The same genetic technologies that helped create effective covid vaccines in record time can also help us reduce farming emissions, improve water quality and improve animal welfare. But New Zealand’s regulations regarding the use of these technologies – and the more recent gene editing in particular – are outdated and are holding back research and the bringing of products to market.
With a score of 4 out of 10, NZ ranks poorly on the Food & Crops Gene Editing Index produced by the international Genetic Literacy Project. Best in class countries such as the United States, Israel, Japan, Brazil and Argentina score 10. Despite being way ahead of NZ, Australia only gets a score of 8.
When we think of the climate challenge, there is an urgent need for new products that will help reduce emissions. Gene editing is a safe and effective enabler for developing such products.
Grass, and growing it efficiently, underpins NZ’s livestock farming sector. An essential component of our pasture grasses are their associated endophytes, which are fungi that live inside the leaves and are essential for persistence by protecting the grass from pasture pests. We are so good at producing pasture that we already lead the world in low emissions per kilogram of our animal food products. But we can get even better.
So what is gene editing in grasses? In very simple terms it is a way to fast-track selective plant breeding.
Selective breeding is the old way of identifying a number of plants that seem to grow faster or survive a drought better and then crossbreeding them in the hope of producing a much better plant. Very hit and miss and slow, but nevertheless the way in which the world has managed to increase food production. Gene editing adds precision to plant and endophyte breeding, with no remaining introduced DNA being involved, by enabling gene sequences to be “cut” and the break repaired by the organism, resulting in a mutation that typically disables the function of the gene.
Today we can map the genome of plants and endophytes and determine which gene sequences confer the traits that a better performing plant or endophyte would need to have. Gene editing technology enables these microscopic gene sequences to be changed within species.
Let’s look at a real example where gene editing has been used to simply delete a gene’s function.
The Endophyte Gene Editing Programme led by AgResearch is aimed at producing grasses with endophytes that are better at deterring a range of bugs from eating them while being more palatable and safe for our farmed animals. At present we have endophytes that do deter the bugs but typically they make the grass not as palatable to our grazing animals as we would like and they sometimes cause staggers, a distressing and wasteful condition whereby the endophyte toxins temporarily affect the animals’ brain and nervous system.
The AgResearch programme has some great scientists on board and has gone exceptionally well and is running ahead of schedule. But there is a problem. The work has moved past what can be done in containment glasshouses in NZ. For field trials, it has had to shift to Australia where the regulations regarding gene editing are far more enlightened than in NZ. A future pathway to commercialise this breakthrough advance in NZ is very uncertain because of our outdated regulations.
So how do better endophytes help with emissions reductions?
It is all about productivity and efficiency. Improved grass utilisation and no staggers means animals will produce milk and meat with less emissions per kilogram of output. And there are many more opportunities to use gene editing aimed at reducing emissions and nutrient leaching. A combination of small percentage gains from such improvements can add up to a lot over time.
In meeting NZ agriculture’s emissions reduction challenge, it is highly unlikely that a single “silver bullet” breakthrough product will emerge. Gene editing is the closest thing to a “silver bullet” that we have. And it is only an enabling technology. We have to be able to use it.
In the past five years the government has been great at running talkfests for the primary sector to “create visions” and “value statements” while at the same time doing little if anything to make changes such as implementing an up-to-date set of regulations for gene editing. Seems like Nero fiddling while Rome burned.
Where to from here?
We need a law change in NZ to remove unnecessary restrictions on the use of gene editing and the commercialisation of gene edited products. NZ needs to align with the more progressive genetic technology and gene editing laws in most other countries. As easy as cutting and pasting Australian law.