Updates + Overviews

The top priorities for Australian agriculture and governments must be feeding, housing and clothing all Australians well, now and into the future. Genetically Manipulated (GM) crops and foods make a miniscule contribution to meeting these basic needs.

The CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing methods invented in 2012 can now be used to genetically manipulate any living thing – humans, animals, plants or microbes. Or they may be created from scratch with synthetic biology processes. GM critics are concerned about a broad range of GM research and commercial applications e.g. Heritable Human Genome Editing (HHGE); synthetic biology; gene drives; gain of function R&D; and much more.

GeneEthics has advocated, campaigned and educated for GM-free futures since 1988. It is a not-for-profit charity registered with the ACNC (Australian Charities and Not for Profit Commission). Donors, members and supporters now number around 16,000.


Commercial GM cotton, canola and safflower are the three broadacre GM crops that the OGTR (Office of Gene Technology Regulator) has licensed. However, they were grown on just 0.08% of all Australia’s land area and on 2.1% of all croplands (614,446 ha), in 2019. Australia is 13th among the 29 countries growing some GM crops.

Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and Kangaroo Island remain officially GM-free and earn good premiums for their GM-free canola, honey, wines and other beverages.

GM herbicide tolerant and insect resistant cotton goes mostly into fibre and animal feed; herbicide tolerant canola is mainly for biofuels and animal feed; and GM safflower which produces high oleic acid oil fuels the plastic, lubricant and cosmetic production.

Australia had 356,450 km² of certified organic and biodynamic land in 2018, the largest area of any country world-wide - more than 50 times the 6,144 km² under GM production in 2019. Organics are also the fastest growing segment of food production, distribution and consumption. Many more farmers are adopting regenerative agriculture systems to help save their farms from terminal degradation, to adapt to climate change, and many to also reap the benefits of organic certification which offers them premium markets.


FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand) also approved the oil from the three GM crops for human consumption. The food regulator favours the international processed food industry with routine approvals for ultra-processed and high-tech food ingredients. Many additives and processing aids are made using GM fermentation in factory vats similar to those used for brewing beer. GM wheat imported from Brazil was approved over the objections of several milling and baking companies which will not use GM flour. Heme, to make Impossible fake animal flesh ‘bleed’ and taste like meat, is also permitted. It is below the 1% threshold for labelling GM food processing aids and additives.

Discerning shoppers avoid GM food ingredients where they are labeled. A large and increasing number of processed food products sold in Australia and NZ are now labelled GM-free, non-GM, or free from genetically-altered products. Many are also certified organic as the organic food rules prohibit the use of GM, irradiation, synthetic chemicals, hormones and antibiotics in production.

The GM-free True Food Guide, an online shopping list of processed foods labeled as non-GM or GM-free, is a project of the GM-free Australia Alliance. It will assist informed shoppers to avoid buying unlabeled GM food ingredients, including refined vegetable oils, starches and sugars, processing aids, additives, colours, flavours and the meat, milk and eggs from animals fed GM feed.

FSANZ also plans to deregulate GM foods made using the new CRISPR gene-editing methods that they call New Breeding Techniques (NBTs). To deregulate these new GM foods, they propose to redefine the terms 'gene technology' and 'foods produced using gene technology' in the law, to not include the new CRISPR production processes.


In 2019 the OGTR deregulated SDN1 methods of gene editing, claiming the animals, plants and microbes created would be similar to those conventionally bred and as safe. Some Australian researchers choose this method to avoid regulation and public scrutiny. If any SDN1 gene edited organisms have been released so far, we do not know. SDN2 and SDN3 methods include gene manipulation or foreign DNA insertion so remain regulated.


Gene Drives

Adelaide University’s gene drive research seeks methods for rodent biocontrol on off-shore islands. Gene drive DNA constructs aim to force destructive genes through a target population, to disrupt the reproduction or survival of invasive animals and to crash their numbers. But gene drives can escape from release sites into national, regional or global ecosystems where the target animals are native and are key to ecological stability. DARPA (US military) is the largest gene drive research funder globally, including this project.


The Tasmanian tiger was hunted to extinction and the last animal died in captivity, in 1936. A Melbourne University team wants to de-extinct the species from stored tissue samples that still contain viable DNA. US venture capital company Colossal Biotech chipped in $10 million and backs de-extinction projects to bring back the wooly mammoth, passenger pigeons, dodos, and other animals. Investors see profit in recreating a few resurrected specimens to show in zoos.

Bringing back identical replicas of extinct species is now impossible and is likely to remain so. But gene editing may someday enable some of the traits of extinct species to be recovered. Reestablishing extinct animals in natural environments is unlikely - viable DNA is scarce; genetic uniformity may rule out creating a viable population of animals; their natural habitats are greatly modified or are gone; and closely-related surrogate animals would be required to carry the embryos to term. Many people argue that the scarce research resources spent on de-extinction should be used to rescue the many species that are now in danger of extinction.

Gain of Function Research

Australia’s Prime Minister asked the World Health Organisation in April 2020 to explore if SARS-CoV-2 and Covid 19 originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Many other countries agreed, fearing a biosecurity breach from gain of function (GoF) experiments. GoF may increase the virulence and transmissibility of pathogens, creating extreme biosecurity risks inside and outside high-security lab facilities. As a result, the Chinese government imposed trade sanctions and tariffs on some Australian exports.

Australia’s own GoF research was reviewed in an NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) report in March 2022 and it found: “the Australian Government has funded or conducted 17 research projects that were identified in this review as gain-of-function research that could increase the harmfulness of an infectious agent to humans,” including 13 virological and 4 bacteriological studies. It said “there were no reported incidents involving infectious agents or GMOs.” GeneEthics joined the call for GoF research projects to be banned globally as many experts say the benefits are marginal and the risks extremely high. GoF research may also include biological warfare agents that the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (1972) bans. Australia has ratified this Treaty.

GM research as foreign aid

GM bananas created at QUT with Gates Foundation funding use germplasm from indigenous Pacific banana cultivars and traditional knowledge, taken without permission. Biofortified with vitamin A, the bananas are earmarked for Uganda and India where many people on the basic diet suffer a host of micro-nutrient deficiencies that will not be solved with Vit A alone. Cowpeas are subject to some CSIRO GM research to resist pod-borers and RIPE (Realising Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency) that aims to enable the plants to turn the sun’s energy into food more efficiently. A much better answer to hunger and malnutrition would be biodiverse local diets to augment the low nutrient staples on which most people depend. But people cannot afford them when food exports are driving prices.

Synthetic Biology

The Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform which recodes life using DNA for industrial uses is a project of Australia’s lead research organization CSIRO. They envisage creating lego-like biological components that can be assembled to serve many functions. CSIRO’s Synthetic Biology Roadmap hypes commercial and economic opportunities and speculates that by 2040 new SynBio industries may generate $27 billion with insulin, mRNA vaccines, cancer treatments, therapeutic proteins, cellular immunotherapies, and bioplastics.


The Mitochondrial Law Reform Bill passed the Australian parliament in March 2022. We joined Britain as the only two countries that officially allow Heritable Human Genome Editing. With $15 million funding for clinical experiments, Monash IVF seeks genetic manipulation methods for women suffering Mito disease to have their own genetically-related children. No treatments or cures for Mito disease are envisaged. A donor egg would have its nucleus removed, retaining the donated mitochondria in the ’white’ of the donated egg cell. A nucleus from the Mito-mother’s egg cell would then be inserted into the enucleated donor egg and fertilised to begin gestation. Evidence confirms that at least some of the children born using this procedure will also suffer often-fatal Mito disease. This infringes their human rights and intergenerational equity, especially as the new law excuses all those who should be accountable for such dire impacts and makes no special provision to provide health care for them. One proponent suggests using unclaimed eggs or embryos from storage, without permission, to solve a likely shortage of donor eggs.

Human genome editing (HGE) is the topic of a Global Assembly in Athens, of 100 citizens from around the world, that a team of Australian academics propose. A three-part TV documentary series on the Assembly and Citizens Juries in various countries, drives the promotional agenda. They would promote the meeting’s recommendations to the UN and WHO, seeking to influence global HGE policy. Yet over 70 communities and governments globally that already considered Heritable HGE (where children and their descendants inherit the altered traits) and passed various laws and treaties to ban the heritable uses of GM techniques in humans.

With CRISPR gene editing now in its toolkit, HHGE opens the way for a modern version of eugenics - to implement the sordid eugenic policies that many countries used over the past 150 years to eliminate various groups of people who are scapegoated as undesirable – e.g. disabled, LGBTQI and ethnic groups. Some Australian academics suggest that “Rather than being merely ‘morally permissible’, many instances of genome editing will be moral imperatives” and “will be morally ‘required’ in some instances.” That is very much like eugenic compulsion that must be denounced.

Biohackers are enthusiastic amateurs who genetically engineer a variety of organisms. Biohackers and the GM kits that can be bought very cheaply online and are used in many schools, remain unregulated despite our protests. The OGTR claims to have a watching brief on these activities and to be comfortable with their operations.

GeneEthics’ Freedom of Information requests access the data for commercial GM seed sales and experimental seed plantings, posted on the OGTR website. Patents and contracts of sale prohibit GM seed saving for planting next season so the corporate reports are probably accurate.

(Updated by GeneEthics 2023 May 3)