A review of regulations covering genetically modified organisms hinges on a High Court case next week challenging approval for GM experiments on our most populous tree, pinus radiata.
The Environmental Protection Authority in April approved an application clearing the way for forest research institute Scion to alter the DNA of pine species using novel technology.
The EPA found that while the technique known as zinc-finger nuclease (ZFN) would produce genetically modified organisms as defined in the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, it fitted a category of exemptions listed in the HSNO 1998 regulations.
But while allowing Scion to alter pinus radiata DNA in uncontained experiments, the EPA's decision notes that the application "highlights the need for a review of the regulations as they are not keeping pace with a rapidly evolving field of science".
The Sustainability Council is challenging the decision, arguing that the exemptions listed in the regulations are quite specific.
ZFN is one of a raft of emerging scientific techniques which are challenging the capacity of GM rules to keep pace in many countries, including New Zealand's export markets. Sustainability Council executive director Simon Terry says ZFN and other techniques show the ability of scientists to "invent around" regulations covering GM.
He argues New Zealand should take a cautionary approach or risk losing its GE-Free status with food exports if other countries adopt a different view on ZFN.
Existing HSNO regulations effectively prevent uncontained GM experiments or release of GMOs into the environment.
Mr Terry says if the decision stands, it would effectively deregulate ZFN technology, allowing agencies to use it to alter DNA in food and other applications without prior notification or regulatory approval.
A leading scientist, Dr Michael Dunbier who chairs the Pastoral Genomics research consortium, says the new organism legislation was drafted in the mid-1990s and is overdue for review.
"It's an area of science that's developing really rapidly and it's really hard to devise legislation that can cope with developments coming down the pipeline.
"I'm not sure that legislation and the judicial route are the best places to determine the risks and benefits of these [novel] approaches."
The Ministry for the Environment says it is awaiting the outcome of the court case before deciding whether to launch a review.