National says it would overhaul the Act that has long regulated gene editing in New Zealand.
The party's leader Simon Bridges and science and innovation spokesperson Parmjeet Parmar today announced their intention, if elected next year, to review the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act.
Their announcement at Auckland's Mint Innovation was timed to coincide with the introduction of reforms in Australia, which effectively deregulated gene editing in plants, animals and human cell lines that didn't introduce new genetic material.
In New Zealand, strict regulations under the HSNO Act have tightly controlled the use of gene engineering and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) since 2003.
Parmar said National would make "significant changes" to modernise the act, ensuring the regulation was proportionate to risk.
Asked by the Herald what precisely National intended to change in the act, she didn't offer specifics but said it would be reviewed in its entirety.
"We will be taking into consideration all the feedback from the scientific community as well as the wider public."
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Parmar argued biotechnology offered benefits in areas ranging from heath to conservation and climate change, and that New Zealand shouldn't be passing up these opportunities.
"AgResearch has developed a High Metabolisable Energy (HME) rye grass that can reduce on-farm methane emissions by around 23 per cent.
"Due to our current restrictive laws this research has to be field trialled overseas.
"Australia has already recognised the need for change, and have legislated for changes in their laws.
"The science around biotechnology is moving faster than ever before and New Zealand mustn't fall behind."
The plan, already flagged by National's in its discussion document on environmental policy, came after a panel convened by top science body Royal Society Te Apārangi this year recommended a fresh look at gene-editing laws.
Prime Minister's chief science advisor Professor Juliet Gerrard has also shared with Jacinda Ardern her belief that our laws were no longer fit for purpose.
Her predecessor in that role, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, has similarly remarked that shunning evolving technologies could put New Zealand at risk of becoming "a backwater with a declining competitive position".
The Government has no current work to review the HSNO Act, but Environment Minister David Parker has asked officials to advise where lower regulatory hurdles ought to be considered to enable medical uses that would result in no inheritable traits, or laboratory tests where any risk was mitigated by containment.
He had also said he'd consider the panel's recommendation to clarify conflicting or inconsistent definitions of gene editing across the regulatory framework.
There remained mixed views in society as to whether new gene-editing techniques modified the genome of an existing organism, and the Government was seeking advice on those issues before it decided to move forward.
Parker pointed out that, although New Zealand took a precautionary approach, advancements in gene editing weren't prohibited here.
"There are already instances where the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved the use of modified organisms, for example Pexa-Vec used in clinical trials for the treatment of liver and kidney cancer."
Any reform of the HSNO Act would likely be controversial, given long-standing contention around the subject in New Zealand.
GE-free advocates were vehemently opposed to any softening of the HSNO Act, arguing that it shoould remain incumbent upon applicants to meet the regulatory requirements.
They also were also concerned that relaxing our laws could threaten New Zealand's position in global markets.