We need some easy wins - liberalising GMOs could be one

The Post
3 June, 2024

New Zealand could use some easy wins. A miasma of slow stagnation appears to be settling over the country. We need an injection of economic vigour.

Fortunately, there is low-hanging fruit within reach – liberalising our Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) regulations.

New Zealand’s history with GMO has been difficult.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a backlash against the newly developed technology, much of it unscientific, and poorly informed. Nevertheless, GMO hesitancy captured national consciousness. The Bolger government introduced the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO) in response.

The HSNO applied stringent one-size-fits-all restrictions on GMO technology. The stream of field tests for GMOs in New Zealand consequently declined to a trickle. Following a royal commission instigated by the Clark government and further amendments to the HSNO, the remaining trickle dried up almost entirely.

For nearly three decades now, New Zealand has neglected the development of GMO policy and technology. This is neither in the national interest, nor aligned with scientific consensus. New Zealand is an agricultural economy, and GMO is foremost an agricultural technology. By robbing ourselves of the competitive edge it offers, we risk playing an eternal game of catch-up as bolder nations become increasingly productive.

Immediate benefits from liberalisation could include pest-resistant and more productive crops, sterile pines for forestry, reduced carbon emissions, reduced agricultural methane, better healthcare products, predator control, and cheaper medication. Still more benefits will follow as other countries continue to invest in research.

The technology itself has also improved. For instance, Genetic Engineering (GE) is a new tool in the agricultural scientist's pocket. GE precisely edits existing genes rather than introducing foreign ones. Its results are often indistinguishable from traditional breeding methods, but faster and more precise. However, GE currently languishes in the same bureaucratic prison as GMO. It is functionally forbidden in New Zealand

One unfortunate consequence of the current regulations is that they drive kiwi GMO research overseas. Obtaining approvals for field tests at home has become unbearably cumbersome and costly.

For example, at AgResearch, New Zealand researchers are working on a cow feed  that will reduce the volume of methane emitted by our cows. Incidental benefits will include reducing bloat and internal parasites and improving overall animal productivity.

Because of our backwards domestic system, this research has been carried out in America. After initial success there, AgResearch plans to carry out further trials in Australia.

Even AgResearch feed were approved only for animal consumption in New Zealand, there is no clear path for producing it here. These quirks are symptoms of a broken approach.

If we continue as we are, there is a plausible future in which New Zealand-led research produces a crucially important product for our agricultural sector that we cannot use. The irony might be funny if it wasn’t so aggravating.

Fortunately, there is a growing political appetite for change. Judith Collins, the current Minister for Science, Innovation, and Technology, has been vocal in her support for reform. Her ministerial colleagues Shane Jones and Andrew Hoggard, both of whom hold relevant portfolios, agree with her.

Support for Collins' view has also come from the Royal Society Te Apārangi, the New Zealand Productivity Commission, and the wider scientific community.

The question is, if the law is unfit for its purpose and politicians want change, what’s the problem with replacing the HSNO?

The biggest unacknowledged barrier is convincing the same people that wanted it gone the first time around. 57% of kiwis still say they would not eat GMO products if they became widely available.

Collins and other GMO proponents will have to allay concerns about New Zealand’s ‘Clean & Green’ image, about potential genetic drift, and about the accidental introduction of new pest species. None of these problems are without solutions, and none require us to keep the same regulations we currently have.

Adopting solutions requires cogent advocates. Any government, pundit, or scientist serious about changing the situation needs to be able to speak lucidly to Kiwis about the necessity for change.

It’s an issue that Minister Collins will encounter soon if she pushes on with her proposed reforms. She will have to hammer home how important this is for us as a country. New Zealand will remain economically dependent on agricultural exports for the foreseeable future. We cannot afford to turn down a pivotal for improving those exports.

To do that we must have access to all the tools available. Crops that grow in American field tests with American livestock may grow differently in the New Zealand climate. Forcing kiwi research overseas is negatively affecting our agricultural sector, our impact on the climate, and our economic prosperity.

A simple alternative model will also be a useful tool for explaining the case for change. Such a model could operate on a scale based on the novelty and potential risks of the organisms. At one end of the scale, the system would quickly approve organisms similar to those we already cultivate, particularly those grown in climates like ours and already approved by peer nations. At the other end of the scale, truly novel organisms would be subject to more thorough requirements and scrutiny before approval.

New Zealand stands to gain a much-needed win in liberalising its approach to GMOs. However, any government serious about reform is going to have to bring the doubters along with them.

To read the article on The Post website, click here.

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