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July 2017

Regulating gene technology in Australia

Making and working with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Australia is regulated through a nationally consistent legal scheme, including the Commonwealth Gene Technology Act 2000 (the Act), the Gene Technology Regulations 2001 and corresponding state laws.

The intentional release of a GMO into the Australian environment must be licensed by the Gene Technology Regulator (the Regulator), and can only be licensed if risks can be managed to protect the health and safety of people and the environment.

The Australian regulatory scheme is science-based and uses robust risk analysis based on widely respected international standards. Before deciding to issue a licence, the Regulator conducts a comprehensive risk assessment—considering the latest available scientific information—and extensive public and expert consultation.

The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) also monitors scientific and other literature for any new information relevant to GM crops, and assesses that information in relation to existing licences.

Each state and territory can pass its own laws regarding trade and marketing of GMOs.

GM wheat in Australia

There has been no commercial release of GM wheat in Australia, and the OGTR has not received any licence applications for the commercial release of GM wheat.

Since 2005, the Regulator has issued 20 licences for small field trials of GM wheat. Eight of these licences are still current (see Table 1).

These field trials relate to early-stage research on GM wheat, modifying traits such as salt tolerance, drought tolerance, enhanced yield, altered grain composition, improved nutrient use efficiency or improved grain quality. You can see where the field trials are on the OGTR website.

Each field trial is limited in its size (0.06–3.75 hectares per year) and duration (up to 5.5 years, i.e. six seasons). The trials are subject to strict containment conditions to manage the potential for spread and persistence of the GM wheat and the introduced genes in the environment. The OGTR actively inspects trials to make sure they are compliant with licence conditions. There have been no breaches of containment with any of these field trials.

GM wheat from these trials is not permitted to enter commercial human food or animal feed supplies.

However, four licences held by CSIRO authorised animal nutrition studies (DIR 092, DIR 093, DIR 111 and DIR 151); three of these also authorised experimental human nutrition studies (DIR 093, DIR 111 and DIR 151).

These studies are also subject to approval by ethics committees who consider animal and human ethical issues. The studies used products made from GM wheat with altered grain composition that aim to improve nutritional properties such as glycemic index. The licences for DIR 092 and DIR 093 have been surrendered.

Table 1: Current licences for limited and controlled releases (field trials) of GM wheat
Licence No
Licence holder
Modified Trait
Issued
Field trial site status1
University of Adelaide
Enhanced yield, abiotic stress tolerance
July 2017
No site yet planted
CSIRO
Disease resistance, drought tolerance, Composition - food (processing), Composition - food (human nutrition)
May 2017
2 sites current
Vic DEDJTR
Yield & abiotic stress tolerance
April 2016
1 site PHM
Murdoch University
Improved grain quality
March 2015
No site yet planted
University of Adelaide
Abiotic stress tolerance
August 2014
15 sites: 7 sites current, 8 in PHM
Vic DEPI3
Enhanced yield stability
October 2013
2 sites: 1 in PHM, 1 signed off
CSIRO
Altered grain composition, nutrient utilisation efficiency, disease resistance or abiotic stress tolerance
February 2012
9 sites: 3 in PHM, 6 signed off
University of Adelaide
Abiotic stress tolerance
June 2010
8 sites: 4 in PHM, 4 signed off

1A field trial site may be either:

  • not planted: as at 19 July 2017, the licence holder had not planted any GM wheat under the licence
  • current: the GM crop is being grown and/or harvested,
  • in post-harvest monitoring (PHM): the GM crop is no longer being grown but the licence holder is monitoring the site to ensure no GM plants remain or
  • signed off: the Regulator has determined that post-harvest monitoring is no longer required for a particular trial site

2The licences for DIR 102, DIR 111, DIR 128 and DIR 152 cover trials for wheat and barley. Under DIR 102 four sites were planted to barley only.

3Currently known as the Victorian Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and resources (DEDJTR).