More than 150 young scientists have appealed to the Green Party to back an overhaul of gene-editing laws, which they argue would help fight climate change.

But the party has signalled no intention of changing its stance over the contentious issue.

In New Zealand, strict regulations under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act have tightly controlled the use of gene engineering and genetically modified organisms since 2003.

Over recent months, calls for the act to be reviewed have come from a panel convened by New Zealand's top scientific body, the Prime Minister's chief science advisor, and National, which has pledged "significant changes".

Advertisement

The Government has no plans for a review, although Environment Minister David Parker has asked officials to advise where lower regulatory hurdles might be considered around medical uses for gene editing, or lab tests where any risk was mitigated by containment.

There has even been less appetite for any change from confidence-and-supply partners The Green Party – which the group Emerging Scientists for Climate Action addressed in an open letter published today.

In it, the scientists pleaded with the party to reconsider its position, arguing that GM-based research could be "decisive" in efforts to reduce emissions, while also partly easing climate-driven impacts.

"The period since the introduction of the 2003 legislation has seen important GM related research in the areas of agricultural efficiency, carbon sequestration, and alternative protein production," stated the letter, signed by 155 young scientists from universities and institutions across the country.

"The existing regulation in New Zealand inhibits application of advances such as these, blocking not only the development of green technology, but the potential for a just transition away from extractive and polluting industries."

Greens spokesperson Gareth Hughes said the party was comfortable with keeping GE in the lab, but added it was open to a "facts-based public conversation" to ensure the environment was protected and consumers were kept "safe and informed".

READ MORE: 'Aggressive' and 'violent' - the Green Party member who wanted co-leader James Shaw to resign
READ MORE: Strongest call yet for overhaul of 'outdated' genetic engineering laws
READ MORE: NZ genetic engineering laws 'old and tired', top scientist says
READ MORE: Q&A: Why you've been hearing more about GE lately
READ MORE: Cow of the future? How gene-editing could help dairy's climate problem
READ MORE: Gene-edited NZ pigs: organ donors of the future?

Hughes also argued there were risks to New Zealand's organics sector and national agricultural reputation that needed to be considered.

Advertisement

"There are emissions reduction practices available right now without needing hypothetical, future GE-based technologies," he said.

"We believe regenerative and organic agriculture is a better future for New Zealand and our environment.

"Green Party policies are developed by our members and any change would have to come from the membership."

Genetic engineering had been a vexed issue in the Greens, with the science producing variations that appeared to support its environmental aims.

In late 2017, Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage stepped in to halt her department's discussions with an offshore organisation looking for trial sites for gene editing techniques.

And last week, Greens leader James Shaw and National's Parmjeet Parmar locked horns over gene editing in the House, with Shaw comparing the potential risks around HME ryegrass to that of the dairy industry's DCD debacle.

Parmar told the Herald today that, by not taking a fresh look at GE regulations, New Zealand was risking its environment and biotech sector.

"If we don't allow the sector to flourish, there is a big fear that it will move out to Australia, which has already changed its legislation."

Any reform of laws here 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 should remain incumbent upon applicants to meet the regulatory requirements.

Like the Greens, these groups were also concerned that relaxing our laws could threaten New Zealand's position in global markets.