Biotech scientists and researchers are not holding their breath that a government announcement on gene editing will the door any wider for pastoral or food-related GM research.
Minister for the Environment David Parker has announced that the government is seeking feedback to changes to GMO regulation for research relating only to biomedical treatments used in human health therapies like cancer treatment.
The proposals do not alter rules on the release of GMOs outside laboratory settings and the minister has reiterated that rules are not changing relating to field trials or GMO release into the environment, such as for plants and animals.
The announcement has underwhelmed Dr William Rolleston, the founding director of biotech company South Pacific Sera.
“This is really just what he said he was going to do, and nothing more. While the minister says the regulations in place allow for people to do research on GMOs, that really is disingenuous – the regulations remain totally impractical for plant and animal research.”
Rolleston said the regulations should be more focused upon the ability of a GMO organism to recreate itself in the environment, rather than how that organism was developed.
In 2019 Rolleston wrote to Parker on behalf of the Life Sciences Network, noting the fast-tracking medical applications get for GMO use while calls from scientists for its use in tackling climate change and other challenges were increasing.
The group asked for a government review to examine claims New Zealand is GM free and whether that would add value to products and services.
Parker has stated that NZ regulations have not kept pace with better understanding of the benefits of GMOs, and said the government wants to ensure the regulations contribute to better outcomes through improved access to biomedical therapy and medicine.
But scientists in food and animal production spheres maintain those regulations have also slipped behind overseas food producing competitors and endanger NZ’s competitive position.
Scion portfolio manager Dr Alec Foster said earlier this year that even the European Union had changed its stance on GE, looking to make its rules more accommodating.
Traditionally NZ bureaucrats have been able to point to the EU as a basis for not moving this country’s stance.
Foster welcomed the minister’s announcement as “baby steps” on the issue.
“I think things are becoming more tangible with respect to the potential and impact of GE, and a recognition NZ has to change as the world is changing and we are getting behind.”
Plant & Food chief scientist Dr Richard Newcomb said it is disappointing that the minister’s announcement refers only to lab work for human health research.
“He could have at least lightened up on the regulations we face for GMO research in the lab for plant and food. That is disappointing.”
He said overall he would prefer to see the entire issue around GMO de-politicised.
“If we are to get concerted change we do not want to have policy flip-flopping ,” he said, noting the minister’s announcement comes in the wake of National’s announcement it would revisit GMO regulations if elected to office.