Biotechnology is the use of plants, animals and micro-organisms to create new products or processes. It includes using bacteria or enzymes to make industrial processes work more efficiently and create less pollution, or to clean up the environment.
One kind of biotechnology is gene technology, sometimes called 'genetic engineering' or 'genetic modification', where the genetic material of living things is deliberately altered to enhance or remove a particular trait and allow the organism to perform new functions. Genes within a species can be modified, or genes can be moved from one species to another. In Australia, for example, gene technology has been used to make cotton plants resistant to pests without the use of chemicals, and to make a blue carnation for the floral industry.
While genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, often have demonstrated environmental benefits, such as significant reductions in pesticide use, they may also present potential risks to the environment.
Role of the Department
To help protect the environment from such possible impacts, the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts:
- Advises the Environment Minister (under the Gene Technology Act 2000) on applications to release genetically modified organisms into the environment. In Australia, gene technology is regulated by the Gene Technology Regulator, who seeks advice from the Minister on her risk assessments and risk management plans before any release. Because not all GMOs have the same traits, they are assessed on a case-by-case basis to determine whether environmental risks can be appropriately managed, including looking at potential weediness, toxicity and gene transfer. Assessing risks from GMOs
- Assesses the environmental safety of biological products and GMOs regulated as agricultural and veterinary chemicals by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority.
- Carries out research to help identify and manage environmental risks from new and emerging genetically modified organisms, including monitoring overseas developments. Research projects
- Is a member of Biotechnology Australia, a multi-department Government agency responsible for coordinating biotechnology issues for the Australian Government. Biotechnology Australia implements the National Biotechnology Strategy. Under the Strategy, the Department undertakes research to improve our understanding of risks to the environment from GMOs and carries out work under the Strategy on access to biological and genetic resources.