QUESTION: Deregulation of new genetic modification techniques

During Question Time, Mark asked the Minister for Health & Wellbeing about the SA Government's position on the federal Government's proposal to de-regulate new genetic modification techniques.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: Debate about the regulation of new genetic modification techniques, often referred to as gene editing, has been happening around the world. One of these techniques is known as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), which works by cutting the DNA of a cell and when the cell repairs the damage some of the DNA letters get changed at that spot. This then creates new varieties of plants or animals. However, recent research has found that this technique is not as precise as it has claimed to be and can result in large deletions and rearrangement of DNA.

In July this year, the European Court of Justice ruled that these new techniques are GMOs, that they pose similar risks to the older GM techniques and that they must be assessed for safety and regulated in the same way. This means that the EU will require GM traceability for imported foods. Because of the risks, over 60 international scientists have signed a statement, calling for these techniques to be strictly regulated as GMOs.

The Australian government has been considering its position on these new GM techniques and whether or not they should be regulated here. My understanding is that the South Australian health minister is on the Legislative and Governance Forum on Gene Technology and that the forum has been asked to approve draft changes to the gene technology regulations that would effectively deregulate a number of new GM techniques, including one of the CRISPR uses. My questions of the minister are:

1. What is the Marshall Liberal government's position on these proposed changes?

2. Will you follow the example of the European Union's highest court and ensure that these new GM techniques are regulated in Australia in the same way as older GM techniques are regulated?

3. Since a number of our key export markets have a zero tolerance for the presence of unapproved GMOs, has the South Australian government conducted any modelling on the likely market impacts if these new GM techniques are deregulated?

4. Since there will be no requirement for traceability if these techniques are deregulated, has the South Australian government considered the likely impacts on the South Australian GM crops moratorium?

The Hon. S.G. WADE (Minister for Health and Wellbeing): I thank the honourable member for his question, and a detailed one at that. What I can confirm is that I believe I am a member of the long-named forum he suggested and, in fact, I think I am attending a meeting of the forum next month. In terms of the detail of the honourable member's question, I am sure that I will be briefed on that issue leading into the forum. I am happy to take on notice and note the fact that he and the house would like an update on what the government's position on that issue is.

One thing that I am committed to is strong state and national co-operation in areas like this. To the extent that your question was inviting me to be an outlier and engage Europe with a unilateral agreement, I am afraid I am far too timid for that. I will continue to work with other Australian jurisdictions for a unified national response.

Further response provided on 19th September 2018

The Hon. S.G. WADE (Minister for Health and Wellbeing): As I advised yesterday, I can confirm that I am the South Australian member of the Legislative and Governance Forum on Gene Technology. The gene technology forum was scheduled to meet on 31 August to discuss two significant items: the review of the gene technology scheme; and the technical review of the commonwealth Gene Technology Regulations 2001. However, the meeting was rescheduled for October 2018. The review of the national gene technology scheme commenced in 2017 to assess the ongoing achievement of the policy objectives of the scheme, taking into account the rapidly developing and innovative area of gene technology. The final report will be presented for consideration at the 11 October meeting.

In 2016 the Gene Technology Regulator instigated a technical review of the Gene Technology Regulations 2001. During preparation of the draft regulations, significant public and targeted consultation took place, including preparation of the regulatory impact statement and the consideration of trade and market access implications.

The draft regulations generally provide greater technical clarity and provisions to adjust the level of regulation of some contained dealing with genetically modified organisms to be more commensurate with risk, and minor administrative matters.

It was anticipated that the approval of these draft regulations would have been discussed at a gene technology forum meeting, but due to the rescheduling of the meeting, and to meet commonwealth parliamentary time frames, an out-of-session decision was sought. On behalf of the South Australian government I responded in support of the draft regulations.

I am advised that the proposed changes to the commonwealth Gene Technology Regulations will provide an interim solution to deal with current uncertainty for operators, and ensure that the scheme continues to operate in accordance with its primary objectives. A longer term solution to ensure that the scheme is able to more effectively and efficiently respond to scientific developments will be addressed in the overarching review of the scheme. If approved by the forum, the draft regulations will proceed directly into the commonwealth regulation-making process, requiring approval from the Governor-General and tabling in parliament. Approval by the forum is required by a two-thirds special majority.

South Australia is a signatory to the national intergovernmental Gene Technology Agreement, and is therefore committed to align with commonwealth legislation to ensure a nationally consistent scheme. Any changes to the commonwealth regulations will require subsequent mirroring in the SA Gene Technology Regulations 2002.

Click here for a copy of the Minister's letter of approval. 

For more information see Mark's follow up question to the Minister