Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor says it's time to review New Zealand's genetic engineering laws, adding to a number of calls for debate after a major report into emissions.

The Government's Interim Climate Change Committee this month raised concerns laws surrounding genetic modification could be a barrier to lowering farming emissions.

It gave the example of a genetically modified ryegrass developed by AgResearch that may potentially reduce both methane and nitrous oxide emissions from grazing animals, but that is having to be tested in the United States and would not be able to be used in New Zealand under current laws.

"Other countries have changed their rules in recent years and it is not uncommon for livestock overseas to eat genetically modified feeds," the report said.


That last week prompted Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones to say it was time to reconsider the genetic-modification-free framework as part of the battle against climate change.

"Let's push the waka out and find out whether or not what we are taking as gospel is indeed still, in this new climate change environment, the gospel we want to believe in," he told the Herald.

Regional Development Minister Shane Jones says it's time to question the GE-Free
Regional Development Minister Shane Jones says it's time to question the GE-Free "gospel". Photo / Dean Purcell

Labour's Damien O'Connor, the Minister of Agriculture, is taking a similar line.

"We probably need to have a sensible, mature conversation about genetic engineering," he said on Tuesday, adding there had been significant shifts in technology.

"This is not going to be a silver bullet for any of our challenges but it will be one of the tools in our toolbox over time and we have to look at that very carefully."

But O'Connor shares a concern that has been raised by both those in favour of a debate and those opposed.

That is, that opening New Zealand to genetic modification could hurt our access to overseas markets increasingly concerned with organic products and hurt our 100 per cent brand.

It was about balancing those risks for exporters, O'Connor said.


"New Zealand does have an advantage in the marketplace being GMO free, so those who are selling our products have to weigh up what the introduction of genetic engineering in whatever form may mean to their marketing opportunities.

"But genetic engineering around the world is opening up some opportunities and we have to be mindful of those and be prepared to open the door where we see net advantage over time."

Environment Minister David Parker says our current laws have served the economy well. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Environment Minister David Parker says our current laws have served the economy well. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The National Party has taken a similar stance. Its climate change spokesman, Todd Muller, says that although environmental credentials are an increasing part of what consumers worry about, the conversation is worth having.

The worry about the brand has also been raised by Climate Change Minister James Shaw, whose Green Party fiercely opposes genetic engineering, and lobby group GE Free New Zealand.

"If New Zealand had the strongest GMO regulations in the world, that would be appealing to a large section of the premium market globally," GE Free spokesman Jon Carapiet said.

Although Cabinet, in response to the emission report, has agreed to look at broader legislative framework - including genetic engineering - the minister in charge of the law, Environment Minister David Parker, appears to have no interest in budging.


He told Parliament last week the current set-up had served New Zealand's economy well.

"If there was a miracle cure for climate change brought about by a GM crop, I'm sure that any Government would consider it. At the moment, it could be considered under the existing regulatory framework," he said.

The calls for debate don't seem to be limited to home. In his first speech as British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson also flagged the issue.

"Let's start now to liberate the UK's extraordinary bio science sector from anti genetic modification rules and let's develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world," he said.