A group of scientists belonging to the New Zealand Society of Plant Biologists say it’s time to review GM laws. They say new techniques in gene-editing can help ensure a clean green future for New Zealand.

When genetic modification technologies were newly-developed, people were rightly concerned that this relatively untested technology might harbour risks to health and the environment. So in the year 2000, the NZ government established a Royal Commission into the use of GM. After widespread and careful consultation, the commissioners’ report recommended an approach that preserved opportunities and that NZ should “proceed carefully, minimising and managing risks”. Specifically, around crop plants, the commissioners suggested New Zealand postpone any decision until more information had been obtained and the technology had developed.

The Royal Commission was nearly 20 years ago, so where do things now stand around crop plants? 

We certainly have more information. There is now clear scientific consensus on the safety of GM crops. An extensive study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (USA) in 2016, along with multiple reviews of the literature, have concluded that the process of genetic modification is as safe as any other breeding technique, and that GM crops are safe to eat. GM crops now make up 15 percent of world agriculture and, after over 20 years, there are no reports of specific adverse effects on the environment or food safety.

We can see clear benefits in the use of GM crops internationally with reduced herbicide and insecticide use. For example, Australian cotton farmers growing GM cotton (and most of us are wearing clothes made from GM cotton) now use over 85 percent less insecticide, 62 percent less grass herbicide and 33 percent less broadleaf weed herbicide. 

Notably, the technology has developed dramatically since 2000. New gene-editing tools allow us to edit genes in more precise ways than we could do two decades ago. We can now make changes in genes that are indistinguishable from changes that could occur naturally. We can also use gene-editing tools to make more substantial changes but, unlike earlier approaches, the changes are targeted to an exact region of a chromosome.

Gene-editing is already used by international researchers to enhance crops in ways that will reduce the environmental impact of farming, such as providing resistance to disease (reducing the need for chemical sprays), allowing plants to use soil nutrients more efficiently (reducing fertiliser input), and improving drought tolerance. Gene-editing is also being used to improve the nutrition of various foods and to reduce food waste (e.g. by increasing the shelf-life of fruit and vegetables).

The world is facing a climate change emergency which will require all the tools humanity has to address it. Therefore, given our improved understanding and the fact that no evidence of unexpected risks has emerged in over 20 years of use, it is important that now, more than ever, the original intent of the Royal Commission’s findings is acted upon.  

The Royal Society Te Apārangi panel has reached a similar conclusion: it is now time to review the New Zealand GM regulations and assess how New Zealand should use new plant breeding technologies. The panel recognised that the current situation does not reflect modern reality: organisms cannot be simply categorised as ‘genetically-modified’ or ‘not genetically-modified’. The panel suggests that it is time we took a fresh look at New Zealand’s legislation around GM, and move towards an approach that weighs the benefits and risks of each specific application, and that ensures sound scientific evidence is considered. The New Zealand Society of Plant Biologists agrees with the panel.    

The Royal Society Te Apārangi included a scenario concerning apple breeding in their recent publications. Traditionally, apple breeding takes decades; it takes at least five years for an apple tree to flower and six to seven generations can be needed to develop a new variety, such as a tree that can cope with increased temperatures due to climate change. By making precise gene edits or altering when an apple gene is turned on, apple flowering can be reduced to less than a year, enabling new apple varieties to be bred in a fraction of the time. Furthermore, the altered gene is only used in breeding stock and will not be present in the trees subsequently grown for apple production and the apples people eat. New Zealand’s fruit cultivars are world-famous and rapid flowering offers enormous benefits to our breeders to continue to lead the way. 

Gene-editing also offers similar benefits to our international competitors. For example, in Europe over the past seven years, rapid flowering apples have been used to breed a plant with resistance to both fireblight and apple scab disease so that growers can reduce their use of chemicals. Using conventional approaches this would have taken 20-25 years. Furthermore, countries including Australia, have decided that crops such as these would not be regulated as GM. If our competitors use rapid flowering plants to breed new varieties in six to seven years, and our breeding programmes continue to take decades, the market for New Zealand-bred fruit will likely diminish. 

It is theoretically possible for a rapid flowering plant to occur naturally, it only takes a very small change in one gene. If such a plant were to be identified in an orchard, or if breeders were lucky enough to produce such a plant using a chemical mutagen, then this plant could be used by breeders straight away. However, our legislation effectively prevents us using an identical plant that we could have made ourselves using gene-editing. Under the current law, plants are regulated as GM or not based on the technology used to make changes in a plant’s DNA. The defining feature that determines if a technology is exempt or not is if it was developed before or after 1998 – a very arbitrary definition. This unscientific approach takes no consideration of how any changes affect the plant. This is one of the key aspects of the law that we, and the Royal Society Te Apārangi panel, consider should be changed.

Our plant scientists are world-renowned and want to use their skills and expertise to enhance our environment and ensure we have a profitable and thriving primary sector. But we need access to the best tools to deliver the best outcome for New Zealand. 

Associate Professor Richard Macknight (University of Otago & NZSPB President)

Dr Lynette Brownfield (University of Otago & NZSPB Secretary)  

Associate Professor Paul Dijkwel (Massey University & NZSPB Council)

Associate Professor Michael Clearwater (University of Waikato & NZSPB Life member)

Professor Paula Jameson (University of Canterbury & NZSPB Life member)

Dr Nijat Imin (University of Auckland & NZSPB Council)

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