Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

GM Approvals Score a Century

By Simon Grose

Almost 40 years after the genetic engineering revolution hit Australia, it is beginning to look like the establishment.

The chief steward of Australia’s gene jockeys, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR), has granted its 100th licence to release a genetically modified (GM) organism into the Australian landscape. The details show how things have changed and stayed the same in the GM stakes.

Old favourites at the starting gates were cotton, agrochemicals giant Monsanto, and the common soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, whose Bt gene in the leaves of plants gives Lepidoptera caterpillars fatal heartburn.

In the early days, inserting one Bt gene in a suitable place within the cotton genome was enough to win a start. But the 100th licence allows trials of strains with up to six introduced genes – three from B. thuringiensis to beat the bugs, and one each from three other soil-dwelling bacteria to bestow herbicide resistance.

In a back-to-the-future twist, the trial strains will be derived by conventional crossing of three GM cotton varieties, and will carry any of four combinations of the introduced genes.

The licence allows the four strains to be trialled in WA, NSW and Queensland over 6 years at up to ten 10-hectare sites each year in the first 2 years and up to twenty 30-hectare sites each year in the next 4 years. So it is not a simple “will it grow and yield” trial. It is a multi-strain, multi-site trial to identify which strain grows best where.

One thing that doesn’t change is the vehemence of GM opponents. The public submissions received as part of the application assessment were all negative. But there were only four of them. Perhaps the anti-GM movement is dwindling to a small band of cognitively unreconstructable deniers.

At least that’s the way it is for cotton. Twenty years ago a new GM cotton trial would have provoked demonstrations outside state parliaments. Now GM cotton accounts for 99% of Australia’s commercial crop.

The benefits are manifest. Cotton Australia estimates that GM technology has delivered an 80% reduction in insecticide use and subsequent increased populations of beneficial insects and wildlife.

Regulation of genetic engineering in Australia began in 1975 on a voluntary basis when the Academy of Science established a Committee on Recombinant DNA. In 1987 this role was assumed by the federal government’s Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee.

Over those 26 years before the OGTR’s mandatory regime took over, a total of 259 applications were lodged, so the intensity of our genetic science has increased markedly over the past decade.

As well as 100 licences to release a GM organism, the OGTR has granted more than 500 licences for secure GM experiments and trials in laboratories. With that level of activity in the training yards, expect the GM stakes to field more runners every year.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (