New Zealand urgently needs to have an informed discussion on new science technologies -- and genetically modified organisms (GMO) and advanced gene editing technology are part of that discussion.

Colourful rhetoric about keeping New Zealand GMO-free should be balanced with what is happening globally and the advances in science since New Zealand introduced the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO) in 1996.

If New Zealand doesn't use science-based decision-making about adopting these advanced techniques, there will be economic ramifications.

Treasury secretary Gabriel Makhlouf made a pro-innovation speech about advanced gene editing technologies at last month's Fieldays He pointed out that New Zealand's current system denied any choice, whereas its competitors had that choice. He also challenged New Zealand's approach to risk.


Federated Farmers of New Zealand has similarly voiced its concern. NZBIO, representing the wider biotech sector including agri-science, believes now is the time for fresh debate.

Humans have been modifying plant and animal genomes to achieve desirable outcomes for thousands of years. Every time we choose to selectively breed the "best" (strongest, tallest, sweetest, most colourful) we usurp natural selection, exerting pressure on the evolutionary process to suit our needs.

Advanced gene editing technologies provide fast, cost-effective and safe methods for achieving the same desired outcomes in a precise, predictable and safe manner.

The benefits of these technologies can be applied across a broad spectrum of industries with clear and tangible benefits. These benefits can include eradication of deadly diseases, addressing climate change and water quality issues, reducing the world's reliance on oil and, significantly, feeding the world through a time of unprecedented population growth.

Many scientists have scrutinised the development and introduction of these advanced technologies to assess efficacy and safety. A massive 2010 crop-based study by the European Commission spanning 25 years and comprising data from more than 500 independent research groups concluded technologies using GMO were not more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies.

These sentiments have been validated by independent groups across the globe, including a current, comprehensive and independent study by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

These technologies are already being widely used throughout the world and the benefits are increasingly visible. In 2013, 18 million farmers from 27 different countries grew genetically modified crops over a total of 175 million hectares (more than 12 per cent of the world's arable land).

New Zealanders should be presented with all the facts to enable robust discussion on the use of gene editing technologies.

Since our own use of these technologies is limited by overly restrictive legislation and unnecessary local council interference, the potential for New Zealand remains speculative. However, a good indicator lies in two economic analyses conducted as part of separate field trial applications (Pinus radiata and rye grass), which estimated the combined benefits for these two species alone were up to $2 billion a year.


New Zealand relies heavily on primary industry and while others are gaining competitive advantage from adopting new technologies, we will fall behind.

New Zealanders should be presented with all the facts to enable robust discussion on the use of gene editing technologies. The country must also address deficiencies in the way government agencies and local councils deal with the regulation of these technologies.

We need a regulatory framework that enables a risk assessment based on scientific fact, such that we can choose to enjoy the benefits of new innovations.

Dr Will Barker is a patent attorney and chief executive NZBIO.