Story by Rei Fortes.
Genome editing technology in agriculture is constantly advancing, challenging countries to adapt and change how genetically edited products should be regulated for commercialisation.
One of the commonly used methods of gene editing is clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR). The process cuts the DNA of a plant and allows a new naturally created mutation to occur, or uses a template that provides instructions to repair the DNA with specific changes. CRISPR only uses the DNA from the plant itself and creates a desired change, differentiating the process from genetically modified organisms (GMO) that inserts new DNA sequences and genes in the end product.
“There are many benefits to genetically edited crops, but there’s a real need to harmonise regulations across various countries,” says Dr Carl Ramage, Chair of La Trobe University’s Institutional Biotech Committee.
Dr Ramage, in collaboration with an international group of regulatory experts, recently published an article analysing various regulatory approaches for genome edited plants in specific countries. Dr Ramage has also been an expert speaker on the topic for several international workshops conducted by the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, the United States Department of Agriculture and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.
There are several international standards that guide governments to regulate the products of gene technology, including the Codex Alimentarius also known as the "Food Code", and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety that provides guidelines for trade. Many countries such as Argentina, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand have adapted various aspects of these guidelines to regulate GMOs.
“It’s important that we have robust systems in place to ensure a safe food supply. There’s a role for the government through regulations but there’s also an important role for the industry,” says Dr Ramage. “Regulatory systems look at products on a case-by-case basis. It’s an important component, and in many countries, it is the process of gene technology that triggers regulation.”
“Countries such as the United States and Canada approach regulations on GMO plants using different criteria, focusing on the final product’s economic, health, safety and environmental impact,” says Dr Ramage. “They focus on the final product rather than the gene technology process.”
Argentina was the first country to introduce regulations on how genetically edited plants should be regulated. Products are assessed on a case-by-case basis, with a focus on the genetic material in the final product. If a genetically edited organism shows no sign of additional novel genetic material, there is no requirement for the product to be regulated as a genetically modified organism.
The study conducted by Dr Ramage and his colleagues found that transparency in regulations for genetically edited products plays a key factor in reducing the negative perception of genetically edited plants and animals. This allows regulators and the general public to better understand the whole process of the food that is delivered to local supermarkets today.
“In Australia, we are seeing the public demand more information around how we’re producing our food. They want to know about the welfare of animals, where our food is coming from and importantly who controls the production,” says Dr Ramage.
“When developing a product, it’s important to consider communicating widely with industries and stakeholders about the product, ensuring that we’re not going to create a trade issue later on.”
Despite genome editing being a controversial topic, there are many benefits that this technology offers, especially to farmers in developing nations searching for new ways to protect their crops from the challenges of climate change.
“The fall armyworm has caused devastation to crops, particularly maize, across Asia and into Africa. In many developing countries, maize isn’t just for human consumption, it’s also used to feed livestock. If you can’t feed your animals and can’t feed yourself, then that can lead to some serious social problems,” says Dr Ramage.
Gene technology has allowed for the development of maize crops that are resistant to the fall armyworm. This provides social benefits to the farmer and the local economy where maize crops is a fundamental agricultural product.
The study acknowledges that many countries around the world need to update regulations surrounding GMOs to keep up with the new technologies such as genetically edited agricultural products. Having consistent regulations across multiple nations will also improve trade and social benefits in societies that need it the most.
“If we’ve got tools to assist farmers in being sustainable, then I want to empower that. I’ve seen the positive impact, especially in developing countries in Asia. Regulatory systems are geared to protect the health and safety of people and the environment. That is the same all around the world, and it’s really important” says Dr Ramage.