There’s a quiet revolution going on in genetics which could be worth millions to our primary industries.

If harnessed genetic editing (GE) technology could mean new apple varieties could bred faster, cows could provide allergen-free milk, plantation pine trees could be grown which produce the same wood but no wildings, and mānuka could be bred to be resistant to myrtle rust.

If not harnessed, New Zealand’s GE-free products may need to fetch a premium price to make up for the lost production benefits of genetic editing.

Either way, the latest discussion paper on the topic of genetic editing says New Zealand’s “policy response is not obvious”. Genetic editing is stuck in a friend-zone where some research is taking place, but there’s little hope of the research leaping the numerous regulatory hurdles needed to leave the laboratory.

“Gene editing techniques will allow more targeted and precise genetic changes than what has been possible before in crop and livestock breeding,” said Massey University professor of molecular genetics Barry Scott.

The new gene editing techniques he’s referring to include CRISPR, which allow genes to be edited without introducing gene material from other organisms. This means changes can be made without raising the “frankenfood” concerns of the 1990s. Techniques like CRISPR speed up the slow and at times haphazard selective breeding or radiation or chemical-reliant mutagenesis techniques which have been used for decades.

“The risk for New Zealand is we do get left behind.”

The Royal Society Te Apārangi’s discussion paper released today looks at five scenarios involving agriculture, horticulture and forestry.

It is the third in a series of discussion papers on gene editing produced by the society. Scott who is a member of the society’s expert panel on the topic hopes the paper sparks a conversation he feels is overdue.

Scott said he has been involved in debate around genetic editing for many years and he sympathises with some of the reasons people have an aversion to it.

“There are some deeply-held, values-based views around this space that we have to listen to, but they do have to be counter-balanced with a lot of the crops we have presently, they have been modified extensively over many centuries. This [genetic editing] is a new tool to continue that change.”

He feels a conversation is particularly important for New Zealand’s primary industries.

While the science is racing ahead in other countries, New Zealand is keeping gene editing under tight control. No gene edited crops are grown outside of containment and certain councils have restrictions on genetically modified organisms.

“The risk for New Zealand is we do get left behind. If we take for example apples, if countries like China use gene editing they could very rapidly develop new varieties at a much faster rate than we could do so here,” said Scott.

A scenario explored in the discussion paper looks at how to speed up the breeding of new types of apples. Currently this involves taking one tree with desirable traits such as tartness and crossing it with another tree with a different trait, such as crispness. The process has a five-year wait time for results while the tree reaches fruiting age to see if the pairing produced a tart, crisp apple.

Using CRISPR to knock out a gene which supresses flowering can reduce the five years to eight months.

For an industry hoping for growth, the advantage to speeding up the breeding cycle is clear. New Zealand’s apple and pear exports totalled $700 million in 2017 and the industry has a target to increase this to $1 billion by 2022.

China has increased its apple exports by 41 percent since 2013 and is now the biggest exporter in the world. It’s also investing heavily in gene editing science, according to Scott.

“China’s probably investing more in science now than the US. There’s a huge amount of activity. They’ve been to the forefront with gene editing in human embryos and animals.”

Milk is another product where genetic editing could open up a new market for New Zealand. Around 65 percent of people experience intolerance to lactose after infancy, with people from regions such as East Asia more likely to be intolerant.

Through genetic editing of cow embryos, the gene which produces beta-lactoglobulin, a common allergen in milk, can be removed.

The research showing this is possible was conducted by AgResearch, however, other groups around the world are working on similar projects targeting milk-allergens.

“We are not in the policy domain, that’s the domain of the government.”

Before New Zealand farmers could farm genetically edited cows to capture the allergen-free market, a labyrinth of regulations would need to be navigated.

Ethics approval would need to be sought for the cows used in research under the Animal Welfare Act and the gene editing machinery may be deemed an agricultural compound by the Agricultural Compounds and Veterinary Medicines Act.

The cows, and any calves they produce, would be deemed a new organism and the Environmental Protection Agency would need to approve them under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act.

The milk and any meat from cows which had been edited would need to be approved for consumption by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand as safe to consume.

Cows, sperm and embryos would fall under the classification of a living modified organism resulting from modern biotechnology under the Cartagena Protocol which could mean exporters would need to comply with export restrictions under the protocol.

The next paper the society is due to publish will look at New Zealand’s regulatory framework surrounding genetic editing which Scott describes as having “major omissions, gaps, ambiguities and inconsistencies”.

He said the societies’ role is to give advice.

“We are not in the policy domain, that’s the domain of the government. We want to put it out there as we have done with a lot of other expert advice papers on climate change and the like. It’s there as a resource for everyone to use.”

Scott hopes New Zealanders use the discussion paper as a conversation-starter and attend public panel discussions to share their thoughts on the topic.

The discussion paper and panel dates are available online.

Read more:

Is it time to change our mind on GMOs

GE ban jeopardises farm emissions reductions: Peter Gluckman

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