Gene technology groups welcomes National pledge to end ban on GE and GM

A National government will end New Zealand’s ban on gene editing and genetic modification to unlock enormous benefits for climate change, agriculture and health science, the party’s Science, Innovation, and Technology spokesperson Judith Collins says.

New Zealand could be a world leader in reducing agricultural emissions and benefit from other innovations in health, nutrition and the environment with fit-for-purpose gene technology rules, she says.

“Gene technology is being used around the world to treat cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and blood disorders. It is also being used to combat climate change and protect the natural environment.”

National’s Harnessing Biotech Plan will:

  • End the effective ban on gene editing (GE) and genetic modification (GM) in New Zealand.
  • Create a dedicated regulator to ensure safe and ethical use of biotechnology.
  • Streamline approvals for trials and use of non-GE/GM biotech in line with other OECD countries.

GM and GE technology has been used in New Zealand laboratories since the 1970s, but restrictive rules, drafted in the 1990s, make research outside the lab all but impossible. New Zealand scientists must go overseas to conduct further research.

Ms Collins said a National Government will introduce a biotechnology regulator to make evidence-based decisions following public feedback.

The regulator’s role will be to protect human health and the natural environment and manage ethical concerns while allowing New Zealanders to access the benefits of advanced biotechnology. Human embryonic GE or GM would not be authorised.

New Zealand has already created genetically modified grasses in labs which would significantly reduce our agricultural emissions, Ms Collins said.

But restrictive, outdated rules mean no GE crops can be grown in New Zealand.

GE crops could also be used to resist pests without the use of pesticides, keeping waterways clean.

And GE has the potential to deliver vast benefits for human health. Ms Collins said a 13-year-old in London was recently cured of cancer using GE.

“New Zealand is at risk of being left behind with Australia and most of the European Union having safely embraced gene technology. A National government will enable New Zealand to responsibly open access to the benefits of gene technology.”

AgriTechNZ chief executive Brendan O’Connell says he cautiously welcomed the policy announcement.

“We need to empower our farmers and growers with the right agritech solutions for climate adaptation, whilst ensuring that produce meets the values and quality expected of New Zealand,” he said.

The work required to create a robust regulatory environment would need to engage with scientists, innovators, food producers and tangata whenua.

“By enabling genetic engineering in a way that respects people, place and planet, New Zealand can demonstrate true leadership in how we tackle the pressing challenges of our time.”

 BiotechNZ executive director Dr Zahra Champion says the potential overturning of the ban on genetic modification in New Zealand is “very exciting”.

Dr Champion says the application of modern biotechnology research can add value to the products and processes to many of New Zealand industries, including agriculture, forestry, marine, environmental and pest management, as well as human and animal healthcare.

“Biotech in the hands of our innovators will enable us to address these challenges from reducing greenhouse gas emissions, developing sustainable agricultural practices and creating new life saving medicines.

“With our world-class expertise and exceptional strengths in key industries (such as agriculture, horticulture, renewables, and healthcare), we have a unique opportunity to leverage biotech innovations to drive growth and create a more prosperous future.

“We know the biotech sector delivers high-value jobs, and those jobs will aid in the development of new products and services. We are seeing this in the area of immunotherapy and vaccine production and clinical trials, which we have a vibrant and growing community that is already taking on the world and attracting international funding and talent.”

ACT candidate and scientist Dr Parmjeet Parmar said ACT has previously called for changes to the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act to allow sectors like agriculture to access game-changing technology.

For example, AgResearch has been undertaking continued research into High Metabolisable Energy ryegrass overseas.

This has the potential to reduce livestock methane emissions by around 23 per cent, and ensure less nitrogen is excreted into the environment by livestock feeding on this ryegrass.

But the Soil & Health Association says New Zealand doesn’t need a loosening of GE regulation to combat climate change; rather, it needs significant investment in organic, regenerative agriculture.

It notes that Parliament recently passed the Organic Products and Production Act, with cross-party support. This should be a springboard to revolutionise our farming and exports, says Soil & Health chair Jenny Lux, but making it easier to release GMOs into the environment will jeopardise that.

“By being GE-free, we’re far from ‘missing out.’ Being GE-free gives us a point of difference in the world market,” Jenny Lux says.

“We already have an advantage in being an island nation in the South Pacific, and need to be really careful about any uncontrolled releases of GMOs into the outdoors. Our products are attractive to overseas buyers because they’re seen as clean, safe, natural and uncontaminated. Once we release GMOs there’s no containing them. We need to continue to safeguard our environment and our brand.”

GE has not yet lived up to the hope or the hype, she contends. The $25 million dollar New Zealand GE ryegrass trials have not yet yielded more dry matter than traditionally bred rye grasses. These would be grown in monocultures, or with only one or two other species, which is not good for long term soil health.

Soil & Health urges all NZ political parties not to loosen regulations on GE in NZ, and instead to direct attention and funding towards expanding organic farming here.

Australia modernised its laws in October 2019.


Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog