University of Canberra scientists failed to comply with genetic engineering safety protocols while researching a mosquito-borne virus linked to brain damage.
It is one of dozens of compliance incidents involving genetically modified viruses, bacteria and crops that have occurred across Australia since 2011.
Fairfax Mediacan reveal 32 separate incidents of non-compliance committed by universities, government laboratories and large agricultural companies, including:
The risks associated with all 32 incidents reported have been assessed as “negligible” by the federal Office of the Gene Technology Regulator.
Many were minor incidents caused by administrative oversights.
The incidents have been described in reports published by the regulator as well as documents obtained by Fairfax Media under Freedom of Information laws.
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In 2015 the University of Canberra contravened GMO licence conditions during an experiment with the Murray Valley encephalitis virus, a mosquito-borne virus that can cause brain damage.
Scientists were attempting to create a new vaccine by engineering the virus with two genes from the virus that causes Dengue fever.
“At the time of the inspection the University of Canberra notified inspectors that dealings with GMOs had been undertaken in a facility that had not been authorised by the licence,” a government inspection report read.
“The University of Canberra did not obtain signed statements from all persons, prior to their commencing dealings, indicating that they understood and agreed to be bound by licence conditions.”
A spokeswoman for the university said the breach had been an “administrative oversight” that had been quickly corrected.
“Due to storage space issues in the licensed lab, some GMO material was stored in another certified lab which was appropriate for the material but not under the licence.
“The GMO material was only stored in this certified lab and no research on it was conducted in that location.”
Last year agricultural giant Bayer Crop Science was moving planting equipment from a trial site in country NSW when a small batch of GM cotton seeds were spilled.
A report of the incident showed the seeds could have been spilled over a 29 kilometre patch of road in Moree, including the busy Newell Highway.
The seeds had been modified with genes linked to insect or herbicide resistance, although the regulator concluded it was “unlikely” any plants would have grown.
A spokesman for Bayer said the government had been alerted to the incident straight away and all possible risks had been addressed.
“Bayer worked proactively with the OGTR to ensure the risks, however negligible, were addressed and remedied, including monitoring for any [plants] that might come up subsequently.”
The Nuseed agri-tech company was involved in an incident in 2016, in which sheep were mistakenly allowed to graze in a paddock containing GM canola in Colac Otway, Victoria.
“Nuseed self-reported the unintentional grazing of sheep on this site,” an inspection report found.
“A small number of sheep were able to access the planting area due to an unplanned drop in water levels in a dam which had previously acted as a natural barrier.”
Regulators concluded the incident posed a “negligible” risk to the environment.
Nuseed declined to comment when approached by Fairfax.
In 2016 there was a non-compliance incident at the University of South Australia in which material was taken out of a facility without labelling to indicate it contained GM material.
“Persons conducting dealings with the GMO who are not fully trained in licence conditions are at risk if exposed to the GM organism,” a government report concluded.
“There is no evidence, however, to suggest this issue has resulted in any harm to human health and safety at this stage.”
Simon Terry is a former investment banker now running New Zealand’s Sustainability Council advocacy group.
Mr Terry said the risks of genetically modified material entering the environment were more likely to be economic, rather than linked to health or safety.
“Food markets in wealthier countries are very sensitive to GMO content,” he said.
“Markets for premium foods simply reject products that contain any detectable level of GMO contamination and whole countries, such as France, operate this way.
“Food producers are especially at risk from GMO varieties that have not been legally approved in the country the exports are going to.
“It is common for countries to test for GMOs at the border and if a GMO that has not been approved is discovered, the entire shipment is rejected.”
Australia is currently undertaking a “technical review” of its federal gene technology regulations, with a view to ensuring they reflect technological and scientific advancements.
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator said none of the 32 incidents of non-compliance reported since 2011 represented a failure of the current regime.
“Australia’s regulatory system is considered world leading with a science and risk based approach that is timely and predictable, providing a clear regulatory pathway for the industry to follow,” she said.
“The OGTR continues to work closely with our major trading partners to ensure its regulatory practices remain current and relevant and reflects international practice in relation to the regulation of GMOs.”
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