After years in the scientific wilderness, GM is once again a hot political issue. Dr Tony Conner explains what our current law says, and why removing the ban could transform agricultural science in New Zealand.

** 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.

While regulation is important for managing risks, the precision and power of modern scientific tools offer greater confidence of achieving the desired changes in plants, compared with traditional breeding.

Dr Tony Conner, AgResearch Emeritus Scientist

Has much changed in the past two decades?

The number of field tests (outside of containment) on GMOs in New Zealand substantially declined after the introduction of the HSNO Act in 1996, and virtually ceased after a later amendment. The regulatory procedures were cumbersome and it would take more effort and cost to obtain an approval for a field test than undertaking the field experiments themselves. Amendments to the HSNO Act meant GM plants in field tests could no longer be allowed flower to prevent pollen being dispersed by wind or insects. It is virtually impossible to absolutely guarantee the absence of flowers, even with manual removal of flower buds. The prevention of flowering means grain and fruit cannot develop. Evaluation of grain and fruit would usually be a key purpose for field testing GM crops.

The inability to undertake appropriate field tests over the past two decades has also seen a marked reduction in the laboratory development of New Zealand crops with characteristics that might have benefits for our industries and consumers. Missed opportunities for New Zealand scientists working at the forefront of global developments include the development of vegetables that are more resistant to pests and diseases, and a “tear-less” onion.

What might it look like if laws were loosened?

Depending on the extent to which the regulations in New Zealand were loosened, it may allow for field tests on GMOs to once again be undertaken in New Zealand. Once such field tests are scaled up it may also allow a pathway for the growing of GM crops in New Zealand.

When a pathway to field tests and release of GM crops is re-introduced, we can expect New Zealand scientists will rapidly re-engage in the laboratory development of new opportunities to improve our crop plants. This could create huge opportunities for our farmers and growers to be more productive and sustainable, which would improve our environment and boost our export industries for the benefit of all New Zealanders.

An AgResearch scientist measures HME ryegrass plants in a containment glasshouse

Who would gain the most benefit?

Everyone will likely benefit from the ability of New Zealand’s primary industries being able to grow GM crops. In the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Australia, farmers and horticulturalists have been growing GM crops with pest and disease resistance for up to two decades. More recently this has expanded to improved quality characteristics of the harvested food and fibre. Re-establishing the ability for New Zealand scientists to work on New Zealand problems for the crops we grow will result in benefits such as:

  • Environmental sustainability from the reduction in pesticide use to control pests and diseases
  • Fresh fruit and vegetables with fewer blemishes from pest and disease damage, meaning less waste
  • Food and fibre with improved nutrition and storage life
  • Better and more consistent yields for farmers and horticulturalists
  • Plants that will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • Plants better adapted to the forthcoming constraints of climate change (e.g. winter chilling for fruit production)
  • Novel methods to control the increasing numbers of invasive weed and pest species.

Is there anything else I should know about this?

Overseas, the use of genetic modification or gene editing is widespread and in Aotearoa, despite our regulations, we consume many imported products that are derived from these GMOs.

In many cases, it is no longer possible to determine whether an organism is the result of genetic modification or traditional plant breeding, unless the exact method is revealed by the developer.

Over the past 20 years, the distinction between genetic modification and traditional plant breeding has become increasingly blurred. There is now a plethora of tools and techniques encompassing plant biotechnology that provide a complete continuum from ‘hardcore GM’ involving the introduction of totally foreign DNA from bacteria to plants, through to traditional plant breeding.

While regulation is important for managing risks, the precision and power of modern scientific tools offer greater confidence of achieving the desired changes in plants, compared with traditional breeding.

It is not the technology that causes potential harm, but rather what the technology is used for.

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