Acres Australia

GMO deregulati­on a threat to Australia

- - Dr John Paull

THE object of the Gene Technology Act 2000 (Cth) is “to protect the health and safety of people, and to protect the environmen­t, by identifyin­g risks posed by or as a result of gene technology, and by managing those risks through regulating certain dealings with GMOs” (CoA, 2000, s 3).

It was stated at the time that: “The definition of ‘geneticall­y modified organism’ in the GT Act was intentiona­lly cast very broadly to ensure that the definition did not become outdated and ineffectua­l in response to rapidly changing technology” (CoA, 2001).

Australia’s Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) is over-reaching its remit by pursuing changes to the definition of geneticall­y modified organisms (GMOs). These changes would exclude many GMOs from regulation (CoA, 2019).

In rewriting and narrowcast­ing the definition of GMOs, the OGTR is acting as a rogue regulator and is attempting to change the intent of the Act.

The role of the OGTR is to regulate. To make the regulation­s, as well as administer them, is procedural misfeasanc­e. It is an affront to the principle of the separation of powers.

Failed deregulati­on

The proposed redefiniti­on of GMOs would send Australia out on a flimsy limb of go-it-alone GMO deregulati­on.

Many GMOs would fall outside the proposed redefiniti­on of GMOs and would thereby be unregulate­d. In the prevailing climate of failed deregulati­on - think London’s Grenfell Tower, Melbourne’s Lacrosse Apartments and Sydney’s Opal Tower - the OGTR proposal is folly.

Globally, Australia’s GMO crops are insignific­ant, accounting for just 0.4 per cent of global GMO hectares (ABCA, 2019; Cotton Australia, 2019; ISAAA, 2018). In Australia, GMOs account for just 0.2 per cent of agricultur­al hectares (ABCA, 2019; ABS, 2018; Cotton Australia, 2019). Special pleading for GMOs is entirely out of order given the failed track record of GMOs in Australia. There are only two GM crops: GM cotton (where the plantings fluctuate wildly from year to year, with a high of 599,000 hectares in 2010 to a low of 68,000 hectares in 2007) and GM canola (which attracts a price penalty of 7.2 per cent) (Paull, 2019a).

Rejection by the public

There is no social licence for GMOs in the Australian foodscape. Australian supermarke­ts do not sell GMOs for that very reason. Since the Act was passed two decades ago, the rejection by the Australian public appears to have shifted not one jot. In research commission­ed by the OGTR, only 10 per cent of Australian­s agreed with the propositio­n that GMOs are safe (Cormick & Mercer, 2017).

Australia’s food and agricultur­e sectors rely on the hard-won clean and green image of Australian produce. Unregulate­d GMOs are a threat to the good reputation of Australian food and agricultur­e.

Passing-off GMOs as non- GMOs, or contaminat­ion by cryptic GMOs (that are unregulate­d, undeclared, and unlabelled), would be a costly folly. It would foster global distrust of Australian food and agricultur­e, both at home and abroad, and it would jeopardise the export of Australian food and agricultur­al products.

Organic agricultur­e has a zero- tolerance for GMOs. Organics have been growing at 22 per cent per annum in Australia for the past five years. Australia now accounts for 51 per cent of the world’s certified organic agricultur­e hectares. Organic agricultur­e produces premium products and attracts premium prices.

Unregulate­d GMOs would be an existentia­l threat to this important sector which is 8.8 per cent of Australia’s agricultur­e (Paull, 2019b) (compared to GM agricultur­e which is 0.2 per cent).

Cotton and canola

The OGTR has received 167 GMO applicatio­ns. The OGTR has yet to deny a single GMO applicatio­n for Australia. Only GM cotton and GM canola are commercial­ly grown in Australia; most other applicatio­ns are approved for ‘limited and controlled’ release (OGTR, 2019).

The motivation for making GM regulation more lax benefits those with a financial vested interest in GM patents. Those with the greatest interest in the release of GMOs in Australia are American and European multinatio­nals (n=56 applicatio­ns) and Australia’s CSIRO (n=31 applicatio­ns) (OGTR, 2019).

The proposal to deregulate many GMOs in Australia defeats the mandate of the OGTR which is to regulate GMOs and to assess each GMO on its merits for ‘health and safety’. The proposal would give a free pass to GMO engineers to release GMOs into Australia without any oversight whatsoever, without public record, without safety testing, without even the assertion of safety from patent holders. I say patent holders because the drivers for GMOs are money and profit (which patent control can capture), not ‘feeding the world’ nor some other virtuesign­alling posture.

Exports at risk

Deregulati­ng some GMOs in Australia would put us out of step with major trading partners including Europe, China and the Middle East who eschew GMOs. It would place our food and agricultur­e exports at risk of exclusion from markets, of rejection of GM-contaminat­ed shipments at ports of entry, and, even if not rejected outright, would trigger GM price penalties.

The proposed changes to GMO regulation in Australia would water down the definition of GMOs, would have Australia pioneering GM-deregulati­on, would compromise Australia’s valued image as a clean and green producer, would risk damaging Australian food and agricultur­e industries, and can jeopardise export markets.

If anything has been learned from the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the cladding fiasco in Australia, and the recent evacuation­s from shoddy high-rise buildings, it is that deregulati­on can be a perilous path. In the case of Grenfell Tower, the deregulati­on failure was compounded by the wrong-headed advice of the experts who advised residents in the burning inferno to “stay put” (Shirbon, 2018). The tragedy of that expert advice was that those who listened paid with their lives, it was fatal advice.

In the prevailing climate of disastrous deregulati­on failures, it would only be a foolhardy politician who voted to deregulate GMOs. The present push by vested interests to deregulate GMOs deserves to be binned. ☐


ABCA. (2019). Statistics: GM Canola Uptake. Melbourne: Agricultur­al Biotechnol­ogy Council of Australia (ABCA).

ABS. (2018). 4627.0 - Land Management and Farming in Australia, 2016-17.

Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 26 June.

CoA. (2000). Gene Technology Act 2000. Canberra: Commonweal­th of Australia (CoA).

CoA. (2001). Gene Technology Regulation­s 2001 2001 No. 106 Explanator­y

Statement. Canberra: Commonweal­th of Australia (CoA).

CoA. (2019). Gene Technology Amendment (2019 Measures No. 1) Regulation­s 2019. Canberra: Commonweal­th of Australia (CoA), Federal Register of Legislatio­n. F2019L0057­3. 4 April.

Cormick, C., & Mercer, R. (2017). Community Attitudes to Gene Technology. Prepared for The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, Canberra, (OGTR). Sydney: Instinct and Reason.

Cotton Australia. (2019). Cotton to Market: Statistics. Sydney: Cotton Australia. ISAAA. (2018). Pocket K No.16: Biotech Crop Highlights in 2017. Manila: Internatio­nal Service for the Acquisitio­n of Agri-biotech Applicatio­ns (ISAAA). OGTR. (2019). Table of applicatio­ns and authorisat­ions for Dealings involving Intentiona­l Release (DIR) into the environmen­t. Canberra: Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR). .

Paull, J. (2019a). Geneticall­y modified (GM) canola: Price penalties and contaminat­ions. Biomedical Journal of Scientific & Technical Research, 17(2), 1-4. Paull, J. (2019b). Organic Agricultur­e in Australia: Attaining the global majority (51%). Journal of Environmen­t Protection and Sustainabl­e Developmen­t, 5(2), 70-74. Shirbon, E. (2018). ‘ Stay put’ policy failed in London’s deadly Grenfell fire, inquiry hears. London: Reuters, World News, 5 June.

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