Removing allergens from milk, making mānuka disease-resistant and preventing wilding pines are some potential future uses of gene editing in New Zealand.

The possibilities are explored in the Royal Society Te Apārangi's new discussion paper The use of gene editing in the primary industries, released today.

The paper outlines the relevant considerations, risks and potential benefits for five scenarios of how gene editing could be used for primary production sectors including agriculture, forestry and horticulture.

The Royal Society Te Apārangi said in a statement it was part of its larger Gene Editing in Aotearoa project.

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A multidisciplinary expert panel and reference group had been brought together to explore the wider social, cultural, legal and economic implications of gene editing in New Zealand, incorporating Māori perspectives and broader cultural contexts, the society said.

Professor of Molecular Genetics at Massey University and co-chair of the expert panel, Barry Scott, said gene editing techniques would allow more targeted and precise genetic changes than what had been possible before in crop and livestock breeding.

"It's a good time for New Zealanders to consider what gene editing could offer our primary industries and how they'd feel about its use."

The society is holding three workshops around the country to discuss the potential use of gene editing in the primary industries with the panel and reference group members, and gauge New Zealanders' views.

Scott said one potential application of gene editing would be to speed up the time it took to produce new apple varieties.

"New Zealand is known internationally for our apples and there is strong commercial pressure to develop new and improved varieties but the process is slow, because it can take five years before any fruit is produced to start the evaluation and testing of potential new apple varieties.

"Gene editing could offer the opportunity to temporarily remove the gene that slows down flowering – so the trees would flower in eight months instead of five years. Once a new variety of apple with desirable characteristics had been selected, traditional plant breeding would reintroduce the genes that slow down flowering. This means the resulting trees sold to growers would not contain any of the gene editing changes, but would have been introduced to the market much faster than by using existing breeding methods."

Another scenario the paper discusses is using gene editing to make mānuka resistant to disease.

Members of a multi-agency biosecurity response team checking for signs of myrtle rust soon after its discovery in Kerikeri last year. Photo / File
Members of a multi-agency biosecurity response team checking for signs of myrtle rust soon after its discovery in Kerikeri last year. Photo / File

Lawyer and panel member Irene Kereama-Royal said myrtle rust and kauri dieback disease had started people thinking about what could be done to conserve native taonga species.

"Extracts of leaves and bark from mānuka have been used for centuries by Māori and, with the growth in the mānuka honey industry, mānuka is now an important plant for New Zealand both culturally and economically. Should we use gene-editing to create new varieties of mānuka that are resistant to disease?"

Massey University agronomist Dr James Millner said if gene editing was able to help protect mānuka it should be evaluated.

"Mānuka is very valuable as a pioneer species after disturbance caused by erosion or fire. More recently, the high value of mānuka honey is driving a lot of investment in the honey industry, ranging from the establishment of mānuka plantations for honey production to the acquisition of hives so that apiarists can increase collection of nectar."

He said recent planting of thousands of hectares, mostly on steep erosion-prone hill country, would result in benefits for the environment and allow landowners to generate income from land which is generally unproductive.

There were a number of examples of self-introducing pests and diseases (blown in on the wind) which had affected or potentially could affect mānuka.

"Myrtle rust is the latest example. Prior to that there have been a number of scale insects which also arrived from Australia. Leptospermum Scoparium is present in Australia so there is considerable potential for more pest and disease arrivals and a risk that one or more of these new organisms could threaten mānuka.

"Mānuka (Leptospermum scoparium) is very valuable as a pioneer species after disturbance caused by erosion or fire. More recently, the high value of mānuka honey is driving a lot of investment in the honey industry, ranging from the establishment of mānuka plantations for honey production to the acquisition of hives so that apiarists can increase collection of nectar."

A third scenario is to use gene editing to make exotic conifer trees, such as Douglas fir, sterile.

Gene editing could halt the production of cones and pollen in wilding trees. Photo / File
Gene editing could halt the production of cones and pollen in wilding trees. Photo / File

Panel member Dr Phil Wilcox said wilding trees were a big problem in New Zealand.

"Not only do they outcompete native species, they invade and modify unique natural ecosystems, are costly to remove and can contribute to pollen allergies."

Wilcox, who has more than 30 years' experience in forestry research, said gene editing could halt the production of cones and pollen in these species, "which would mean that when these trees are planted for forestry, shelter belts, or to help prevent erosion or climate change, they wouldn't escape into places where they are not wanted".

"There are risks, however," said Wilcox. "For example, the prospect of artificially modified sterile pine or Douglas Fir forests does not sit comfortably with some New Zealanders, who may perceive such forests as unnatural and inconsistent with New Zealand's clean, green image.

"Widespread use of such sterile conifers could exacerbate some of the other issues associated with commercial forestry, including perceived loss of biodiversity and in some cases, poor environmental management."

Dr Elspeth MacRae, Chief Innovation and Science Officer at Crown research institute Scion, said an added advantage to creating sterile trees was a boost to reaching New Zealand's zero carbon by 2050 and low emissions economy targets.

"Faster-growing sterile trees take more carbon out of the atmosphere in any unit of time because they use energy to grow rather than to reproduce.

"Achieving sterile Douglas fir and other plantation conifers will also benefit the 1 billion trees planting initiative of the current government by preventing unmanaged spread of wilding trees."

Professor Andy Allan from the University of Auckland School of Biological Sciences said gene editing of plants should be treated in the same way as any breeding method.

"If the resulting plant is measurably better for the environment or the consumer then that is the only hurdle it should meet."

Read more: Why farmers need GMO options to fight climate change

"At present, these plants are categorised as 'genetically modified' or GM by NZ law, even though the DNA changes made are exactly the same as those created by sunlight, and a lot less than those made by traditional breeding. The simple message should be: these plants now contain new DNA.

"I hope that the [society's] discussion paper on the use of gene editing in the primary industries will be a great start to an adult conversation on benefit versus risk for this breeding method."

University of Otago genetics professor Peter Dearden, of the Bio-Protection Research Centre, said the scenarios in the paper were not really futuristic, but ideas that could be implemented relatively quickly.

"The report clearly shows that the biggest barriers to using these technologies are regulatory ones and that the regulatory regimen is complex and often contradictory."

"The scenarios show the benefits that gene editing could bring in each scenario, clearly indicating the benefits we would miss out on if we do not engage with this technology, and develop the skills to carry out effective gene editing in New Zealand. Without skills and research in gene editing we will not be able to determine risk vs benefits, nor have the ability to understand and assess technologies coming from overseas."

Sir Peter Gluckman says we shouldn't shy away from the debate about genetic modification. Photo / File
Sir Peter Gluckman says we shouldn't shy away from the debate about genetic modification. Photo / File

Last month the former Chief Science Adviser to the Prime Minister, Sir Peter Gluckman, said New Zealand would fall behind other countries if we didn't get access to promising inovations that use GM.

Gluckman said he had looked into ways to reduce agricultural emissions, and we shouldn't shy away from the debate about genetic modification.

He said New Zealand had a "fairly rough" debate a couple of decades ago, and that most people wanted to wait and see what everyone else did.

"If we look at the choices we have with our environment and economy, we are increasingly straining the options we have ahead."

Listen to Gluckman interviewed on The Country below:

He said one example was a rye grass that could reduce the amount of methane in cows.

"If we're serious about climate change, if we're serious about environmental protection, if we're serious about a reduction in predators and protecting biodiversity, we perhaps need to think again about whether the technologies which are increasingly being used offshore have got a role to play in New Zealand."

The workshops will be held at the following venues and times:

Hamilton - Wednesday October 10, 9.45am-2.30pm, The Verandah, Rotoroa Drive, Hamilton Lake,
Napier - Monday October 15, 9.45am-2.30pm, Napier Conference Centre, Exhibition Room, 48 Marine Parade,
Dunedin - Tuesday October 23, 10am-2.30pm, The Dunedin Centre, Fullwood Room, 1 Harrop St.

The discussion paper is the third in a series, which includes papers exploring the potential use of gene editing for human health and pest control in New Zealand. All resources are available online at royalsociety.org.nz/gene-editing.