Researchers welcome EPA ruling that ‘null segregants’ aren’t GMOs 

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has clarified that certain organisms, known as null segregants, are not considered genetically modified organisms under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996, which restricts the use of GMOs in New Zealand.

Null segregants are the offspring of genetically modified organisms, but do not contain any genetic difications themselves. This can occur when one parent has the genetic modification and the other parent does not.

The clarification has been made in response to an application led by AgResearch and supported by 14 other research or industry organisations.

EPA General Manager Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Dr Chris Hill says the decision provides certainty for researchers in New Zealand’s primary industries and brings this country into line with other countries in the OECD, such as Australia and the United States. This should help New Zealand scientists keep pace with international research.

“Our experts make independent, evidence-based decisions that take into account the latest research and international best practice,” says Dr Hill.

Just as a brown-eyed parent may have a blue-eyed child who did not inherit the gene for brown eyes, plants, animals or other organisms that are descended from genetically modified organisms may not inherit their parents’ genetic modifications. This means the descendants do not contain any genetic modifications.

One possible use of null segregants is for accelerated breeding in horticulture. This is done by using a genetic modification that makes plants produce fruit much sooner than would normally occur. This in turn allows desirable traits, such as resistance to a particular disease, to be developed much faster using traditional, non-GM selective breeding techniques. Null segregant offspring can then be created by breeding out the genetic modification.

“This would vastly reduce the amount of time to bring a new variety to market,” says Dr Hill.

The introduction of any specific null segregant into the environment will be verified case by case by the Ministry for Primary Industries.

This does not change the regulations for food that contains genetically modified organisms or ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms. These come under the Food Standards Code, overseen by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).

Researchers have welcomed the clarification.

Until now, null segregant organisms have been treated by researchers and industry as if they are genetically modified, which had limited use in research.

The EPA says the introduction of any specific null segregant into the environment will still be verified case by case by the Ministry for Primary Industries.

“This clarification does not change the way we treat genetically modified organisms used in research in New Zealand, but what it does do is give us clarity on the use of organisms that we saw as being a grey area within the regulations,” says AgResearch science team leader Richard Scott.

“We had a clear view as researchers that these null segregants were not GMOs, but now we have certainty from the EPA to support this.

“The way is now cleared for researchers to consider the opportunities to use null segregants to deliver additional research and benefits to New Zealand’s productive industries and in areas such as health, nutrition, and wellbeing.”

Opportunities may include enhanced or speed breeding of productive plant species in New Zealand, and use of null segregants in conventional breeding programmes to develop new varieties of NZ-adapted ryegrass for example.

Plant & Food Research was one of 14 supporting applicants across research and industry sectors seeking this clarification, and its chief scientist Richard Newcomb agrees that it provides new avenues for research for New Zealand’s food and fibre sectors.

“Breeding new varieties can take more than a decade and every research tool we can utilise allows us to make more efficient advancements towards addressing fast-moving global threats to food production, such as climate change and biosecurity.”

Sources:  Environmental Protection Authority and AgResearch

Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog