An American chemicals giant has been told it can not intervene in a High Court case which will determine whether "mutant" genes can be created outside of laboratories in New Zealand.
US-based Dow Chemicals made a last-minute bid to present evidence in support of a new technique which allowed scientists to splice DNA, and insert or delete parts, without any of the controls applied to GM trials or releases.
New Zealand's environmental regulator has approved the technology but that decision is being challenged in the High Court by the Sustainability Council advocacy group.
The appeal will go before a judge in November. Dow attempted to become involved in the case because it was seeking patent rights on the new technique in New Zealand and other countries with an eye to making products with it.
Lawyers for Dow's agrosciences branch argued in a hearing in Wellington last week that it was unjust to decide the case in the absence of the company. They said that Dow was the only party with a direct interest in the case because it was seeking rights to the technology, and that it would bring international understanding of GM regulations to the discussion.
Judge Lowell Goddard said that Dow's application was "very late". He added that Dow wanted to submit scientific analysis, but this was outside the scope of the case - the High Court was only considering whether the technology fitted the legal definition of genetic modification.
Crown forestry research institute Scion made the initial application to have the technique, known as zinc finger nuclease or ZNF-1, exempted from New Zealand laws governing genetic modification. The institute has said that the technique mimicked nature, and described it as "an alternative approach to creating mutant lines".
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the application, though its staff had originally advised that the high degree of manipulation involved in the technique meant it should not be exempted from GM rules.
The exemption meant that it could be released or planted without notification, assessment or monitoring. Its use was suspended until the case was resolved.
The Sustainability Council said it believed that the EPA had misinterpreted the law.
"If the decision is allowed to stand, New Zealand could lose its GM free food producer status overnight without having assessed what is at stake. The ruling could also pave the way for other new GM techniques to bypass New Zealand's hard-won public protections."
In granting the approval, the EPA said that its decision highlighted the need for a review of the GM regulations, which were "not keeping pace with a rapidly evolving field of science".
WHAT IS THE CASE ABOUT?
An environmental trust, the Sustainability Council, is appealing a decision by the Environmental Protection Authority to exempt a new DNA-editing technique from GM rules. The council believes the technique qualifies as genetic modification.
WHAT IS THE NEW TECHNIQUE?
Known as zinc finger nuclease, or ZNF-1, it is used to break DNA strands to allow insertions or deletions. This allowed scientists to manipulate plant or animal genomes to make them work in different ways.
HOW IS IT USED?
Separate studies have used DNA editing to treat mice with the blood disorder haemophilia and HIV. In future, doctors could be able to remove faulty genes in humans and replace them with healthy versions.