Gene Editing

New Zealand passed the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act in 1996 to regulate the research into and release of all living things that don’t already exist in New Zealand. Then we called a halt to any release of genetically modified organisms, in order to review the science and how people felt about it.

In 2001, the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification reported back to the government, saying that New Zealand should keep its options open and proceed carefully – but that ‘continuation of research is critical to New Zealand’s future’.

The research has continued, but so far only two applications to release genetically modified organisms have been approved by the regulator; both were vaccines for horses. It’s a wasted opportunity.

Things have changed a lot since 2001 – that’s pre-broadband, pre-Facebook, pre-smart phone. Eighteen years later the technology has improved, but successive governments have been too timid to keep our regulations up to date.

Gene editing is not like the old ‘genetic modification’. Our policy relates to instances where no new genetic material is added. This has a lot more in common with the selective breeding we have done for thousands of years, only faster. Because of this similarity to selective breeding it is undetectable. Some of our trade partners are already using it - and some foods that we import from overseas may have been developed using gene editing.

Gene editing technology has the potential to treat a wide range of diseases with a genetic cause, ranging from cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, and Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy to cancer and heart disease.

Gene editing has the potential to solve many problems that New Zealanders struggle to solve. It could make kauri trees resistant to kauri dieback or be used to remove microplastics from water, helping to clean up our waterways and groundwater. Gene editing offers a precise, fast way of developing new plant varieties, such as plants that can cope with newly introduced pests or the effects of climate change. It could even solve our possum and rat problem, so that we can stop using 1080 poison.

Why are we holding our scientists and businesses back from a new technology that has much in common with selective breeding - especially when our competitors are already using it?

The Opportunities Party’s policy is to change the regulations and speed up the approval process for Kiwi scientists to use gene editing. We want to see applications with clear environmental, social, and economic benefits approved for release, not shoved on the back burner.

This will be done by narrowing the definition of a new organism in the HSNO Act. That means the plant varieties that our scientists develop will be held to the same standard as those we already import from countries such as the US.

The regulations for traditional genetic modification (inserting new DNA) will remain the same.

We will also empower the Environmental Protection Agency to review the best gene editing science from overseas, so we can take advantage of developments that could cure debilitating genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis, which is the most common life-threatening inherited disease in New Zealand. Around 1 in 25 of us carry the CF gene.

The Opportunities Party’s gene editing policy is designed to help New Zealanders lead healthier lives, develop healthier crops, protect our precious environment, and benefit from leading international scientific developments.

The TOP spokesperson for this policy is Dr Ben Peters.

Download the policy now

Policy chat on Facebook

Page last updated on 28-Apr 2019


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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