Scientists have welcomed news that the Environmental Protection Authority is to help clear up the definition of what is and what isn't a genetically modified organism (GMO).
Environment Minister Nick Smith last week announced a new review that would look at what changes were needed to maintain the workability of the law around GMOs which the EPA administers.
Under current law, widely-used crops that have been grown in New Zealand for decades can be considered "genetically modified" because of the way they were created.
Amendments proposed in a new discussion paper would clarify that organisms and plants bred using conventional chemical and radiation treatments are not considered genetically modified under the law and do not require approval as GMOs under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO).
Dr Smith described the amendments as "cautious proposals" that addressed drafting errors from the 1998 regulations that were highlighted in a High Court ruling last year, in which an EPA decision clearing Scion to alter the DNA of pine species using novel technology -- deemed an exception from the HSNO regulations -- was overturned following an appeal from the Sustainability Council of New Zealand.
"They are necessary to ensure we do not inadvertently include many older breeding technologies within the definition of genetic modification and do not change the intent of the current policy," Dr Smith said.
Today, scientists approached by the New Zealand Science Media Centre backed the move to review the definitions of GMOs.
Massey University Professor of Molecular Genetics Barry Scott said such decisions should not be made in the High Court.
It had now been 40 years since the development of recombinant DNA technologies -- and 20 years since the passing of the HSNO Act -- and significant advances in science and technology had left the country in a "time warp".
"Clarity around what is not a GMO is very much a first and essential step to address to avoid legal redress as occurred last year," Professor Scott said.
But he added a more general overhaul of the regulations was urgently needed for New Zealand, to take advantage of significant advances that had taken place.
"The highly risk averse nature of the current New Zealand regulations are way out of step with the current scientific knowledge available on GM technologies and the regulations and practices in most international jurisdictions," he said.
"This disjoint has led to a compliance regime that is excessive to what is needed to manage the low risk nature of most of the current GM techniques and technologies."
Scion manufacturing and bioproducts general manager Dr Elspeth MacRae said it was "a fallacy" that New Zealand was GMO-free and always had been.
She pointed out food ingredients on our shelves had been produced using GMOs, we eat cheese and other foods made using GMO mictobes, and the cotton in clothes we wear is often made from GMO fibre.
"The legislation is now almost two decades old and well out of step with the rapid advancement in science and the large amount of scientific evidence regarding the risks and benefits of genetic technologies."
Since legislation around GMOs was introduced, the country had become highly risk averse, and costs for applications for permission to evaluate technologies had risen sharply, which was "blocking innovation".
"New Zealand is a biological country and is likely to miss opportunities to capitalise on the benefits on GMO plants, including impacts that are positive for climate change and greenhouse gas emissions and our future liabilities under Kyoto and later agreements."
But Canterbury University genetics lecturer Professor Jack Heinemann felt that while the proposed revisions would help remove uncertainty, he saw no "additional impact of great relevance" to either research or industry, as the changes were "aligned with how most of us had interpreted the rules anyway".