on GE clover and rye grasses in Victoria. He says his company has found Australia’s process a smooth one.

“The authorities have been great to work with. The Office [of the Gene Technology Regulator] has been and inspected the sites, and been engaged throughout the process and given good, timely guidance.”  

He says Grasslanz has also enjoyed good relations with NZ’s Hazardous Substances and New Organisms authorities.

“But the problem is the rules that they have to work with.”
With NZ and Australia sharing food standards through Food Standards Australia New Zealand, it may seem natural to also align with Australia’s GE regulations.

Bhula says differences in regions’ regulations are common because of environmental differences, but there could be grounds to harmonise around general principals as a starting point.

Meantime, the Office’s latest review will mean GE applicants will face a more streamlined approvals process for known techniques, tiered risk approval and boosted compliance strength from an office that has so far never had to use its powers of prosecution.

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