We Need to Talk about Gene Editing

The call to overhaul our gene editing (GE) laws is growing louder. The current law could result in the bizarre situation where a person who received life-saving gene therapy overseas could be classified as a ‘new organism’ and not allowed into New Zealand without approval from the Environmental Protection Authority. Talk about putting the mental into environmental protection!

This is just one of the recent findings of the Royal Society Te Apārangi. Its panel of experts has been exploring the implications of GE and reviewing the current legal framework. The panel published multiple scenarios regarding healthcare, pest control, and primary industries. It also gathered a wide range of responses on how GE could impact New Zealand and the public appetite for change.

On 12 August 2019, the panel released its findings and key recommendations. I’m delighted that they largely line up with TOP’s GE policy. I’ve summarised the recommendations briefly here, but for the nitty-gritty details, I highly recommend reading the panel’s full report.

First, update the classification of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and adopt a tiered approach to risk to enable a more nuanced understanding of the range of edits that can be carried out. TOPs GE policy does just that! It proposes implementing a three-class system (details on page 11 and 12 of our policy document) and changing the definitions in the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996.

Effectively our approach would keep the regulation of true GMO’s – where genetic material is taken from one organism to another – the same. We would then reduce the regulation of using gene editing on organisms where no new genetic material is added. This approach has much more in common with selective breeding than old school GMO.

Second, hold a meaningful conversation with New Zealand around GE technologies, complemented by the panel’s scenarios. TOP’s policy provides the public with proper fodder for discussion – unlike National’s single bullet point on the subject!

Third, review all related legislation that would be impacted by the panel’s proposed changes. I agree it would be very sensible to review other regulations, including the Biosecurity Act and Resource Management Act, to ensure consistency across our laws.

Finally, to ensure minimal disruption to our trading partners, consider the recommendations from the Australian OGTR and FSANZ reviews. In other words, consider what has worked overseas. Consider the evidence! TOP’s policy is in line with Australia’s, because we did just that when developing it.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t address the loudest argument against GE – and no, I don’t mean ‘playing God’. As a Christian, I personally have no qualms about this technology, when appropriately applied. Rather, the objection I have heard blasted from every media outlet is: ‘What will GE do to our clean green image? Won’t someone think of the exporters!‘

Well, we did think of the exporters. Opening up our GE regulation will enable New Zealand to once again be a leader rather than a follower on the latest improvements in agriculture, medicine, and environmental protection. The meat we export already has a lower carbon footprint than the rest of the world, and we can make it even better.

The panel found that there is has been no systematic analysis that would suggest that our economy would suffer in any way from adopting responsible GE regulations. There is, however, very good evidence that it would suffer catastrophic losses if we fail to act on climate change now. Responsible gene editing laws will better equip us to deal with a changing environment. And just maybe this would give us a fighting chance at preventing further change, as well as dealing with important environmental protection issues like water quality and Predator Free New Zealand!


Dr Ben Peters has PhD in Plant Biochemistry from Otago University. He currently works at the University of Otago as a Professional Practice fellow and volunteers for The Opportunities party in the Dunedin area. Dr Peters worked on The Opportunities party gene editing policy last year.