By Nona Pelletier
Senior Business Reporter – RNZ
It is time for a full regulatory review of genetically modified organisms and technologies (GM), according to a groundbreaking report by the Productivity Commission.
“The current regulation of GM does not reflect technological advances,” the report said, adding there had been no review of GM covered by the 1996 Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act since 2001.
The report titled, New Zealand firms: Reaching for the frontier, said it was good practice to regularly review regulatory regimes, to ensure they remained fit for purpose, accommodated new technologies and did not stifle innovation.
The Climate Change Commission made a similar recommendation in its recent draft advice to government regarding GM.
Government open to ‘informed conversations’
In its response to the report, the government referred to the perceived value of New Zealand’s GM-free brand.
“Government has long considered that the New Zealand brand and value is best met by maintaining a ‘proceed with caution’ approach,” the government said in its response to the recommendation for a review.
“However, we consider it timely to start informed conversations around New Zealand’s use of GM technologies.”
BioTechNZ executive director Zahra Champion said it was time for action, not more ‘informed conversations’ that had already been going on for well over a decade.
“It is actually now time for some action and it’s time where we start looking at those regulations and saying, we want to use new technologies,” Champion said, adding New Zealand already had GM products available in the market, such as the plant-based Impossible Burger.
Changing the brand story
The Productivity Commission’s report acknowledges the public resistance to any change to the current settings. However, science had evolved in the years since the GM regulations were put in place.
“We have a wonderful story and I don’t believe that using new technologies is going to harm our brand,” Champion said.
“So our brand story … can be around sustainability, how we are farming, more sustainability, how we farming within the new climate that we are faced with, so you know the brand is really important but it’s how we tell that story.”
The commission’s report said there have been tremendous advances in GM since the legislation was put in place.
“Modern gene-editing techniques enable changes to be made in vivo (directly inside an organism) – a technique that was not envisaged at the time the current regulations were made,” it said.
“(GM) offers new opportunities for boosting productivity, solving biosecurity risks, and responding to climate change risks and other environmental problems effectively and efficiently.”
Technology sector’s calls answered
The technology sector had been calling for such a review over the past two decades, but had made no headway, despite significant global advances in gene editing technologies applied to agricultural, horticultural, food production and health sciences.
“They said that the current regulatory approach is stifling the primary sector’s ability to innovate and seize significant opportunities, as well as its ability to protect existing markets,” the report said, adding the concerns were also shared by health researchers.
“Restricted access to GM tools also inhibits the sector’s ability to prepare for potential risks, such as biosecurity threats.”
Removing constraints to innovation
Among the commission’s key recommendations in the 250-page report was a comprehensive section setting out the case for reducing constraints to innovation in the primary sector.
“Gene-editing technologies can be used to improve plant traits such as drought tolerance, disease resistance, fruit ripening, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in grazed animals; and animal traits such as increased meat yield and disease resistance,” it said.
Products derived from gene editing cover a broad range of conventional and unconventional products, which included products from forest products, products for animal consumption and products for human consumption, such as milk produced from gene-edited cows.
“This is in stark contrast to earlier techniques, which sparked consumer fears of ‘Frankenfoods’ created from mixed genetic sources,” it said.
“The precision of gene editing means these changes can be indistinguishable from naturally occurring organisms, and indistinguishable from changes made by techniques that are exempt from regulation.
Ministry for the Environment raises concerns
The Ministry for the Environment also advised that the regulatory settings were quickly becoming outdated and hard to enforce in 2018, referring to a 2014 court decision that adopted a strict definition of the not-GM regulations.
The ministry said this interpretation “has meant that organisms created using new technologies such as gene editing are more highly regulated than those created using exempt techniques or naturally occurring organisms, regardless of the level of risk they present”.
The report also notes New Zealand’s highly restrictive approach to GM research and development was out of step with many other OECD countries.
The ministry has advised that “major players appear to be moving towards less regulation on some organisms created using new technologies”, based on their own country’s scientific risk assessments that these technologies pose no greater risks than organisms developed through conventional breeding”.
Biosecurity concerns raised
The report also recommends the current review of the Biosecurity Act look at removing barriers to innovation, such as inefficient systems and limited post-entry quarantine capacity for importing new plant genetic material.
More information about the Productivity Commission’s recommendations on GM and biosecurity can be found in section 10.4 of the New Zealand firms: Reaching for the frontier report.