COMMENT:

The conversation about genetic technologies has started again.

First, through the former Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, Sir Peter Gluckman on Q+A, and then with Air New Zealand announcing they will serve the Impossible Burger on the Business Premier flights between Auckland and LA.

Politicians from Labour, NZ First and National have all spoken out against the move by Air NZ.

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Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said Air New Zealand make their own decisions, "not always smart".

Acting PM Winston Peters has expressed he is "utterly opposed to fake beef".

Former Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy tweeted: "Disappointing to see Air NZ promoting a GE substitute meat burger on its flight to the USA. We produce the most delicious steak and lamb on the planet – GMO and hormone free. The national carrier should be pushing our premium products and helping sell NZ to the world."

Trolls and comments online followed in support for and opposing the move.

There is a disruption in the market here, it makes people feel uncomfortable, and like all new disruptions there will be winners and losers. Like it or not, plant-based and synthetic proteins are here to stay, and New Zealand has a choice to focus on premium grass-fed products or to keep up with emerging offshore competitors of alternative meats and milks.

Compared to cows, the Impossible Burger uses 95 per cent less land, 74 per cent less water, and creates 87 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions. There may be a risk if we ignore new alternatives and focus solely on trying to safeguard our meat and dairy economy.

Regardless of how you feel about premium grass-fed agricultural products, if identical products can be produced safely and without the ethical and environmental impacts of traditional agriculture, in time, the world will move beyond this.

On the Impossible Foods website, they state: The heme molecule in plant-based heme is atom-for-atom identical to the heme molecule found in meat. This means it is identical to the heme humans have been consuming for thousands of years in meat and other foods. There is a caveat though, it is genetically engineered. The genetically engineered protein called soy leghemoglobin or heme is the meat alternative which makes the burger smell and taste like meat.

People feel strongly about this for a number of reasons, but these are largely based on a deeper inherent emotion rather than based on evidence. Sci-fi movies have meant words like "genetic" bring out values-based opinions and emotions in people.
There is strong resistance from some groups and current attitudes towards genetic technologies in New Zealand are mixed. This is due to a low level of understanding in New Zealand about genetic technologies and there has been little public discussion

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It's important to note, not all genetic technologies are the same.

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism that has had its genetic material altered using genetic engineering techniques.

This could include an organism which has been altered by the addition of genetic material from an unrelated organism or altered without the addition of genetic material from an unrelated organism.

Example: genetically modified crops can be engineered to be drought tolerant.

Gene editing, however, is when DNA is inserted, deleted, modified or replaced at a specific site in the genome of a living organism

Example: A common white button mushroom has been modified to resist browning. These mushrooms can be cultivated and sold in America.

There are many ways these technologies can be used and if some of these new techniques can be proven to be safe in New Zealand, they may be able to help us in the future.

In agriculture, could GMO's provide more sustainable farming? Using genetically modified grass that is more productive and nutritious for stock we could reduce or stop irrigation, preventing or minimising animal runoff and nutrient leaching. Grasses and crops could also be more resilient in flood and drought. Safeguarding farmers during severe wet and dry periods.

Agriculture is the highest producer of greenhouse gases by industry in New Zealand.

Methane and nitrous oxide gases account for around half of New Zealand's total greenhouse gas emissions. Methane is produced largely from cows burping and nitrous oxide through conversions in the soil by microbes of nitrogen in fertiliser, urine and dung.

By genetically modifying bacteria in cow guts we could significantly reduce our methane emissions.

Success of the Predator Free 2050 goal to eradicate mammalian pests in New Zealand by 2050 will require new techniques, public support and widespread implementation.

It is unlikely we can achieve eradication using currently available tools.

As the population densities of target species decline, the required effort and associated costs of eliminating remaining individuals increases considerably. New breakthroughs in the field of gene editing will almost certainly be required as part of the solution. This may include gene editing of a target animal that would, for example, affect their ability to reproduce.

This would edit a species DNA directly rather than transfer DNA between different species.

There is no silver bullet here, and using genetic technologies, we must proceed with extreme caution - there are still years of development required for some of these techniques. But there is an urgency to solve some of our environmental challenges in New Zealand.

If these techniques are safe, could they help improve our freshwater, reduce our emissions and help us achieve our Predator Free 2050 goal?

To address these issues, it is important we invest research in these areas, however, establishing social understanding and ethics is crucial as these technologies and opportunities evolve.

Is it time we reconsider our stance on genetic technologies and start to have an open conversation about this in New Zealand?

Jacob Anderson is the programme manager at the Sir Peter Blake Trust and is a geologist undertaking his PhD at the University of Otago. His research focuses on past Antarctic climate and ice sheet behaviour.