Assessing risks from GMOs

Gene Technology Act 2000

In Australia, gene technology is regulated by the Gene Technology Regulator, within the Health portfolio, under the Gene Technology Act 2000.

Under this legislation, any 'intentional release' of a GMO into the environment requires a licence. Before issuing a licence, the Regulator must prepare a risk assessment and risk management plan, and seek advice on it from the Environment Minister. Written public submissions are also invited by the Regulator.

The Department assesses the environmental risks of GMOs and advises the Environment Minister.

Assessing whether a GMO will be safe for the environment

Gene technology enables the transfer of genes between species much faster and beyond the range that would occur naturally, or that which would be possible using conventional plant and animal breeding. Unlike synthetic chemicals, most GMOs can reproduce, multiply and spread in the environment after they are released. The genetic modification could give GM plants, animals or microorganisms an advantage that would allow them to increase in numbers and spread in the environment. Australia has a unique environment, and the impacts of GMOs will not necessarily be the same here as in other countries.

The environmental risks from GMOs will vary, depending on the characteristics of, and the interactions between, the organism, the trait introduced through the gene, and the environment. For this reason, risk assessments need to be conducted on a case-by-case basis.

The novelty of GMOs, the fact that like all plants they will continue to reproduce after release, the complexity of natural environments and ecosystem processes, and the unknown evolutionary fate of inserted genes, all need to be considered in predicting environmental impacts.

Risks of GMOs are assessed by considering the following factors:

  • is the introduced gene unrelated to the species being modified, or is it an extra copy or some modification of the organism's own genetic material?
  • does the new or modified trait allow the organism into which it has been introduced (the 'host species') to become toxic or cause disease?
  • will the new or modified trait increase the environmental 'fitness' of the host species?
  • is the host species exotic or native to Australia, and does it have pest, weed, or native relatives?
  • could the new gene transfer to any other species, either to non-GM individuals of the same species, to closely related species through natural reproductive processes, or to distantly related species through possible (but rare or unlikely) processes or accidents?
  • how much of and where will the GMO be released and how will it be managed and monitored?
  • will the GMO persist beyond intended areas and what will be the environmental fate of any new substances produced by the GMO?

Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

In addition, the Department administers the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. It regulates actions that are likely to have a significant impact on matters of national environmental significance, and also actions on Australian Government land or actions by the Australian Government that are likely to have a significant impact on the environment. The act applies to dealings with genetically modified organisms if they are likely to have such an impact.