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.