New Zealand's top scientific body has joined calls for an overhaul of genetic engineering (GE) laws, after finding an "urgent need" for a fresh look at how we might use the contentious technology.

The Prime Minister's chief science adviser has also shared with Jacinda Ardern her belief that laws governing gene editing technologies were no longer fit for purpose.

Environment Minister David Parker has now asked officials whether "lower" regulatory hurdles might be considered in some areas.

Since 2003, GE and genetically modified organisms have been tightly controlled by the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act – and there have been growing calls from the biotech sector for a legal review.


In the strongest signal to the Government yet, a high-powered panel convened by Royal Society Te Apārangi has concluded the time has come for change.

It favours moving away from a black-and-white view of what is and isn't genetic modification, toward a more nuanced approach that looks at specific applications, and what benefits and risks they carry.

The panel, which has just released a pair of discussion papers, heard arguments around gene editing in three areas - pest control, primary industries and medicine – finding pros and cons in each.

Panel co-chair Professor Barry Scott said there was an appetite to consider certain therapeutic gene-editing applications in medicine, so long as it was safe and with few negative side effects.

There was also an interest in using controversial gene drives to knock down pest populations, but again, as long as the benefits outweighed the risks.

"However, there were concerns over unintended consequences of removing species and around the risks of gene-edited pests finding their way back to their native countries."

And in the primary sector, the panel found there was potential for gene editing to support our competitive advantage and protect flora and fauna.

But there were also fears over unintended consequences, and worries that New Zealand's brand – or any "GM free" trade advantage – could be damaged.


"Across all scenarios, feedback from Māori participants highlighted the importance of whakapapa and mauri, involving tangata whenua around indigenous species, protection of data, and intellectual property implications of gene editing taonga species."

Ultimately, the review found our legal framework was becoming increasingly out of date in the face of global advances, and called for a refreshed system with clearer definitions and a focus on applications rather than the GE process itself.

They were points strongly echoed in chief science adviser Professor Juliet Gerrard's accompanying briefing to Ardern.

Gerrard said regulations shouldn't hinder asking and answering key ethical questions, noting that Kiwis would probably accept an edited gene if it cured cancer, but would reject the idea of using the science to modify children, as recently happened with a rogue Chinese researcher.

"We need an honest discussion of the hazards and benefits of the myriad possible applications of genetic tools, within the context of society's acceptance or otherwise of the use of these tools in each case."

She noted there was no over-arching forum to discuss gene-editing, and also suggested whether the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should have a function similar to Australia's dedicated gene technology regulator.

Her predecessor in the influential role, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, also weighed in on the topic last month, telling a conference New Zealand could risk "becoming a backwater" if it didn't regularly review evolving technologies.

The National Party's science, research and innovation spokeswoman, Dr Parmjeet Parmar, welcomed the panel's findings.

"This report is another compelling reason why the Government cannot continue to dismiss the need for a review of New Zealand's stance towards biotechnology."

Anti-GE groups, which have long claimed New Zealand's position in global markets would be threatened by genetic modification, remained vehemently opposed to any softening of regulation.

GE-Free NZ spokesman Jon Carapiet said there was an incorrect impression of there being a current moratorium on GE.

"Anyone can apply to the EPA; they have to go through processes and requirements - and that's what the public expects."

David Parker also noted that point.

"Although New Zealand takes a precautionary approach, advancements in gene editing are not prohibited," he said.

"There are already instances where the EPA has approved the use of modified organisms, for example Pexa-Vec currently used in clinical trials for the treatment of liver and kidney cancer."

But he acknowledged there were instances where gene editing techniques could be applied to improve the lives of New Zealanders and agreed with Gerrard that there was "a spectrum" of genetic modification.

Parker said he'd 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.

"The recommendation to clarify conflicting or inconsistent definitions across the regulatory framework will also be considered."