Monday, March 4, 2024

Shaw open to new look at gene editing 

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Debate has to catch up to advances in the technology, says minister.
James Shaw acknowledges it is time to have another conversation about GE and its role in New Zealand agriculture and conservation.
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Climate Change Minister James Shaw has acknowledged that a debate needs to be had on the role of gene editing, one that extends beyond just the immediate scientific issues around the technology.

Shaw told delegates at the Oceania 2035 summit that the debate around GE remains stuck in the 1990s transgenic era, despite the technology having moved well past that point. 

He acknowledged there remains a lot of debate within his own Green party on the application of the technology.

“GE (gene editing) is not the same as GMO (genetically modified organisms) technology and that needs to get out there. There are also other, non-scientific, areas of the debate. The value of our brand is one.”

He described past experiences with the technology as something of a poisoned chalice, and said here in New Zealand the challenge would be to determine what area the technology would be first used in, whether that be to start with food, or with conservation by way of pest control.

“I wonder if part of this is through building social acceptability through another pathway,” Shaw said.

He also noted how corporate control of GE tech through companies such as Monsanto had in the past done no favours to how the technology’s intellectual property was managed.

“There is a debate there we need to have. It’s not just the scientific concerns,” he said.

Plant & Food head scientist Professor Richard Newcomb acknowledged GE requires a conversation as farmers and growers are required to respond to climate change impacts and growing challenges. 

“A lot of other jurisdictions are moving to change the regulations on it. It is quite different to GMO 1.0 and GE is a significant improvement over the original GMO technology.”

He said selective breeding methods are slow when trying to develop foods that are capable of handling climate change.

“NZ is one of the last jurisdictions to not change around GE. The EU is now moving too, and it is one of the last major areas that still includes GE under GMO regulations.” 

A revisit of the GE debate, which was a major election issue in 2002, has the support of eminent scientist Sir Peter Gluckman, who was scientific advisor to Sir John Key when he was prime minister.

Sir Peter has called for a citizens’ assembly to provide an unbiased, informed environment for the NZ public to determine the role GE can play in helping growers manage climate change impacts, and better manage the country’s burgeoning pest populations.

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