Thursday, August 18, 2022

Genetic rules mean NZ’s missing opportunities – Treasury

Treasury adds its voice to calls for a national conversation on GMOs. (Image: Unsplash)

New Zealand is missing opportunities because of its regulatory barriers to genetic modification, Treasury secretary Caralee McLiesh says.

“The flipside of unlocking innovation through regulatory reform is regulation that constrains new technologies and ways of working,” she told the NZ Association of Economists annual conference at Victoria University of Wellington.

“While other advanced economies have embraced these techniques, our current regulatory barriers mean that we are missing opportunities – for example, to improve drought and disease resistance in plants, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from grazing animals and reduce fertiliser-use issues by improving disease resistance,” she said.

GM organisms and technologies are regulated under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 (HSNO). 

The genetically modified organisms (GMO) regulatory framework was last reviewed in 2001.

A GMO is defined as any organism containing or derived from genetic material that has been modified in vitro, and includes plants, animals and microbes.

There is a list of techniques that are captured by the GMO definition but are exempt. However, the list contains only techniques deemed safe and in use before July 1998.

While the so-called not-GM regulations were amended in 2016, no new mutagenesis (genetic mutation-producing) technologies created after 1998 are captured by the not-GM regulations. 

Gene editing is a case in point, McLiesh said. 

“Among other things, the regime regulates genetic modification technology and organisms. The regime has not been reviewed for more than 20 years, over which time the science on gene editing has advanced significantly,” she says.

New techniques are now available that can speed up existing natural processes and are often indistinguishable from changes made by traditional breeding techniques, she told the conference.

McLiesh said numerous agencies have raised concerns about aspects of the HSNO regime.  

Among others, the Productivity Commission has lobbied for a full regulatory review of GM organisms and technologies, arguing the current regulations do not reflect technological advances. 

“Treasury is of the view we would benefit from a national conversation on the science and role of these technologies in New Zealand.”

However, while Treasury may have this view, environment minister David Parker this week threw cold water on any hopes that gene editing could be on the government’s agenda, despite it having said earlier this year that it was timely to start informed conversations around NZ’s use of GM technologies.

“We are not proposing a root and branch review,” Parker told Newshub Nation. 

Rather, any changes would be narrow and focused on the health sector.

“We are not looking at making it easier to have field trials, for example, of genetically modified organisms. I don’t think it would be right to move to an easier release of GM crops and animals at this time.”

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