A panel convened by New Zealand's top scientific body, Royal Society Te Apārangi, this month 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. Why are these calls coming now? Science reporter Jamie Morton talked to panel member and Genetics Otago director Professor Peter Dearden .
There have been mounting calls for an overhaul of our gene-editing regulations over recent years. In the past few days, we've seen Prime Minister's chief science advisor Professor Juliet Gerrard, her predecessor Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, and now an Royal Society Te Apārangi panel join them. What's prompted this - and why now?
I think this has all come to a head because of the work of the Royal Society panel. We have been working on this project for a couple of years, and I think the release of its findings (or knowledge that it was going to happen) has triggered others to make comments.
More surprising for me has been the comparative silence over the last few years as the technologies have become apparent and been used in various situations.
For instance, I am really surprised that the birth of gene edited children overseas last year, as a result of a morally and ethically appalling experiment there, didn't transmit to an urgent debate about the use these technologies in New Zealand.
What is it about our regulatory framework that has been constraining? And what are some examples of definitions that speak to the problem?
Different applications of gene editing will be regulated by different bits of legislation, many of which don't have the same definition for key terms. I guess this is probably the case for lots of new technologies, and isn't isolated to just New Zealand.
Most difficult, is that the development of gene editing technology has outpaced the regulation of it.
For example the definition of genetic modification in the HSNO act is any organism having their genes modified by "in-vitro" techniques, or descended from one that has. Now "in-vitro" here means, effectively, in a lab. But gene editing can be carried out "in vivo", in the organism itself. Are these not then genetically modified?
There are also applications where gene editing can be used to generate a desirable plant, for example, and for that to be used to produce offspring which contain none of the genetic modification applied. In our legislation, those offspring are still genetically modified.
Strongest call yet for overhaul of 'out-dated' GE laws
So with the current legislation GM organisms can be made that aren't defined as GM, and non-GM organisms can be made that are. Sounds to me like something needs to change.
The review suggested making regulation proportionate to risk. Why is this important - and where might different technologies sit on this scale?
I think this is critical but we have to be careful as to what we do around the technologies.
For example, mutagenesis, which was used to make the plants of the "green revolution", makes multiple changes in the genome. This does not count as genetic modification.
With gene editing we can make many fewer changes and target just the one we are interested in. This counts as genetic modification. Indeed we can make the same plants using these two different techniques.
In the case of mutagenesis this will involve the mutagenesis and mass crossing of tens of thousands (if not more) of plants to find one that has the change we want.
Gene editing will allow us to be more targeted, perhaps requiring 10-100s of plants to find the one we want. One of these is GM, and one not.
Currently New Zealand is battling numerous pests and weeds. While none of these are genetically modified, they all have environmental risks. Perhaps the scale of risk should be around the characteristics of the organism produced (or imported) rather than the more narrow focus of what is modified.
A big take-away from the review was that we need to take a more nuanced approach to gene editing, and focus more on specific applications and their potential benefits and risks, rather than the process itself. Can you elaborate here?
Currently we regulate organisms as genetically modified or not. Yet it is clear that with classical breeding techniques you could, for example, breed new varieties of gorse that could be hardier and grow faster.
There is little in law to stop you doing that, despite its potential catastrophic effects on our environment.
As another example, we import organisms for biocontrol of pests in New Zealand, bringing them in and releasing them despite the fact they contain thousands of genes that have never been here before, as well as the microbes and viruses that live on them.
Surely we should be looking at all these applications, including ones for GM organisms, and assessing them on the basis of the risks and benefits to our environments and society. The technology used is sort of irrelevant, but could feed into the risks vs benefits equation.
In some respects it makes no sense to regulate the technology used to change an organism. No one regulates house building through what sort of hammers are used in its construction.
We do it by ensuring the final building is fit for purpose. I think a system that allows us to do that for the biology we modify would work well for New Zealand.
It seems that some potential applications may be more acceptable to people than others. Where would we tend to find the most - and least - acceptance from the public, and why?
It's clear that the public already accept some forms of genetic modification. Car-t cell therapy is an approach to certain types of cancer that involves genetic modification of stem cells.
New Zealanders have had this therapy overseas and, quite rightly, are allowed back in the country and are not in containment despite being, under the definition, genetically modified.
I also think the key thing is that we need to look at technologies for our own benefit, rather than for an international company's benefit.
Deploying GM in helping solve some of our conservation issues, or reducing greenhouse gasses is using these technologies to support our values as a nation. If we choose to use GM, it should be because it is good for us, not others.
Professor Gluckman warned there was a risk New Zealand could become a "biotech backwater" if we didn't regularly review new technologies - a sentiment that's long been sounded by the biotech sector itself. Are we one already? Are our scientists leaving because of the constraints here?
Yes some scientists with outstanding abilities have left New Zealand because of the difficulties in using GM.
Some of them have gone on to develop very important, smart tools that are benefiting agriculture and pest control elsewhere.
On the other hand, GE-free groups have raised concerns around the threat to New Zealand's supposed trade position as a GE-free nation (Gerrard notes that any concerns around trade are different from the scientific issue) as well as risks inherent in the technology itself. Are these fears are at all founded or reasonable?
I think this is something that should be investigated carefully and rigorously.
I also think that we could also have an international reputation for deploying smart technology to mitigate the impact of primary production.
Given our current "clean green image" seems to ignore the continued damage to our soils and waterways, perhaps using technology to walk the clean green talk might be more valued overseas, and more beneficial to us.
If New Zealand were to have a renewed debate around gene editing, how would this best need to be handled, and why?
This is a society decision, not a science or industry one. We need mechanisms that allow informed debate on this topic. I am not sure what they are.