While the federal government deregulated one type of genetically modified crops two years ago, the practical application of genetic technology by plant breeders in Australia has been hampered by a delay in revising the Food Standards Code.
In April 2019, the government, through the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR), announced that it would not regulate a form of gene editing known as SDN-1 (or nuclease- 1 managed by a site).
SDN-1, the most common version of a process commonly known as CRISPR, and is a new selection technique (NBT) that is different from traditional GM in that it targets, cuts and deletes DNA in one location specific, after which the natural DNA repair process of the cell is allowed to function, without further intervention.
Michael Jones, director of the WA State Agricultural Biotechnology Center, said that while SDN-1 was technically a form of genetic manipulation, OGTR decided it was more similar to traditional mutagenesis techniques.
“All plant breeding is genetic manipulation, it generates new combinations of genetic material and GM is just an extension of that,” Jones said.
“Traditional GM technologies involve the introduction of a useful trait outside of the plant’s normal gene pool, such as a wild species or bacteria.
“However, the development of new gene editing techniques, like SDN-1, allows targeted mutagenesis – you can change a sequence without any introduction of DNA from another organism.”
When it comes to the regulation of genetically modified foods, OGTR is only one piece of the regulatory puzzle.
All genetically modified foods intended for sale in Australia and New Zealand must undergo a safety assessment by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).
These foods are regulated by Standard 1.5.2 of the Food Standards Code, which has not been updated since its introduction almost 20 years ago, but a revision has taken place.
In December 2019, FSANZ released a final report on its review of NBT foods.
“The review found that while there are divergent views in the community on the safety and regulation of NBT foods, the general consensus was that the current definitions are no longer fit for purpose and lack consistency. clarity, “said a spokesperson for FSANZ.
“Based on these results, we proposed to modify the definitions in the code to make them clearer and ensure that they better reflect existing and emerging genetic technologies.”
“It is expected that feedback from community, government, industry and other interested parties will be solicited in mid-2021 during the first call for submissions, with a second round of consultation in 2022.”
InterGrain wheat breeder Calum Watt said genetic modification was a poor term because it still covered the traditional breeding undertaken in programs across the country, but as a GM term tended to be associated only in a laboratory sense. .
“What people generally think of as genetic modification is actually genetic engineering, approaches using CRISPR for example, which are much more precise than anything that has been used in the past, especially traditional transgenesis,” said Dr Watt.
“Although SDN-1 has been deregulated, I still don’t think any company in Australia will consider its commercial use until FSANZ aligns with OGTR.”
An article titled “Genome Editing for Plant Research and Crop Improvement” published in the Journal of Integrative Plant Biology in December said that the main challenge facing genome editing is unscientific, but political.
“Regulatory barriers to the use and marketing of genetically modified crops can delay or even derail its progress and application to agriculture,” the document said.
“Political considerations rather than scientific facts have prompted some jurisdictions (eg the EU) to regulate genetically modified crops with the same binding regulations as genetically modified crops.
“It does not make sense that the introduction of a single mutation in a specific genomic locus with extreme precision using Cas effectors (gene editing) should be subject to strict regulations in some countries, while introducing thousands of simultaneous mutations in a completely uncontrolled manner by chemical / physical random mutagenesis. methods are not regulated. “
Dr Watt said GM ultimately comes down to DNA, which changes every day.
“There are a number of ways to skin a cat – we could achieve the same result through traditional crossbreeding, albeit over a much longer period of time, through mutation selection which is deemed appropriate but is incredibly imprecise and dependent on chance. as to whether the desired gene is mutated. , or via SDN-1 which is faster and much more accurate, ”he said.
“To use SDN-1 successfully, you always need to know which genes you want to target and you need to identify a trait controlled by one or at least very few genes, rather than something like yield controlled by hundreds of genes. .
“Improving resistance to certain diseases, for example which can be controlled by a small number of genes, may ultimately reflect an increase in yield, without directly targeting yield.”
Improving disease resistance could also reduce the need for fungicide applications, which can mean less tractor passage, less emissions and less soil compaction, so there are benefits in terms of sustainability and productivity to be gained from what are ultimately small changes to DNA. .
While the technology exists to dramatically speed up the time it takes to improve these genes, plant breeders in Australia are still at least a year away before they can potentially fully exploit it in their breeding programs.
With grain breeders in particular still awaiting FSANZ approval of SDN-1, Australian farmers will also have to continue to wait for the more rapid release of new lines, with companies still being forced to rely on the standard cross that has been used for thousands of years.