Federal Government and ‘opposition’ sign off on uncontrolled genetic experiment

Wednesday, 13th November 2019

Friends of the Earth is accusing the Federal Government and Labor Party of submitting Australians to a nationwide genetic experiment, for failing to support a Greens’ motion disallowing amendments to the Gene Technology Regulations. The amendments allow most animals, plants and microbes modified using CRISPR and similar techniques to be released into the environment and food chain without any risk assessment.

Louise Sales from Friends of the Earth’s Emerging Tech Project said, “The changes effectively turn Australia – our ecosystems and our health – into a giant genetic engineering experiment.”

Last week the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) wrote to all Australian Senators urging them to support the disallowance motion. A number of Australian Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBCs) have also called for regulation on safety grounds. These include the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research IBC, Victoria University IBC, Children’s Medical Research Institute and Children’s Hospital Westmead IBC, and the University of Wollongong IBC.

“It seems the Federal Government and ‘opposition’ have learnt nothing from the lessons of history. From Cane Toads to Phytophthora there are numerous examples of organisms wreaking ecological havoc because the risks associated with releasing them into the environment were not properly assessed.”

“These risks are very real. The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator has acknowledged that even small changes to the DNA of micro-organisms can make them much more virulent and dangerous.”

GMOs also pose serious potential environmental risks that need to be assessed on a case by case basis. These are well illustrated by the case of a strain of the soil bacteria Klebsiella planticola (SDF20). This was genetically engineered to convert dead plant matter into alcohol. The US Environmental Protection Agency was envisioning that farmers could use these bacteria to convert plant material into a  sludge, which could be poured off into the soil and reused. The agency was weeks away from approving the environmental release of the bacteria when independent scientists tested its effects when added to soil containing wheat plants. They found it caused significant increases in the numbers of bacteria and fungal feeding nematodes – coinciding with death of the plants. Had the bacteria been released into the environment, the global consequences could have been catastrophic (1).

“It’s appalling that the Federal Government and ‘opposition’ are gambling with our health and environment in this way, at the behest of their corporate sponsors,” concluded Ms Sales.

In the 2017-18 financial year, the GM crop company Bayer donated $40,600 to Labor and $42,540 to the Coalition. The GM crop and agrichemical industry lobby group CropLife donated $34,271 to Labor and $22,300 to the Coalition. CropLife’s CEO Matthew Cossey is also a former senior official and campaign director for the Labor Party.

Media contact

Louise Sales, Friends of the Earth: 0435 589 579

1) Krebs, A.V. (2001) Commentary: Searching for a fair resolution concerning controversial story on possible effects of Klebsiella p on the environment, The Agribusiness Examiner119, June 11, 2001; Holmes, M.T., E.R. Ingham, J.D. Doyle & C.W. Hendricks (1999) Effects of Klebsiella planticola SDF20 on soil biota and wheat growth in sandy soil.  Applied Soil Ecology 11: 67-78.