Both countries have been actively pushing for progress to be made in the GM foods area under the purview of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) over the past few years.
FSANZ had proposed for new legislation covering all food derived using new breeding techniques (NBTs) to be processed this year despite predictions of fierce opposition. A milestone change to areas in the Food Standards Code governing GM foods had been anticipated to take place as a result of this, but progress has been severely derailed as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“A new proposal to amend the definitions in the Code [was] commenced [by FSANZ] in February 2020 to revise and update the definitions for ‘food produced using gene technology’ and ‘gene technology’ to make them clearer and to better reflect existing and emerging genetic technologies including new breeding techniques,” said FSANZ via its Food standards development Work Plan.
“However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, FSANZ has decided to postpone the first call for submissions for this proposal until later in the year.”
As of April 2020, the expected date of completion for all steps in the timetable for this new proposal except commencement have been labelled as ‘TBC’, although FSANZ still expects to complete assessment of the proposal and initiate a first call for public comment later in 2020.
That said, this has not slowed down the agency’s progress in looking at approvals for individual GM foods, highlighting its determination to push forward with this agenda.
According to FSANZ CEO Mark Booth, all GM foods are thoroughly assessed before hitting the market.
“Before any GM food can be sold as a food in Australia and New Zealand, it must undergo a comprehensive pre-market safety assessment,” he said.
“The safety assessment looks at a range of factors, including any allergy risks or other unintended changes as a result of the genetic modification to ensure it is safe.
“When assessing any applications to approve a new food or ingredients, our number one priority is making sure it's safe and doesn't pose a risk to the health of Australian and New Zealand consumers.”
Under current FSANZ guidelines, all GM food products with novel DNA or protein present in the final food need to carry a 'genetically modified' label if approved.
There are 10 types of GM foods, comprising over 100 specific variants, that have currently been approved for use in Australia and New Zealand: Soybean, potato, wheat, rice, canola, sugarbeet, lucerne, safflower, corn and cotton.
GM modifications have included pest resistance, herbicide resistance, functional nutrient improvements (e.g. high in DHA, lysine) and more.
Specific GM foods under assessment
The latest food that has been submitted for consideration is a GM soybean dubbed GMB151, designed to show natural protection against parasitic nematodes and tolerance for certain herbicides.
GMB151 was submitted for approval by BASF Australia, which is looking to derive soybean oil and soybean meal from it to be used in a range of food products including soy flour, vegetable oils, margarine, salad dressings, cereals, bakery products and plant-based dairy and meat products.
“Our safety assessment found there are no public health or safety risks from the GM soybean and that it is as safe as food derived from conventional soybeans,” said Booth.
Another recent applicant was a new GM corn line dubbed MON87429 and was submitted by Monsanto Australia. This has been modified to be resistant to a number of herbicides, including tissue-specific herbicide tolerance to glyphosate – the primary ingredient in Monsanto’s star weedkiller Roundup.
Monsanto has been involved in multiple lawsuits involving glyphosate in the past, including in Australia, with hundreds of cancer patients in the country accusing glyphosate in Roundup of having caused their cancer.
Booth highlighted that this GM corn is ‘as safe as traditional non-GM corn’ and that it was intended for use in food products such as as starch, grits, meal, flour, oil and sweeteners – but no specific mentions were made regarding how the GM corn’s new tolerance would affect glyphosate levels, nor were any cancer-related concerns directly addressed.
Public comments will be accepted for the GM soybean until 9 June 2020, and for the GM corn until 21 May 2020.