Is it time to have a national conversation about genetic engineering?

We’re proud to be Nuclear Free. We want to be Predator Free. But what about GE Free? Is it time to have a national conversation about genetic engineering?

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Sean Simpson is the scientist behind the company LanzaTech. Source: Sunday

As I sit opposite Dr Sean Simpson in his company’s high-tech Chicago HQ, I can’t help but notice his T-Shirt.

Firstly, because it’s bright yellow. Secondly because he’s worn it before – he tells me he owns three, all in various stages of fading. The message on the front however couldn’t be clearer – ‘Science Doesn’t Care What You Believe’.

Simpson is a man on a mission to reduce the world’s carbon footprint – a mission that began in New Zealand.

It was a very basic set up when he started his company LanzaTech with the late Dr Richard Forster in an Auckland basement back in 2005.

“Our first experiments were done with a rotisserie unit bought from The BBQ Warehouse and two defunct refrigeration units from the local dairy,” he laughs.

Both scientists, Simpson and Forster set out to make a clean burning fuel, ethanol from waste products i.e. pollution and rubbish. They succeeded - the company is now valued at over $1 billion.

It’s understandable then that when LanzaTech announced in 2014 it was relocating its head office from Auckland to Chicago there was a sense that New Zealand had missed a major opportunity to retain this innovative and world-leading company.

Simpson acknowledges that “New Zealand is a fantastic place in which to start a business,” but one of the key reasons for their move was our stance on genetic engineering.

LanzaTech’s process uses microbes that secrete ethanol when they are fed waste gases but by genetically modifying the bugs, they can produce a range of other chemicals i.e. not just ethanol. Those chemicals can be used to make things we need every day without contributing to our carbon footprint, “and you can't scale that technology in New Zealand”.

The government's interim climate change committee has pointed to that stance (which predominantly confines GE to the lab), as a possible barrier to lowering our carbon emissions.

GE also has potential applications in pest control – remember we’re aiming to be predator free by 2050. However, for now, the rules aren’t likely to change.

Professor Peter Dearden, the Director of Genomics Aotearoa from the University of Otago says pest control, agriculture and medicine are key areas where Kiwis could benefit from GE technology but that our regulations have had a chilling effect on research as much of it depends on whether companies can take their technology to market.

The result of which is that “we’re not doing critical work we need to do in the laboratory because the chances of it being used are so small".

Dearden believes our position will only change if the issue is personalised “the best approach is for us to look at NZ solutions to NZ problems, things like Kauri dieback, invasive wasps. The key thing is making it about people, if you or I see a personal benefit then we’re much more likely to see it differently".

Ultimately, he says it’s about weighing up the risks and benefits so the public can decide.

The Minister for the Environment, David Parker, was advised on the matter late last year by officials. His office confirmed on Friday that he is still considering it as “it is not a straightforward issue”.

Even though our GE rules were a factor in LanzaTech heading off-shore, Bruce Jarvis of the government’s business support agency, Callaghan Innovation, says it wasn’t the only reason as “for NZ companies to be successful they have to be close to their market”.

In the US most petrol is blended with up to 10 per cent ethanol – so there’s an enormous opportunity for ethanol producers there.

Jarvis says even though it can be a blow to the Kiwi psyche when a company leaves (especially when it’s received government start-up funding), there isn’t enough focus on their legacy and ongoing benefits to NZ.

He says often what’s left behind are highly skilled people who start their own companies and share what they’ve learned in terms of commercialisation and “that’s gold for us.”  

“It’s part of the cycle, these people are entrepreneurs, they get bored quickly, this is what they love doing, they love building successful tech companies.”

It’s an ambition Sean Simpson shares, he’s determined to come back to New Zealand for good one day to reinvest his time and talent in other tech start-ups.

In the meantime, although the sentiment behind Sean’s favourite T-shirt will never change, it could be a lot more faded before there’s a significant change to our GE rules.

For the full story on Sean Simpson’s incredible journey with LanzaTech, watch SUNDAY above.