Getting up to speed with gene tech

Judith Collins. Photo: Getty Images
Judith Collins. Photo: Getty Images
Reporter Shawn McAvinue asks Science, Innovation and Technology Minister Judith Collins about her call for an overhaul of regulations on genetic modification.

Q. Why now?

The government is committed to safely updating New Zealand’s gene technology rules. New Zealand has outdated rules and gene technology is a key area of science that has potential to deliver enormous benefits for New Zealand.

For the past 25 years New Zealand has had a precautionary approach to gene technologies but the playing field has changed. New Zealand finds itself out of step with many countries, which is why the government is introducing regulation to change how we manage the risks of gene technology so that we can achieve its benefits.

Q. What do you believe will be some of the benefits of changing the regulations for agriculture?

Gene technologies are used in many areas, including medicine, horticulture, agriculture, food production and industrial manufacturing.

Gene technologies enable gene therapies to treat diseases; the development of plants tolerant to climate change, resistant to pest species; ... the production of useful enzymes and vaccines.

There are clear benefits from improving our ability to capitalise on gene technology in New Zealand.

For agriculture, it could mean giving the sector further tools to produce sustainable, climate-friendly food, lift productivity, improve animal welfare outcomes, and enable new technology to reduce climate impacts from production.

New Zealand has already created genetically modified grasses in labs which would have the potential to reduce our agricultural emissions, but the current rules mean that these crops and others like them face significant barriers to being field tested and grown in New Zealand.

For example, to help lower agricultural methane emissions, AgResearch is developing a range of applications for our pasture-based agricultural system. By using a gene taken from another species of clover, AgResearch’s innovative white clover technology can potentially deliver both reductions in methane and animal welfare benefits. This innovative solution in clover also faces significant barriers to being field trialled here under current legislation, so is being trialled in Australia.

Q. When do you think the government will make the changes to the regulations?

We are moving quickly to deliver on our commitment to better harness gene technology for the benefit of New Zealand.

Updating gene technology laws while ensuring strong protections for human health and the environment is something we campaigned on and committed to in the government’s coalition agreements.

Policy design has begun, and I look forward to introducing a Bill by the end of this year. Legislation for a new regulatory system for gene technology is expected by August 2025.

The public will have the chance to have their say through the select committee process.

Q. Do you have concerns of genetically-modified food from New Zealand losing export value as it can no longer be marketed as GM-free?

There are clear benefits from improving our ability to capitalise on gene technology in New Zealand and giving the primary sector the tools to produce sustainable, climate-friendly food for our key export markets and lift production.

New legislation will be introduced to allow for greater use of gene technology while ensuring strong protections for human health and the environment.

Producers will still be able to produce non-GM and organic foods for global markets as they do in countries that have changed their gene technology rules similar to what New Zealand is proposing to do.

Q. Do you think genetic modification could be used to control pests, such as possums?

Royal Society Te Apārangi has published a series of scenarios on how gene technology could be used in their report "Gene editing — reflections from the panel co-chairs".

The paper highlights three scenarios of using gene editing to create gene drives to control wasps, possums, ... rats and stoats.

Q. Scientists in New Zealand once cloned the same stag multiple times and the animals kept fighting because they were unable to establish a pecking order. Do you have any concerns about unforeseen consequences of genetic modification?

A key part of reviewing New Zealand’s gene technology rules will be ensuring any use of gene technology is conducted safely. Other regimes, such as the Animal Welfare Act, will also continue to apply.

Like Australia, a regulator will also be established to oversee risks arising from gene technologies and allow New Zealand to access the benefits of these technologies.

 

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