Gene Editing FAQ

Gene Editing FAQ

1. What is the difference between gene editing and genetic modification?

Answer

Genetic modification is a broad term. It covers a wide range of tools that include gene editing but mainly refers to the much older technologies where genetic material from elsewhere has been added to the genome of an organism, making it ‘transgenic’.

Gene editing is a new tool (developed in 2013) that can be used for adding new genetic material but also can be used to create subtler changes, such as turning on or off a specific gene to confer an advantage. In these instances no new genetic material is added. The results are identical to those from traditional plant breeding. It is these subtler changes that our policy seeks to make easier to undertake in New Zealand. Regulation of traditional GMO (adding new material) would stay the same.

2. Will you allow gene editing on humans?

Answer

In principle, yes. We believe gene editing will soon be able to cure single-gene disorders such as Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy or cystic fibrosis that cause misery and shorten children’s lives. But we expect that the research will be done overseas, not in New Zealand.

3. Didn't a UNESCO expert panel just call for a temporary ban on gene editing on human DNA?

Answer

Yes, they did. UNESCO is suggesting a ban on ‘germline editing’ – that is, making changes to a person’s DNA that will be heritable – passed on to their descendants. We think that germline editing raises all kinds of big ethical questions that society needs to discuss and agree on.

We are definitely not advocating germline editing for humans. We aren’t in favour of ‘designer babies’. We are in favour of curing debilitating single-gene disorders on people that have already been born.

4. What are the potential economic benefits of this for NZ Inc?

Answer

There are many. We will be able to develop better plant varieties much faster than using traditional breeding methods. Those varieties could be more nutritious fruit (e.g. apples and kiwifruit with more antioxidants in them that are better for your health) or perhaps plants that are resistant to certain pests (such as myrtle rust, which is a big threat to our manuka honey industry). We can use gene editing to develop plant varieties that are better able to cope with the impact of climate change – better able to tolerate hotter average temperatures or lower rainfall, for instance.

Plus we can use gene editing to solve some really big NZ problems, such as possum control (to protect our precious native birds). NZ has spent 30-odd years and millions of dollars on research to develop bio-control methods to eradicate possums, without success. At present, 1080 poison is the best solution we’ve got. But gene editing could change all that.

5. Won't this risk New Zealand's clean and green GMO free brand?

Answer

Regulation of traditional GMO (transgenic) is unchanged. Gene editing technology in our policy is indistinguishable from selective breeding. In fact, allowing gene editing technology could actually improve New Zealand’s ‘clean and green’ brand. For example, New Zealand’s image has taken a big hit from dirty dairying in the past 20 years. Visitors to New Zealand are appalled by our dirty rivers and polluted lakes. (So are we – TOP wants to sort that out too.) Gene editing could help restore the promise of this brand by helping us reduce pollution and the need for sprays and chemicals.

6. Won't this risk New Zealand's trading relationships?

Answer

New Zealand’s major trading partners (with the exception of the EU) all have more pragmatic approaches to gene editing than we do. The United States is generally more liberal while Australia is closer to what we are proposing.

In short if a new variety of potato comes out of the USA, it is probably a result of gene editing. And we wouldn’t know any different because it is indistinguishable from selective breeding.

7. Won't this policy just allow a free-for-all for Frankenfoods?

Answer

Not at all, if by ‘Frankenfoods’ you mean transgenics, which contain genetic material from elsewhere. We propose that applications for transgenics go through the EPA approval process as at present.

8. If it is so good, why hasn't this happened sooner?

Answer

Good question. The science has been moving pretty fast internationally, and our policy makers have dropped the ball. Other countries have already acted on this. New Zealand needs to catch up.

9. Is this a back door to GMO?

Answer

Not at all. Our policy regarding GMOs involving new DNA is the same as the status quo: applications have to go through the EPA.