NZ will fall behind unless archaic gene editing law is updated, scientists say

There's growing concern New Zealand will fall behind other countries unless the Government updates genetic modification laws.

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Gene editing is a type of genetic modification which is claimed to be able to help solve big environmental problems. Source: 1 NEWS

The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act hasn't been changed since 1998.

Plant and Food Research chief scientist Richard Newcomb is the latest to join the call for a public information campaign and discussion on gene editing, a technology that is more precise than previous genetic modification and doesn't require the insertion of foreign DNA.

"We are quite concerned that New Zealand might not be able to keep up with overseas endeavours in this area," he told 1 NEWS.

No genetically modified plants are grown outside the lab in New Zealand and any experiment has to be approved by the Environmental Protection Authority.

Plant and Food Research are using gene editing under strict conditions in an attempt to create fruit crops that can survive extreme weather.

"That will give us the ability to respond quickly to some of the challenges that are coming at us from climate change and also as our populations' grow," Mr Newcomb said.

Gene editing also has the potential to protect native trees and help the Government reach its carbon neutral and predator-free by 2050 targets, among other uses.

Overseas, countries are taking a mixed approach to gene editing. Several countries including the United States, Canada and Argentina have deregulated gene editing if the final organism doesn't include foreign DNA.

But last year, a European Union court ruling said gene-edited crops will face the same regulations as other genetically modified plants.

In April, Australia declared gene editing will not be regulated if used to only cut DNA in a specific area and if cells can repair without intervention.

Federated Farmers arable industry chairperson Karen Williams said an impartial commission should be created to lead a conversation on gene editing in New Zealand.

"Traditionally we've heard GM and GE and everyone's a bit fearful of what that actually means so we need to demystify that, bring it out into the open... so that we can embrace or at least investigate the types of technologies that could save New Zealand a lot of money," Ms Williams said.

In June last year, the Ministry for the Environment told the Government in a briefing current regulations are becoming 'quickly outdated' and are creating compliance issues.

"Leaving a public conversation too long eg 2-3 years away could mean that New Zealand risks missing opportunities, playing catch-up on the international stage..." the briefing stated.

Environment Minister David Parker said the public's cautious approach was the correct one, but acknowledged the development in technology since the law was created more than 20 years ago will need to be addressed by the Government.

"There's no urgency here... We're very careful not to ruin our brand reputation for being a GMO free country in agriculture and we should take care not to move off that position lightly."

Climate Change Minister James Shaw said he would be led by science and wanted to explore current tools that can be used but aren't being utilised.

The National Party, Act Party and New Zealand First all say the technology has the potential to help address some of the country's biggest environmental problems.

Act leader David Seymour said the law is 'overly-restrictive.'

"The current Government is taking a backward and superstitious approach to genetic technology that ironically undermines its climate and predator free goals," he said in a statement.

New Zealand First agriculture and primary industry spokesperson Mark Patterson said a debate should be held on gene editing as a country.

"The question then becomes what is the trade off against the perceived value of New Zealand's GE free brand in the eyes of our consumers?"

The Government is putting New Zealand at a disadvantage by not addressing the technology, National's science and innovation spokesperson Dr Parmjeet Parmar said in a statement.

"They've ignored strong advice from officials because it doesn't fit their ideology," she said.