Gene technology in agriculture
People have used traditional ways to change crops and animals to suit their needs and tastes for thousands of years through:
- cross-breeding – using 2 different breeds, for example cross-breeding chickens to improve growth rates or egg production
- selective breeding – breeding parents with desirable characteristics, within the same breed
- mutation breeding – exposing seeds to radiation, chemical agents or enzymes to create plants with new and useful traits. Mutation happens naturally over time, this simply speeds up the process.
Using gene technology to achieve these changes is much quicker and more precise than traditional methods.
Scientists use gene technology to:
- help crops resist pests or diseases
- make crops tolerant to herbicides
- improve drought resistance of crops
- increase the nutritional value of foods produced by genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Potential economic and environmental benefits include:
- lower use of pesticides and water
- better crop yields, which may lead to lower prices
- lower farm costs flowing on to reduced prices for consumers
- longer shelf life, which may lead to lower prices.
Potential risks that regulatory bodies consider include:
- the safety of human or animal food products made from GMOs
- the long-term effects of new GMOs on the environment
- the effect on biodiversity
- animal welfare issues
- contamination of non-GMO plants by their GMO variety.
There are very few GM plants commercially grown in Australia. Most are agricultural crops. The 3 currently approved GM crops are:
- cotton that is insect resistant and tolerates some herbicides
- canola that has high omega-3 content and tolerates some herbicides
- safflower that has high oleic acid levels.
The OGTR has also approved GM carnations that produce purple flowers for growing, or importing into Australia.
Field trials and research
Researchers test new GM crops in field trials under limited and controlled conditions. This helps to test their characteristics under Australian environmental settings. The OGTR has a list of current GMO crop field trials.
GM animals and fish
There are currently no licences for the commercial supply of GM animals or fish in Australia.
Some other countries are researching the development of a limited number of GM animals, such as:
- dairy cows that do not grow horns
- pigs that produce less phosphorous in their waste
- salmon that grow faster
- aquarium fish that glow in the dark.
Gene technology in agricultural chemicals
Some active constituents of agricultural and veterinary (agvet) chemical products are made using gene technology. The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) regulates these.
- a variety of GM cotton that is resistant to pest insects
- a vaccine that protects chickens against a bacterial infection.
You can find products registered by the APVMA by searching their Public Chemical Registration Information System.
How the scheme affects agriculture and agricultural chemicals
Agricultural research involving gene technology must comply with Australian legislation for gene technology, including OGTR authorising of GMOs.
All accredited research facilities must have an Institutional Biosafety Committee to make sure this happens
Any release of a GMO into the environment must:
- be licensed
- minimise any possible risk by complying with biosafety conditions.
Where a GM crop is unintentionally released into the environment, the OGTR has strategies in place to manage this.
GM products used as an agricultural chemical product fall under the APVMA’s jurisdiction. They are subject to the Gene Technology Act 2000.
The Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals (Administration) Act 1992 requires the APVMA to consult with the Gene Technology Regulator when deciding to:
- approve an active constituent
- register an agvet chemical product
- approve a label
- vary or reconsider any approvals or registrations
- issue a permit for a GM product.
They must take into account any advice given by the regulator when deciding to approve, register or reconsider GM products.
Learn more about the roles of the:
Importing agricultural GMOs
To import live GM plants or animals, you must have approval under:
- biosecurity laws
- gene technology laws.
For example, to import GM grain you need permission from the Gene Technology Regulator. You may also need an import permit from the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.
You also need permission from the regulator to import:
- GM micro-organisms, including bacteria and viruses, for research
- GM animal embryos, for research.
Institutional Biosafety Committees have delegated authority for some approvals, which they then report to the regulator.
Importing GM agricultural chemical products
To import agricultural chemicals, you must apply for consent from the APVMA. Learn more about applying for an import consent.