Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Heavyweights back changes to gene regs

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Scientists clamour for NZ to catch up with rest of the world on new gene thinking.
Plant and Food chief scientist Dr Richard Newcomb says New Zealand is being left behind with outdated genetic modification regulations.
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The call by scientists and groups for a review of New Zealand’s gene technology regulations has grown with some of the country’s largest research bodies joining the chorus.

Earlier this month The Well NZ report on NZ’s gene technology prompted a push for a recalibration on gene tech, describing the regulations as no longer fit for purpose (see facing page).

The report highlighted how overseas markets have adapted their approach to keep up with gene editing progress, while NZ’s has sat still for the past 20 years.

Now Science New Zealand, representing the country’s research heavyweight Crown Research Institutes (CRIs), has also called for an informed debate about how gene tech can meet NZ’s challenges.

The group has specified targeted DNA editing including CRISPR-Cas 9 tech as being indistinguishable from that occurring randomly in nature, saying it cannot be detected as occurring from gene editing. 

The group notes the tech provides options in addressing wider challenges, not least those arising from climate change and its impact on food, the environment, water and animal and human health.

Science NZ CEO Peter Lennox said CRIs have a responsibility given by Parliament to engage with the public on gene editing tech, requiring them to take up tech that benefits NZ. 

“There needs to be conversation and it needs to bring the public along with it,” Lennox said.

Scion portfolio manager Dr Alec Foster contributed to the WELL NZ report  and has had vast experience with the tech in the United Kingdom and United States.

“If we look at the challenges in New Zealand compared to the US and UK environment, things are so much easier to get done there,” he said.

Regulations are more accommodating for researchers, with NZ having the tightest regulations in the world.

Both the UK and European Union are changing their regulations on GE in the coming year to make them more accommodating, posing an interesting challenge for NZ, said Foster.

“That’s a big departure for the EU to re-assess their rules. Previously NZ has been able to say ‘We are following the EU model’, but now the EU is moving and we are not even having the conversation.”

He cited the example of US gene-editing research that has resulted in the release of trees capable of growing 50% faster, due to improved photosynthesis.

“We can do some great stuff in labs, but the bottleneck is in field trials and release here.”

Plant and Food chief scientist Professor Richard Newcomb said having easier access to gene editing technology in NZ would be invaluable to help make crops more resistant to climate change.

“Horticultural crops require winter chilling, and that will be a problem for just about all our perennial crops. And climate change is coming at such a pace, the usual approaches [to breeding] will not be able to keep up with it.”

Like many scientists, he would like to see regulations that allow for outcomes rather than regulating specific research methods.

“We are already out of step with the world, and even more so if the EU  changes its stance. Gene editing is regarded as a GMO here, where other countries separate it out from that.”

Dr Richard Scott, AgResearch’s team leader on climate change and forage innovation, said NZ’s regulations as they stand are the biggest hurdle facing scientists.

“Our rules do not prevent GE being used, but the level of protection that is required is significant.”

AgResearch has run trials of its high metabolisable energy rye grasses in the United States, where regulations are less onerous. 

It is also poised to move trials to Australia, where Scott said large-scale feed trial approval will be easier to acquire than here.

He appreciated the irony that consumers are able to buy a variety of food products here with overseas-sourced GE inputs like canola oil, but farmers are not able to grow them here.

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