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New Zealand's gene editing laws need an overhaul, country's top scientific body says

New Zealand's gene editing regulations need an overhaul and there is an urgent need for discussion and debate, an expert panel set by the Royal Society Te Apārangi  (New Zealand's top scientific body) has found. 

In response to the Royal Society's report, the Government is now considering the impacts of lowering the regulatory hurdles for gene editing. 

On TVNZ1's Q+A last night, Professor Peter Dearden, who was on the panel, described gene editing as "really simple technology". 

Molecule of DNA forming inside the test tube equipment.3d rendering,conceptual image.
File picture. Source: 1 NEWS

"All you're doing is cutting a piece of DNA. Once a piece of DNA is opened up, we can do all kinds of things."

"We haven't been in the position where gene editing has been released into the environment. It is possible to do that, but the road to do that in New Zealand is very long, very hard and very expensive."

The panel looked at the implications of gene editing in areas of health care, pest control and in primary industries, with views given for and against the use of in each area. 

When asked by host Jack Tame if the technology could be used in attempts to tackle climate change, Professor Dearden said it could "certainly be part of the solution". 

"Increasing the efficiency of our farming is going to be vital for our farming industry to remain competitive in the future, I think the same with pest control.

"We can't go on just spreading toxins throughout the landscape. Maybe in certain places and in certain ways, a genetic approach might be a better one."

The panel found a number of issues if the gene editing legal framework was to be updated, including compromising New Zealand's genetic modification-free brand.

"We're in a world where we're going to have to make some trade-offs between we're keeping a clean, green image and having technology which allows us to actually walk that walk and mitigate environmental damage," Professor Dearden said.

"If we're actually developing genetically modified organisms which may improve our carbon dioxide release for example, that may improve the quality of our waterways, should we not look at those as a way to mitigate the environmental effects of the current farming practices we have?"

Environment Minister David Parker said in a statement the provisions around gene editing were last changed in 2003, with the Government taking a cautious approach. 

"Although New Zealand takes a precautionary approach, advancements in gene editing are not prohibited. I have asked officials to advise me of where lower regulatory hurdles ought to be considered to enable medical uses that would result in no inheritable traits, or laboratory tests where any risk is mitigated by containment.

"The recommendation to clarify conflicting or inconsistent definitions across the regulatory framework will also be considered," Mr Parker said.

In March on Q+A, Climate Change Minister James Shaw would not rule out the use of genetic modification - however, he said it should be a question for the public and he would be led by the science around the issue. 

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James Shaw was asked on TVNZ1’s Q+A if he would be open to using it, if it were to help with lowering carbon emissions. Source: Q+A

"I'd have to see how it goes..." Mr Shaw said. "I want to see what the science says about that and what the science ethics committee say about that. I would be led by the science on that."

Last year, Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage told Parliament millions of dollars had been used to explore alternatives to 1080 poison for pest control.

National's Sarah Dowie asked why Ms Sage instructed Predator Free New Zealand to stop looking at genetic engineering.

"There is a lot of research under way into traditional tools like trapping, better use of 1080, and alternative vertebrate toxins and because we have not had the public consultation and the development of a public mandate for genetic engineering," Ms Sage said. 

Q+A is on TVNZ1 on Mondays at 9.30pm, and the episode is then available on TVNZ OnDemand and as a podcast in all the usual places.

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The Royal Society Te Aparangi says new genetic technologies could be New Zealand’s future. Source: Q+A