Wednesday, April 24, 2024

NZ risks being left behind as genetic tech advances

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New Zealand’s genetics laws due for overhaul, claims a new report on modern genetic technology.
Beef + Lamb NZ general manager farming excellence Dan Brier says NZ must be careful not to group all genetic technology as genetic modification when there is much more nuance.
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A new report on modern genetic technology has prompted calls for a recalibration of regulations governing genetic technologies, arguing New Zealand’s current rules are no longer fit for purpose.

The report says NZ needs to have informed conversations about its “decades-old” rules governing the use of genetic technologies because NZ farmers may be missing out on opportunities. 

The report, WELL NZ: Modern Gene Technology – what it is and how it is regulated, says it aims to serve as an unbiased, fact-based resource for those seeking to better understand the current state of genetic technology and regulations.

Released under the aegis of the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Fit for a Better World programme and created by the independent government-funded primary sector think tank Te Puna Whakaaronui, it highlights how overseas markets have adapted their approach to keep up with the progress of genetic technologies, while NZ’s rules and regulations are no longer fit for purpose.

The report says most regulations have fallen under one of two broad approaches since the early 1990s – a focus on the process or a focus on the product.

Australia, the United States, China, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Singapore are among the countries that  regulate based on product traits, rather than process. 

They impose safety assessment processes and approvals on product characteristics, irrespective of whether the product has been produced using genetic technology. 

In contrast, the European Union, United Kingdom and NZ have regulatory regimes that restrict all products that use any genetic engineering techniques or processes. 

They are currently the only markets that regulate based on process only. 

The UK currently has a bill before its parliament that, if passed, would update this approach, and the EU is also working on regulatory changes.

Delivering the new normal on NZ’s economic aspirations will need the government and enterprise to take a more active and strategic role to co-ordinate investment and innovation collaboration with the private sector, the report says.  

Beef + Lamb NZ welcomed the report. 

“We welcome the conversation about genetic technology,” B+LNZ general manager farming excellence Dan Brier said.

He said that 20-30 years ago, genetic technology was new and not well understood. As a result, NZ employed the precautionary principle to guide its regulation.

Now “it’s important that we revisit this approach to maintain our food security and keep up with our competitors overseas”. 

“Obviously, we also need to ensure that consumers are comfortable with any changes that we make to our approach and that we maintain the high confidence they have in our food system and exports,” Brier said. 

Consumer attitudes in key markets will need to be tested as part of the process. 

“We need to give our farmers the best chance to adapt to the changing climate and the changing marketplace.” 

Brier cited the example of using genetic technology to create grass that is easier on the environment by producing less greenhouse gas emissions when consumed by a ruminant, or that releases less nitrogen into waterways.

The report highlights how the Royal Commission grappled with emerging gene technologies in 2001 and focused on applying the precautionary principle to NZ’s regulation to limit unknown risks. 

Recommendations from its inquiry emphasised the need to ensure ongoing calibration between regulatory settings, technology and societal preferences, setting out guidelines and recommendations to ensure inclusive consultation would inform future policy and regulatory change.

“In the last 20 years genetic technology has advanced rapidly,” Brier said.

“This has led to calls for a re-calibration of regulatory settings around genetic technologies, as the current rules are no longer fit for purpose,” Brier said.

“NZ must maintain its competitive advantage. To do this we need to work with the latest genetic technologies.

“We need to be conscious of what our consumers want while also being careful not to group all genetic technology as genetic modification when there is much more nuance. 

“At the end of the day, it is the consumer that will decide and having them intimately involved in the conversation is critical.”

WELL_NZ is the third substantive report Te Puna Whakaaronui has produced. The next report, expected to be published in mid-2023, will concern the application of industry policy in NZ.

Watch our latest On Farm Story on time-saving agritech to help farmers manage biosecurity on-farm below

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