Embracing In-gene-uity

Imagine if, in 1855, New Zealanders had banned Number 8 wire – that ingenious invention patented by Henry Bessemer. “You could put an eye out with that!” “People will use it to fence off areas that don’t even belong to them!” What if, fearful of the solutions that Number 8 wire presented, we had banned it, intending to “keep an eye on it” and “review it again in the future”.

It would have changed the course of our history and our collective personality.

We are facing the same situation today. We need to solve some urgent problems to protect our wildlife and our people, yet our scientists are hampered by outmoded rules on genetic modification.

Unlike most other technologies, we regulate genetic modification on the basis of techniques rather than outcomes. Since the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification in 2001, it has been basically impossible for anyone to use genetic technology at all. And that may have been a fair call at the time, but a lot has changed since then. That was pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre smart-phone.

It is equivalent to banning Facebook to prevent terrorist acts, and no one is suggesting that. We are looking for ways to stop people using Facebook to support terror acts, not stopping them using it to communicate with their friends. We regulate to improve the outcomes of the technology, rather than regulating the technology itself.

Genetic technology has come a long way since 2001. Our policy would enable precise gene editing that, unlike the old techniques, adds no foreign material to the DNA. Similar to selective breeding, it targets particular traits or cells and turns them “on” or “off”. Unlike selective breeding however, we can solve problems far more quickly.

The Opportunities Party thinks scientists should be able to use gene editing if it produces the same outcomes as selective breeding. Importantly, we would not change the regulation of old-school genetic modification, where genetic material is introduced from a different organism.

Kiwis have long been famous for our ingenuity. Yet on this issue we are at serious risk of falling behind our trading partners.  

On 10 April 2019, Australia allowed gene editing that does not introduce new genetic material. This is internationally viewed as the “middle ground” between the strict regulation in Europe and the laissez-faire style of the US, Brazil, and Argentina. The Opportunities Party is proposing a very similar approach to Australia.

Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said of gene editing: “Used responsibly, gene editing holds the potential to save millions of lives and empower millions of people to lift themselves out of poverty. It would be a tragedy to pass up the opportunity.”

We can’t use “in-gene-uity” if our hands are tied behind our back.