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General information about GM foods

People have been manipulating the genetic make-up of plants and animals for countless generations. This is referred to as traditional cross breeding and involves selecting plants and animals with the most desirable characteristics (e.g. disease resistance, high yield, good meat quality) for breeding the next generation.

Today's techniques use new ways of identifying particular characteristics and transferring them between living organisms. For example, it is now possible to make a copy of a particular gene from the cells of a plant, animal or microbe, and insert the copy into the cells of another organism to give a desired characteristic.

Foods derived from genetically modified organisms are called 'GM foods'. All of the GM foods approved so far are from GM plants, for example corn plants with a gene that makes them resistant to insect attack, or soybeans with a modified fatty acid content that makes the oil better suited for frying. Plants that use less water to grow have also been developed so they are more suitable for changing climatic conditions.

GM foods are regulated under Standard 1.5.2 - Food produced using Gene Technology, in the Food Standards Code. The standard has two provisions - mandatory pre-market approval (including a food safety assessment) and mandatory labelling requirements. This standard ensures that only assessed and approved GM foods enter the food supply. Approved GM foods are listed in Schedule 26 of the Food Standards Code. Anyone seeking to amend the Code to include a new GM food should refer to the Application Handbook.

Details on FSANZ's assessments of GM foods and current approvals can be found here.

Not every approved GM food enters the marketplace as food. Many GM crops approved for use as food, are grown for animal feed and some GM approved plants don't make it to market for a variety of reasons, for example, if they are not commercially viable or if they are used for production of hybrid seeds. 

In Australia, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) oversees the development and environmental release of GM organisms under the Gene Technology Act 2000. In New Zealand, similar functions are undertaken by the Environmental Protection Authority, under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act 1996.

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Page last updated 6 December 2023