Regulator seeks advice on how to deal with food editing by new genetic techniques

The food safety regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), is calling for suggestions on  how it should consider applications for foods that have been made using new genetic techniques that aren’t currently covered by the laws which govern it.

The current code only covers food produced by genetic techniques that add DNA into a genome. This excludes newer gene editing techniques like CRISPR/Cas9, which knock out genes or proteins, or others that don’t change the DNA of the final food product.

FSANZ is asking for submissions on how these newer techniques should be assessed before they go to market.

According to the Science Media Centre (HERE), the options range from treating them like conventional breeding techniques – given a green light once a technique has been proved safe – or to be treated like current genetically modified organisms which would mean that each application requires a rigorous safety assessment.

The consultation report won’t change the current regulations or labelling requirements, but it will inform how they move forward on this issue.

The Science Media Centre asked genetics and food safety experts to comment on the consultation report.

It has received this response –

  • Professor Peter K Dearden, Genomics Aotearoa and University of Otago, comments:

“In the past few years a range of novel technologies, many based on a technology called CRISPR/cas9 gene editing, have been developed. Many of these technologies challenge the only way we have thought about transgenic organisms (GM organisms), because they can change the DNA of an organism, rather than inserting a new piece of DNA.

“This technology mirrors somewhat mutagenesis, a technology that produced all of the plants of the ‘green revolution’, for example. Mutagenesis involves making lots of mutation in an organism’s DNA and then selecting those that have a useful outcome. Gene editing is less scattergun, but a reasonably precise way to make the mutation that you want.

“This falls between the old technologies of mutagenesis, and the newer ones (though now outdated) of transgenesis. These technologies do use a lab manipulation to change the DNA, but they don’t involve the insertion of a piece of DNA from another organism.

“FSANZ are investigating what people think about the outcomes of these new technologies, and a few more specific ones that have similar effects. This is incredibly timely, as products made with gene editing are already being developed overseas, and detecting gene edited organism is much harder than detecting a transgenic one.

“These new technologies have enormous potential but getting their regulation wrong may, on one hand stifle innovation, and on the other cause disquiet about risk. I applaud FSANZ for asking questions about these technologies, and am impressed by the thoughtful, knowledgeable and effective ways they have presented the information.”


Yes, we do have tomatoes – but not GM ones – says riled bio-blogger


Dr Alison Campbell, writing on BioBlog, has been alerted to – and challenged – an article purporting to tell consumers how to distinguish between GM and “regular” tomatoes.

An article headed “We’re Eating A Poison! Here’s How To Identify GMO Tomatoes In Two Simple Steps!” was  published at babiesdaily in 2016. This year variations of the article have been reproduced HERE and – the version at Foodatory drawn to Dr Campbell’s attention – HERE.

Dr Campbell, Associate Dean (Teaching & Learning)and Senior Lecturer (Biological Sciences) at Waikato University, thunders the claim is wrong, wrong, wrong.

There aren’t any genetically-engineered tomatoes on the market, she points out.

There used to be one, the “Flavr Savr”, which came out with much fanfare in 1994. It had been modified to enhance its shelf life, but apparently was not a commercial success and was withdrawn in 1997. To date, nothing has replaced it, although there’s apparently quite a bit of research still going on into e.g. delayed ripening and resistance to pests and environmental stressors.

Dr Campbell then notes that the tomatoes we grow (or buy) and eat are themselves the result of centuries of modification by conventional selective breeding – and also techniques such as mutagenesis, which are not exactly “natural”.

Nor are they subject to the same controls and rigorous testing required of any GM organism or product, even though mutagenesis creates much larger genetic changes than today’s precise techniques for genetic engineering (think CRISPR she suggests).

And yet conventional breeding methods can also cause problems: they led to the withdrawal of some potato varieties in the US & Sweden, because the spuds thus produced contained dangerously high levels of the poisonous compound alpha-solanine.

Then there’s the misleading image (above).

They’d obviously like us to think that one – perhaps the lushly rich red one to the left? – is natural/organic, and the other, a GMOA. Especially when they ask, “can you tell the difference between a regular tomato and a genetically modified one?” But, as we know, all commercially-available tomatoes are produced by conventional means. Still, I guess they feel that an image speaks a thousand words. (I wouldn’t want that rich red one in my sandwich though – it looks like a quick route to sogginess.)

Dr Campbell then turns to the supposed “mounting evidence that links [GE foods] to toxic and allergic reactions, sick, sterile and dead livestock, and damage to virtually every organ studied in lab animals”.

There are no links or citations to support such as sweeping statement.

But on the livestock front, there are now 22 years’ worth of data available on stock fed mostly on GMO foods.

Back in 2014 Steven NovellaB wrote about a very extensive review study that looked at the first 19 years of information.

The animals covered by the various studies reviewed in the paper Novella discussed number in the billions (that is not a typo). It did not identify any problems of the sort listed in the OP that I’m discussing here. (The split between industry-funded and independent research projects into GMOs is roughly 50:50.)

On allergies – apparently the great majority of food-related allergic reactions in the US are caused by antigens from 8 foods: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, shellfish, and fish. only GM soybeans are commercially available. There are a number of fairly stringent tests required of those applying to market foods with a GE component, and in New Zealand the results of these tests have to be reviewed by Food Safety Australia NZ.

Dr Campbell spells out the objectives of these tests:

The goal of the safety assessment is not to establish the absolute safety of the GM food but rather to consider whether the GM food is comparable to the conventional counterpart food, i.e., that the GM food has all the benefits and risks normally associated with the conventional food.

So far no food derived from GMOs has been found to cause new allergies.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a revised version of the originally posted story, correcting Dr Campbell’s name and incorporating the link to the article at Foodatory, published on February 2, which is the version drawn to her attention.


Soil and Health Assn claims a win for clean, green, GE-free New Zealand

There has been no announcement from Federated Farmers – at least, not that we can find.

But the Soil & Health Association says it is celebrating the decision by Federated Farmers to abandon its appeal against the right of councils to control the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their territories.

Federated Farmers filed its latest appeal earlier this year in the Court of Appeal, after its appeals to the Environment Court and High Court had been dismissed.

“We congratulate Federated Farmers on this pragmatic and sensible decision,” said Soil & Health Chair Graham Clarke.

“Both the High Court and Environment Court have ruled that regional councils have jurisdiction under the Resource Management Act (RMA) to regulate the use of GMOs through regional policy statements or plans. The recent RMA amendments further entrench the legal rights of councils to do so. Challenging these decisions would only have cost both us, the other parties involved and Federated Farmers themselves a lot of unnecessary time and money.”

Federated Farmers had argued the Environmental Protection Authority had sole responsibility for the regulation of GMOs under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO).

The Soil & Health Association says the federation’s decision to withdraw its appeal comes after recent amendments were made to the RMA, which confirmed the High Court ruling, leading Federated Farmers to believe that they “are likely to have materially reduced the prospects of the appeal being prosecuted successfully.”

The RMA changes, which passed in April this year via the Resource Legislation Amendment Bill, included a controversial section which allows the Minister for the Environment to bypass parliament and make fundamental changes to the law if it is deemed that council plans duplicate or deal with the same subject matter as central Government laws.

This would have allowed the Minister to strip councils of their ability to create GE-free food producing zones.

The National Government at the time needed the Maori Party votes to pass the changes. But the Maori Party stated in December last year that it would not support changes to the RMA if they extended to allowing the Minister to overrule planning provisions controlling the use of GMOs.

Before the final reading of the Bill, an exemption was introduced under section 360D specifically for GE crops, effectively preventing the minister from permitting GMO crops in regions that had elected to remain GMO free or impose controls on the use of GMOs.

“We are so grateful to Maori Party for their determination to ensure that appropriate clauses in the RMA were included to protect regions from uncontrolled GMO use. Had they not stood firm against the changes, then we might not have had this decision from Federated Farmers to withdraw their appeal,” says Soil & Health National Council member Marion Thomson.

“The RMA amendment further confirms the ability of all local councils to determine GMO policies in their regions. Local communities can now have confidence that their values and concerns about the use of GMOs in their regions can be considered when drafting policy statements and plans.”

The economic sustainability of a wide range of agricultural export activities reliant on GMO-free status is also protected by this ruling. The global non-GMO food market is currently valued at US$250 billion, and trends show this is only going to grow. New Zealand producers benefit from access to this huge non-GMO market.

Soil & Health maintains it has found no economic, health or environmental case for GMOs. There are huge uncertainties around the adverse effects of GMOs on natural resources and ecosystems. The risks are large and consequences irreversible.


Jo Goodhew bows out by calling for GM policy to be based on proven science

Retiring National MP Jo Goodhew began her valedictory speech by addressing “the many peoples, all voices, all mountains, all rivers” whom she thanked for coming to support her.

This injection of animist sentiments belied the tribute she played to science.

She recalled her ministerial involvement in the food safety scare in 2014 sparked by a threat to contaminate infant and other formulas with 1080 and in a scare at Christmas 2015 caused by the contamination of imported frozen berries with hepatitis.

Almost every single one of those frozen products was already labelled with its country of origin. It is not so long ago that New Zealand apples were also contaminated by a worker with hepatitis A.

So the answer is health and food safety officials working closely to identify and trace food-borne illnesses fast. Excellent traceability systems on the part of producers are essential and COOLs are only a marketing tool that works when the origin has a great reputation, which is exactly what New Zealand has.

Ms Goodhew also recalled her work on developing the National Environmental Standard for Plantation Forestry which she said will significantly reduce the numbers of consents required each year.

And she took pride in the Government’s work in tackling allocation, reliability of supply, measuring quality, cleaning up poor-quality fresh water, requiring stock exclusion from waterways, and mapping a path to restore degraded waterways.

But most significantly, she said

“It is high time New Zealanders woke up to the importance of genetically modified organisms and our future in the fields of health, plant, and animal genetics, and, through that, environmental protection.

“Gene editing can help us cure cancers, eradicate wilding pines as well as four-legged pests, develop grasses that assist us to reduce methane emissions, and so much more.

“The debate has to be less about fear of the unknown, and more about safe and proven science.”

Ms Goodhew was first elected to Parliament as MP for Aoraki in 2005 and was elected as MP for Rangitata in 2008, 2011 and 2014.

New York Times article on genetic modification stirs scientists

A brisk exchange of views aboutr genetic modification has been generated by an article in the New York Times, “Doubts About a Promised Bounty” (“Uncertain Harvest” series, front page, Oct. 30).

The article says:

The controversy over genetically modified crops has long focused on largely unsubstantiated fears that they are unsafe to eat.

But an extensive examination by The New York Times indicates that the debate has missed a more basic problem — genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.

A Monsanto executive, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Robert T.Fraley, is among those who has responded. .

Whether they’re growing crops on thousands of acres in Illinois or on a small plot in India, farmers are smart business people who won’t waste time or money on tools that don’t deliver results.

When nearly 20 million farmers around the world choose to invest in genetically modified seeds for two decades, it is because farmers are seeing better harvests.

Extensive, third-party studies document the significant benefits farmers have seen using G.M. crops that range from more efficient weed and insect control, to reduced use of insecticides, to reduced erosion and improved soil health, to increased crop yields.

In the United States alone, in the 20 years since the introduction of G.M. crops in 1996, soybean yields have increased by a remarkable 28 percent and corn yields by nearly 32 percent. This is the real story of how farmers are meeting the increasing global demand for food using G.M. seeds.

G.M.O. crops are not a silver bullet, but they are a very important and productive tool for modern and sustainable agriculture. With a global population expected to grow to nearly 10 billion by 2050, farmers need every available tool to produce more food sustainably. G.M.O.s are a vital part of the solution, and the voice of the farmer should be represented.

Peter Scott, a fellow and former president of the International Society for Plant Pathology, is one of three contributors to the debate whose letters can be f0und here. He writes:

In “Doubts About a Promised Bounty” (“Uncertain Harvest” series, front page, Oct. 30), you say “genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.”

We misjudge genetic modification’s potential by considering just yield and pesticide use over 20 years.

“Fooling with nature” is nothing new: Crops are genetic variants of wild plants selected by humans over millenniums. Our latest tools include G.M. — allowing precision and wider choice of useful qualities. Given the challenge of global food security, it is foolish to overlook any new tool in the breeder’s toolbox.

Early G.M. users overplayed their hand if they predicted an imminent “bounty.” Use of G.M. is focused on a handful of genes conferring insect resistance or herbicide tolerance. This gives little indication of G.M.’s potential to deliver new qualities to crops of the future.

Here is one example: Rice-based diets are deficient in a precursor of vitamin A, causing blindness and death in children. G.M. is delivering “golden rice” with novel genes that correct the deficiency.

We should take a broader view, as described in the August issue of Food Security.

Ricardo Salvador, a senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says:

Your article confirms what the National Academy of Sciences and the Union of Concerned Scientists have found: Genetically modified organisms have neither been “feeding the world” nor reducing pesticide use. The industry has made billions selling farmers (and the taxpayers who subsidize them) flashy tools that have failed to achieve their grandly exaggerated objectives.

If the goal of our agricultural system is what’s best for farmers, eaters and the environment, there’s a better way to achieve it: agroecology. Just one example can be found in an ongoing Iowa State University experiment, which has demonstrated over 15 years that rotational cropping systems that work with nature (rather than against it) enhance yields and profits for farmers while reducing pesticide and fertilizer inputs and environmental impact.

While the agribusiness industry can’t be expected to develop holistic agricultural systems without a clear product to sell, the government owes taxpayers solutions that deliver. So far agroecological strategies are underfunded. The next president must increase investment in these cost-effective farming improvements.

Sudhindra Kulkarni, a member of the Global Farmer Network,says: .

I realized the benefits of genetically modified crops with my own eyes, on my own farm. I grow G.M. cotton near my village, Malli, in the state of Karnataka, India.

As a farmer, I can say that based on my past experience of farming, since the arrival of G.M. cotton, my crops are free of pests and healthier, and my farm has become sustainable.

Farming is a constant struggle, but before the advent of G.M. cotton, it was a losing battle. The bollworm pests attacked our crops relentlessly. We fought them as best we could, but our harvests were meager. I thought I would barely scrape by, as my father and grandfather before me had done.

Then came the commercialization of G.M. cotton. We started to plant it a dozen years ago. It transformed our lives. Finally, we had a way to beat the bollworm pest, increasing our yield from one ton to four tons per hectare. Cultivation of G.M. cotton still demands dedication and discipline, but now I have technology on my side.

Today, most of India’s cotton farmers use G.M. products. It’s the only way to farm sustainably.

NZBIO welcomes Government’s review of GMO regulations

NZBIO has welcomed the Government’s decision to review local government involvement in regulating genetically modified organisms.

Environment Minister Nick Smith said last week the Government would “review the appropriateness of councils being involved” in GMO regulation after High Court Justice Mary Peters dismissed an appeal by Federated Farmers and ruled that councils have jurisdiction to control the environmental impact of GMOs in their districts by regulating their use.

Smith said it made no sense for local councils to duplicate the role of the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) in regulating the use of GMOs in New Zealand.

He said the EPA had taken “a very cautious approach, approving only two GMOs in 20 years – an equine flu vaccine and the [liver cancer vaccine] Pexa-Vec trial.

His press statement said:

“The problem with councils regulating in this area is that they do not have the technical expertise, resulting in regulations that have unintended consequences. The further problem is that there are no biosecurity controls between councils, so having different rules in what organisms are allowed in different districts becomes a nonsense.”

Smith has asked the Ministry for the Environment for advice. Solutions could include a law change to clarify that GMO controls are determined by the EPA and not councils.

Any changes would involve public consultation, Smith said.

NZBIO, which represents the majority of bio scientists in New Zealand, last week warned that the country was in danger of becoming a back-water for bioscience after Federated Farmers’ appeal was dismissed.

Dr Will Barker, chief executive of NZBIO, today said it had never made sense to duplicate the role of the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) in regulating the use of GMOs throughout New Zealand.

Dr Barker said NZBIO has been calling for a public debate on GMO since the science around genetic modification has developed significantly since the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act was enacted in New Zealand 1996.

“Many New Zealanders still rely on emotive, 1990s GMO rhetoric, not realising what has happened around the word since that time,” Dr Barker said.

“All we have been asking for is a chance to have New Zealanders talk about the issue and to be part of the decision-making of where this country goes with modern GMO.

“That decision should not be the responsibility of any one group, whether they be anti-GMO lobbyists or indeed bio scientists. This country needs people to make an educated and informed majority choice.”

Federated Farmers has also welcomed Smith’s comments. Its president, William Rolleston , said regional authorities weren’t equipped to regulate the technology.

Unqualified council staff should not regulate technology they don’t understand and stifle new emerging science, he said.

Overseas 90-95% of farmers had used genetically modified organisms when they were permitted to do so. In this country, farmers in every district deserved to have choice to use technologies which had been assessed as safe by the EPA.

Professor says it’s time to open up the conversation about GMOs

Professor Peter Kemp, Head of the Institute of Agriculture and the Environment at Massey University, has challenged the champions of bans on genetically modified organisms.

Writing in Hawke’s Bay Today (see here), he notes there have been no successful applications to introduce genetically modified plants or animals into New Zealand under the current legislation because the criteria are set extremely high.

But he says we need to open up the conversation about genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

…because there may come a time in the future when we will need to use this technology to save species dear to us – and a genetically modified option may be the only solution.

For example, the papaya industry in Hawaii was all but wiped out by the papaya ringspot virus, so the University of Hawaii worked on a genetically modified papaya resistant to the virus.

Although this was highly controversial, that GMO papaya now forms the basis of the industry there. The world is facing a similar issue with bananas, and one of the solutions could be a GM banana.

There is a “fear factor” around GMOs because we are dealing with DNA, Professor Kemp says.

But it’s a process that also occurs in nature.

The humble kumara that we eat is the result of bacteria inserting some genes to affect the plant hormone more than 8000 years ago. This made them bigger and better – and formed the basis of the kumara plants we eat today.

We use genetically modified products all the time. Most of the cotton used in clothing is from GM crops – which are bred to need fewer pesticides – which is better for the farmer and the environment.

Insulin and some vaccines are produced using GM bacteria – so a blanket ban on GMOs is short-sighted.

The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification reported back on its findings 15 years ago, when GM research had already been in place for 10 years.

Professor Kemp says that after a quarter of a century it is time our long-term plans for GMOs were reviewed.

Putting our heads in the sand and saying “we don’t like it, so we’ll ban it” is not helpful. This technology has the ability to save species and create a healthier environment, so we need to talk about how and when it could be used. We may still want to hold off releasing it into the environment, but we need to have the conversation around when that could potentially be.

The research on GMO products is extensive, and New Zealand needs to keep itself in the game by continuing to develop this technology. We can’t rely on other countries to do our research for us – they have no interest in kauri dieback or the potential loss of pohutukawa from myrtle rust.

But New Zealanders understand the importance of those trees to our history and our future.

GMOs undergo rigorous testing and are usually better evaluated for safety than non-GMO products, Professor Kemp says. Moreover the technology is advancing at a rapid rate.

At the same time, he says, it is  becoming increasingly difficult to decide what a GMO is, and how to identify it. Any maize-based products from the United States are likely to be genetically modified.

GMOs – he argues – are just part of the toolbox New Zealand scientists need to keep the country’s agriculture and horticulture industries competitive.