Report Highlights:

The Australian federal government is very supportive of biotechnology and has committed considerable long-term funding to research and development. To date, biotech cotton, canola and carnation varieties are the only agricultural crops approved for commercial release into the environment in Australia. Australia requires that food products derived from genetic engineering, if they contain more than one percent of biotech product, get prior approval from Food Standards Australia New Zealand before they can be sold. Such products must also be labeled to indicate that they contain biotech products.

SECTION I: EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The United States has substantial interest in Australia’s policies and regulatory framework regarding agricultural biotechnology and products derived thereof because of the impact this has on the ability of the U.S. to export to Australia. Unprocessed (whole) biotech corn and soybeans have not received regulatory approval in Australia and, thus, cannot be imported without further processing. Foods with biotech content of over one percent must receive prior approval and be labeled. This requirement can restrict sales of U.S. intermediate and processed products. Australia’s policies and views on this technology influence other countries in the region, and elsewhere, which may follow Australia’s lead in developing a regulatory system of their own.

The biotech debate is very important in Australia. The federal government is very supportive of the technology, has committed considerable long-term funding to research and development, and has approved genetically modified (GM) cotton, carnations and canola varieties for general release. The State governments have also committed funds for research and development, but most were more cautious about the introduction of the technology and most Australian states initially put in place moratoria on new plantings of biotechnology crops. After state-level reviews in November 2007, New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria lifted the moratoria on genetically engineered canola. In November 2008, Western Australia lifted its ban to allow biotech cotton to be grown in the Ord River region and in April 2009 announced that trials of GE canola would be allowed. In early 2010, WA passed legislation allowing the commercial production of GE canola in that state. South Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) have maintained their moratoria. Major farm groups and the Commonwealth government’s science organizations do not support this position and have argued openly for acceptance of biotech crops. Currently in Australia, about 95 percent of the cotton planted is from biotech varieties, which were approved for release prior to the state moratoria. Although GE cotton varieties dominate the cotton industry in Australia, the state moratoria slowed the commercialization and adoption of the technology for food crops. 

Australia has a substantial risk assessment based regulatory framework for dealings with gene technology and genetically modified organisms, as well as a process for assessment and approval of genetically modified foods. The Gene Technology Act of 2000 established Australia’s regulatory scheme for dealings with gene technology and genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”). The Commonwealth’s Gene Technology Regulator serves the key role in assessing, regulating and licensing “GMOs” and enforcing license conditions. Genetically modified foods must also be assessed, determined to be safe, and be approved before being sold for human consumption. The standards for such foods are developed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and are contained in the Food Standards Code. There are labeling requirements for genetically modified foods containing modified genetic material and/or novel protein, and for foods with altered characteristics. Imports of food products containing GE ingredients need to meet these same regulations.

To date, biotech cotton, canola and carnation varieties are the only agricultural crops approved for commercial release into the environment in Australia. With the lifting of the moratoria in New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia, plantings of GE canola are expected to continue to increase rapidly. Research is being conducted on other biotech crops, with field trials controlled by The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) being conducted on some, e.g. Indian mustard, wheat, sugarcane, white clover, grapevines, pineapple, papaya, canola and cotton. Approval has already been granted for food products derived from biotech corn, cotton, soybean, sugar beet, potatoes, alfalfa and rice.

For “GMOs” that have not received regulatory approval in Australia, U.S. export opportunities are obviously restricted. For the United States, the commercial impact of this constraint is most pronounced for feed grains, e.g. whole corn, and soybeans as these products have not yet received regulatory approval. In addition to this market access restriction, Australia does not allow the importation of many grains and/or grain products for phytosanitary reasons, citing the need to limit exotic weed seeds.

Australia requires that if food products derived from GE contain more than one percent of biotech product, there must be prior approval from Food Standards Australia New Zealand before they can be sold. Such products must also be labeled to indicate that they contain biotech products.

SECTION II: PLANT AND ANIMAL BIOTECHNOLOGY

CHAPTER 1: PLANT BIOTECHNOLOGY

PART A: PRODUCTION AND TRADE

COMMERCIAL PRODUCTION: Biotech cotton, canola and carnations are the only crops approved for commercial release by Australia’s Gene Technology Regulator. It is estimated that biotech cotton varieties are grown on up to 95 percent of Australia’s cotton area. The Regulator approved the commercial releases of two biotech canola varieties in 2003. With the lifting of the moratoria in New South Wales and Victoria in early 2008, that was the first year that GE canola was grown commercially anywhere in the country. In November 2008, Western Australia lifted its ban to allow biotech cotton to be grown in the Ord River region and in April 2009 announced that trials of GE canola would be allowed at 20 sites in that state. 

Biotech carnations became the first biotech products to be assessed by the Gene Technology Regulator to “pose minimal risks to people or the environment, and are sufficiently safe to be used by anyone without the need for a license” and they have accordingly been placed on the “GMO” Register.

Biotech Cotton

Biotech cotton has been grown commercially in Australia since the approval and introduction of the first GE variety in 1996. Currently, around 95 percent of the Australian cotton crop is made up of GE varieties. In addition, there are a number of new biotech cotton varieties currently being developed.

Canola

Since 2003 a number of biotech canola varieties have been approved by OGTR. The first commercial plantings of these varieties took place in 2008 after the state governments in NSW and Victoria lifted their moratoria on commercial plantings of GE canola. In 2009 Western Australia allowed trials to begin and the first commercial plantings began in 2010 in that State.

In 2012-13, an estimated 8.2% of the Australian canola crop was planted to biotech varieties (approx 175,000 ha), up from 164,000 ha in 2011-2012.

EXPORTS: GE crops grown in Australia have been developed in Australia. Given that most of Australia’s cotton products come from GE varieties, it is likely that any exports of cotton & cotton products would contain these varieties.

Australia does not export cotton to the U.S. but in 2012 Australia exported 135,200 MT of cotton seed to the U.S. (tariff code 1207.29). It is likely that this seed was from GE cotton varieties.

The Australian Department of Agriculture maintains an online Manual of Importing Country Requirement (MICoR) for live animals & plants. These databases list whether importing countries require a declaration of the presence or absence of GM. For example, the database contains information on the New Zealand requirements GE testing of canola seeds being exported from Australia.

IMPORTS: Under the Gene Technology Act 2000, approval or authorization must be obtained to deal with genetically modified organisms. This means that the importation of live, viable “GMOs”, are regulated under the Act. Importers need to apply to OGTR for a license or authorization to import any GE materials into Australia. OGTR and the Department of Agriculture (DOA) work closely to regulate and enforce this situation. The application form for an import permit contains a section relating to the genetically modified status of the product. When importing GE seed/grain, or seed/grain that is known to be mixed with any amount of a GE material, the importer is required to notify DOA by marking 'yes' at the appropriate question in the Application for Permit to Import Quarantine Material. The permit application form also requires importers to provide details of the relevant authorization under the Act (e.g. OGTR license number of NLRD identifier number and name of assessing IBC). To verify authorizations, DOA and the OGTR may exchange information that importers have provided to either agency.

Foods containing biotech materials must be approved by Food Standards Australia New Zealand and be labeled if the biotech content is greater than 1% before they can be sold in Australia. This applies to all domestically produced and imported food. A list of currently approved biotech food products is contained in Standard 1.5.2.

Processed animal feeds, such as soy meal, are not covered by biotech legislation in Australia. These products, therefore, do not require prior approval or a license to be imported. There are, however, quarantine restrictions on some products. Unprocessed biotech products imported as feed (i.e. whole grain, etc), would require a license from OGTR, as there is a possibility that seed could be released into the environment.

FOOD AID: Not applicable.

PART B: POLICY

REGULATORY FRAMEWORK: The Gene Technology Act 2000 (the Act) came into force on June 21, 2001 as the Commonwealth component of a national regulatory scheme. The Act and the associated Gene Technology Regulations 2001, provide a comprehensive process for the Gene Technology Regulator to assess proposed dealings with live and viable “GMOs” ranging from contained work in certified laboratories to general releases of “GMOs” into the environment, and extensive powers to monitor and enforce license conditions. An Inter-Governmental Agreement, between the Commonwealth and the states and territories, underpins the system for regulating genetically modified organisms in Australia. The Legislative & Governance Forum on Gene Technology (LGFGT) (previously the Ministerial Council for Gene Technology), comprising ministers from the Commonwealth and each state and territory, provides broad oversight of the regulatory framework and guidance on matters of policy that underpin the legislation. High level support is provided to the LGFGT by the Gene Technology Standing Committee, which comprises senior officials from all jurisdictions.

The object of the Gene Technology Act is: "To protect the health and safety of people, and to protect the environment, by identifying risks posed by or as a result of gene technology, and by managing those risks through regulating certain dealings with genetically modified organisms."

The Act prohibits all dealings with “GMOs” unless the dealing is:

• A licensed dealing;

• A notifiable low risk dealing;

• Included on the “GMO” Register

• Specified in an Emergency Dealing Determination.

Key features of the Act are the appointment of an independent Gene Technology Regulator and a requirement for transparent and accountable implementation. The Regulator administers the regulation of all dealings with “GMOs” in Australia, in accordance with the Act and ensures compliance with the conditions of any approvals. The Regulator consults extensively with the community, research institutions and private enterprise.

The Gene Technology Regulator liaises with other regulatory agencies to coordinate the approval of biotech products for use and sale.

The Act also establishes two advisory committees to advise the Gene Technology Regulator and the Legislative & Governance Forum on Gene Technology (LGFGT) (formerly the Gene Technology Ministerial Council):

• The Gene Technology Technical Advisory Committee (GTTAC) – a group of highly qualified experts who provide scientific and technical advice on applications;

• The Gene Technology Ethics & Community Consultative Committee (GTECCC) – provides advice on ethical issues and on matters of general concern to the community in relation to GE materials and products.

The Gene Technology Act 2000 distinguishes between genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and genetically modified (GM) products. A genetically modified product - ‘GE product’ - means a thing (other than a “GMO”) derived or produced from a “GMO” (Section 10 of the GT Act).

The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) does not directly regulate the use of GE products in Australia. However, the use of GE products is regulated by other regulatory agencies in a number of situations.

STACKED EVENT APPROVALS: Stacked events must be licensed by the OGTR. For commercial release, this requirement can be met by either by explicit listing of a particular stacked GMO in a license (through the license application process or license variation); or, inclusion of the specific conditions in the licenses for the parent GMOs to encompass stacking between genetic modifications listed in separate licenses.

COEXISTENCE: Coexistence of biotech, conventional, and organic crops has occurred in Australia since biotech cotton varieties were commercially grown in 1996. As part of any license to grow a biotech crop, OGTR stipulates the conditions under which the crop can be grown to ensure no cross-contamination with conventional or organic crops in the vicinity on a case-by-case basis. For license applications for environmental release of GMOs the Regulator must consult on the risk assessment and risk management plan with States and Territories, other Australian Government agencies, relevant local councils and the public.

Segregation and coexistence, along with other marketing and economic considerations, are managed through state specific regulations and industry protocols.

In October 2005, national consensus was achieved in Australia regarding practical thresholds to deal with the issue of traces of GE canola in conventional canola consignments and variety trials. The Primary Industries Ministerial Council (PIMC), which is comprised of Ministers from the Australian Government and each state and territory, agreed upon adventitious presence (AP) thresholds for the presence of GE canola in conventional grain and seed.

The PIMC meeting agreed on two marketing thresholds:

• An AP threshold of 0.9 per cent GE canola in canola grain. This is the threshold supported by the Australian Oilseeds Federation (AOF).

• A second threshold for AP of GE canola in seed was set at 0.5 per cent for 2006 and 2007, to be reduced to 0.1 per cent thereafter. The Australian Seed Federation (ASF) established an AP threshold of 0.5 per cent GE seed in non-GE planting seed in 2003 following two years of research and consultation with the canola seed industry.

LABELING:

Labeling of Biotech Food

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is the Australian Government agency responsible for approving GE food products for the Australian market. Mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods, where introduced DNA or protein is present in the final food, came into force in Australia on December 7, 2001. Regulations for labeling are contained in Standard 1.5.2 of the Food Standards Code.

Under the Standard, food or ingredients labeled genetically modified contain new genetic material or protein as a result of the genetic modification or have altered characteristics, e.g. changed nutritional values, compared to the conventional food. Some flavorings may also be derived from genetically modified organisms, but labeling is only required if they are in a concentration of more than 1 gram per kilogram (0.1%). Food additives and processing aids do not need to be labeled unless the introduced genetic material is present in the final food.

Under the labeling standard, for packaged foods the words 'genetically modified' must be used in conjunction with the name of the food, or in association with the specific ingredient within the ingredient list; and for unpackaged foods for retail sale (such as unpackaged fruit and vegetables, or unpackaged processed or semi-processed foods) the words 'genetically modified' must be displayed in association with the food, or in association with the particular ingredient within that food.

Refined oil from biotech cottonseed, does not require a label because the oil contains no genetic material and the cottonseed oil is identical to conventional cottonseed oil.

Labeling of Biotech Feed Products

Animal feeds containing GE materials (e.g. whole grains or oilseeds) are regulated by the OGTR. The OGTR considers any biosafety risks associated with the product and, if necessary, will apply special conditions, or may prohibit the use of the product as animal feed. As an example, after a GE products has undergone field trials, the organization conducting the trials may wish to use the unviable by-product (such as seed) as animal feed. Before the product is used in any way, the Gene Technology Regulator will consider any risks and, if necessary, will apply conditions or disallow the product to be used.

The Australian Department of Agriculture and the OGTR must approve genetically modified whole grain commodities (including oilseeds) imported into Australia for animal feed (such as whole soybeans and corn). The Department of Agriculture provides quarantine inspection and certification for the arrival of imports of the products to ensure the product is free of pest and disease and specific license conditions are enforced to ensure the product meets requirements. The OGTR also assesses the product, issues a license to the organization importing the product, and may apply further conditions above those stipulated by the Department of Agriculture.

Large amounts of biotech feed products are used in Australia’s intensive livestock sector. A large proportion of Australia’s soybean meal is imported, including from the United States. All cottonseed meal used in Australia is considered to be biotech as over 90 percent of the cotton crop is planted to biotech varieties. Biotech and non-biotech cotton varieties are not typically segregated in Australia. 

Genetically modified animal feed does not require special labeling in Australia.

TRADE BARRIERS: See part above on import requirements.

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS (IPR): Intellectual property rights for plants are administered by IP Australia under the Plant Breeder’s Rights Act 1994. 

CARTAGENA PROTOCOL RATIFICATION: Australia has not signed or ratified the Biosafety Protocol and the Australian Government has no timetable for consideration of accession to the Protocol. This was due to concerns about how the Protocol will operate in practice (documentation requirements, and the liability and compliance arrangements are yet to be agreed), uncertainty about how parties will implement the Protocol and whether they will do so in a way which respects all of their international obligations, and uncertainty about any individual country’s capacity to influence decision-making. The Australian government considers that the Protocol is not needed for Australia to manage biotech imports as Australia already has a robust regulatory framework through the Office of Gene Technology Regulator.

INTERNATIONAL TREATIES/FORA: Australia participates in multilateral efforts to promote the application of science–based, transparent and predictable regulatory approaches that foster innovation and ensure a safe and reliable global food supply, including the cultivation and use of agricultural products derived from innovative technologies. Since the Australian regulatory scheme began in 2001, the OGTR has been involved multilateral forums and collaborations with counterpart agencies in other countries. In 2012-13 the OGTR assisted regulatory capacity building activities in countries such as Vietnam, Bhutan and Ghana; presented to a review of the United Kingdom regulatory scheme; participated in an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Workshop on Regulatory Issues for Emerging Technologies; delivered presentations to a session on GMO regulation at the World Congress on Risk; participated in an international working group on environmental risk assessment of genetically modified trees; and provided two plenary addresses and chair discussion panels at the 12th International Symposium on Biosafety of GMOs (ISBGMO 12).

Australia is one of the supporting governments (along with Brazil, Canada, Argentina, Paraguay & the United States) of the “Joint Statement on Innovative Agricultural Production Technologies, particularly Plant Biotechnologies”; is a contracting party to the International Plant Protection Convention; has been a member of Codex since 1963; and participates in the OECD Working Group on Harmonization of Regulatory Oversight in Biotechnology. Through engagement in these forums, the OGTR plays a major role in the development of international guidance documents for environmental risk assessment of GMOs and management of issues related to low-level presence of GMOs, as well as leading the preparation of OECD consensus biology documents for sugarcane and eucalypts.

MONITORING AND TESTING: To ensure that GE products comply with regulatory requirements, the Monitoring and Compliance Section of the OGTR undertakes monitoring, audits, inspections and investigations under the auspices of the Gene Technology Act 2000. Monitoring and compliance activities also comprise risk assessment and management, reviews of an organization’s activities and reporting.

LOW LEVEL PRESENCE POLICY: Australia has endorsed an international statement on low level presence of GE.

PART C: MARKETING

MARKET ACCEPTANCE: Australia has a substantial, risk assessment based regulatory framework for dealings with gene technology and genetically modified organisms and the Government is supportive of the technology for its agricultural producers and has been an ally of the United States with regard to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB). This comes despite anti-biotechnology activism in Australia that promoted stringent labeling requirements and encouraged moratoria on biotechnology plantings.

Major Australian commodity groups originally voiced concerns about introducing biotech canola and advocated for a ‘go-slow’ approach largely because of the potential impact biotech canola, which OGTR approved for commercial release in 2003, could have on their domestic and export businesses. In 2003 and 2004, several state governments (Victoria, NSW, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and the ACT), using their powers over commodity ‘marketing’, imposed moratoria on the commercial release of products of biotechnology (with the exception of the previously approved cotton and carnations). Most of the moratoria were reviewed in 2007, and the states of NSW and Victoria lifted their bans on commercial plantings of GE canola and the first commercial crops were grown in these two states in 2008. In November 2008, the Western Australian government lifted their moratoria to allow GE cotton to be grown in the Ord River area and in April 2009 they also announced that trials of GE canola would be allowed at 20 sites in that state. Moratoria remain in place in South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT.

Currently in Australia about 95 percent of the cotton planted is from biotech varieties, and there has been little controversy concerning its cultivation. Indeed, environmental benefits and the significant decline in pesticide and herbicide use for this crop have been widely reported. Biotech cottonseed does appear in the domestic market through the oil and meal, and this has not met with any major opposition.

PUBLIC/PRIVATE OPINIONS: In late 2012, the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science, Research and Tertiary Education commissioned research on community attitudes to biotechnology the results of which were published in March 2013. Previous surveys have been conducted every few years from 1999, to determine public attitudes towards biotechnology and biotechnology applications in Australia.

Key findings of the report were:

• Males, younger people and those who live in capital cities are more likely to support genetically modified (GM) foods.

• Australian concerns about GE foods are comparable to concerns about pesticides and preservatives in foods.

• People are more supportive of GE foods that have health outcomes or are cheaper, and find lasting longer or tasting better only of minor benefit.

• Support for GE foods and crops has remained fairly consistent over the past few years, with about 60 per cent of the population willing to eat most GE foods, and about 25% not willing. However this figure changes depending on the type of food being modified, whether there are benefits to the consumer and perception of effective regulation.

• There are differences in attitudes to GE foods by gender, age and attitude to science and technology, with males scoring an average of 5.2 on a ten point scale of support for various GE foods and females scoring 4.0; people under 30 consistently rated a full point higher than those over 30; and those with had a high support for science scored 6.6, while those who generally mistrusted science scored 4.0.

• The study also found that almost nine in ten Australians had heard of modifying genes in plants to produce food, and half felt the benefits of doing this outweighed the risks while one in six felt the risks outweighed the benefits.

• Just over half (52%) of the population were in favor of growing GE crops in their state and a third (32%) were opposed – but about six in ten of those opposed would change their mind if the crops could demonstrate positive outcomes for the environment, provide benefits to health or pass stringent regulations.

• Conversely, many of those who supported growing GE crops in their state would change their position if benefits were not proven or it diminished farmers’ competitiveness.

CHAPTER 2: ANIMAL BIOTECHNOLOGY

PART E: PRODUCTION AND TRADE

BIOTECHNOLOGY PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT: There is a small amount of work currently being conducted in Australia on genetically engineered agriculturally-relevant animals – mainly chicken & sheep. The work is being carried out by public and private research institutions and universities.

COMMERCIAL PRODUCTION: No GE or cloned animals are currently in commercial production in Australia.

PART F: POLICY

REGULATION: GE animals are considered ‘Notifiable Low Risk Dealings’ (NLRDs) by the OGTR – i.e. “dealings with GMOs that have been assessed as posing low risk to the health and safety of people and the environment provided certain risk management conditions are met.”