** This article first appeared on The Spinoff(external link) **
So, what does GMO stand for?
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. Genetic modification may also be referred to as genetic engineering or transgenics.
And what exactly is that?
Genetic modification involves taking DNA from the genome (the complete set of DNA) of an organism such as a plant or animal and inserting it into the genome of another organism. The purpose is to transfer the ability to make new substances or perform different functions. There are no barriers to where the DNA can come from. DNA from microbes, animals, plants, and even entirely synthetic DNA made in the laboratory can be transferred into other microbes, animals, or plants. GM development needs to be undertaken in carefully controlled conditions in the laboratory. In the case of plants, DNA is inserted into single plants cells that are then be multiplied in cell cultures in the lab and regenerated back into complete plants.
Gene editing is different to genetic modification, in that this may only involve making a change to the genome, as opposed to introducing DNA from another organism.
What are the laws now? Wasn’t it a big deal making those laws in the first place?
Genetic modification in New Zealand is governed by the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act 1996, with various amendments in the 20 years since. This law was a big deal for New Zealand in that it has dictated what we can do with these technologies and any modified organisms, including the discovery of potential risks and benefits. It is largely based on what we knew at the time about the risks and benefits of GMOs. The original act established the Environmental Risk Management Authority (now called the Environmental Protection Authority), a government agency responsible for regulating activities that affect Aotearoa’s environment.
Essentially, the regulations in place mean that GMOs cannot be released out of containment in New Zealand without going through a very rigorous and complex approval process, and that is very high bar to meet. Gene editing is considered in the same class as genetic modification in New Zealand, even when it doesn’t involve foreign DNA being introduced.