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Australia Mulls a Green Light for Gene Editing

Gene editing technology – CRISPR is the best-known example – would be freed from government regulation under a proposal by Australia’s Office of Gene Technology Regulator. After a 12-month technical review of the country’s broad definition of genetic modification, regulator Raj Bhula said gene editing is a faster version of classic breeding practices.

“If these technologies lead to outcomes no different to the processes people have been using for thousands of years, then there is no need to regulate them because of their safe history of use,” she told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Her proposal needs parliamentary approval to take effect. Australia’s biotech regulations date from 2000, when scientists used what is now called classical genetic modification to insert genetic material from one species into another. “Whereas, this process (gene editing) is just manipulation within the organism and not introducing anything foreign,” said Bhula.

Some scientists see gene editing as a way for speedy agricultural adaptation to climate change and to keep up with global population growth. Clovis Palmer of the Burnet Institute in Melbourne told Cosmos magazine that the potential benefits may be overstated. Gene editing “is still in its infancy and should continue to be highly scrutinized under rigorous federal authorities that govern GMOs.” 

The arguments over gene editing are being heard around the world. U.S. farm groups say gene editing should be exempt from GMO rules. Last November, USDA said it would start anew – its third attempt in a decade – on modernizing its regulation of biotech plants. It discarded a proposal that would have covered genome-editing techniques if they created products that posed a plant pest or noxious-weed risk. 

An adviser to the European Court of Justice said in an opinion last month that techniques such as CRISPR might not be covered by GMO regulations. The highest EU court usually follows the advice of its advocates general and is expected to rule this year. The case arose in 2016, when nine anti-GMO groups asked France’s highest court whether mutagenesis techniques, which include CRISPR, were subject to GMO regulations. The French court then asked four questions about EU law to the Court of Justice.

This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.


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