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Australia - Agricultural Biotechnology, annual report

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Summary
Table of contents

Report highlights:

The federal government is very supportive of the technology, 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 GMOs, 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.

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 1 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 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 GM canola would be allowed. In early 2010, WA passed legislation allowing the commercial production of GM 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 GM 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 viable GMOs and food products containing genetically modified 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 GM canola are expected to continue to increase rapidly. Research is being conducted on other biotech crops, with field trials controlled by the OGTR being conducted on some, e.g. Indian mustard, wheat, sugarcane, white clover, grapevines, pineapple, papaya, canola and cotton (see Appendix II). Approval has already been granted for food products derived from biotech corn, cotton, soybean, sugar beet, potatoes, alfalfa and rice (see Appendix III).

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 food products derived from GMOs, 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.