Comment: Biotechnology advancement has been rapid, and we're being left behind due to our restrictive legislation, writes National List MP Dr Parmjeet Parmar.

Biotechnology is occurring all around the world and we need to have an informed discussion on how it could affect New Zealand.

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Our legislation needs to be amended to ensure that we can make advancements that need made, while having a clearly regulated framework that mitigates risk.

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Recently I announced alongside National Party Leader Simon Bridges, that National would make the required changes to the Hazardous Substances and Organisms (HSNO) Act should we be elected in 2020.

I believe these changes are essential in modernising a law that is out of date, and ensuring we can reap the benefits of technology in a way that benefits New Zealand's environment, economy and people.

Advancement in the field of biotechnology has been rapid, and we're being left behind due to our restrictive legislation.

There will still be many views left over from the 1990's where genetic modification and conducting research in the field of genetic modification was an issue. But this withstanding attitude towards scientific advancements is a risk for our advancement as a country.

Biotechnology is no longer what it was in the 1990's. Research is funded through Government administered funds and is already conducted in New Zealand under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act in some cases.

The use of biotechnology is done with a bigger goal in mind, the actual aim of the research is to look for economic, environmental or health opportunities from research which simply involves biotechnology – usually a very small but vital part of the overall research project. While it should be regulated, it's important the regulation is proportional to risk.

Dr Parmjeet Parmar. Photo / Doug Sherring
Dr Parmjeet Parmar. Photo / Doug Sherring

We currently have many Government funded research projects in New Zealand that involve biotechnology and many scientists who desire to reach the next level of science and innovation through the latest in gene technology.

However, due to the restrictive regime imposed by the HSNO Act, the important trial stages are seen to be easier to do overseas. For example, AgResearch has been undertaking continued research into High Metabolisable Energy ryegrass overseas.

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It has the potential to reduce livestock methane emissions by around 23 per cent, and ensure less nitrogen is excreted into the environment by livestock feeding on this ryegrass.

If we are serious about lowering our emissions effectively without damaging our production, this is the sort of project we should be putting serious effort into.

It makes sense to keep our taxpayer funded work in our own country. It means our economy will reap the benefits of the work, and it ensures we stay at the cutting edge of scientific progress. It seems crazy to let New Zealand's great work be forced overseas.

Another point to consider is the new, more discrete biotechnology techniques that can make changes that are indistinguishable from traditional unregulated techniques like chemical and radiation treatments.

The CRISPR technique is one of these techniques, it is not only faster to apply but offers much more precise and multifaceted outcomes in terms of biotechnology compared to the traditional methods.

A law change is needed to allow us as a nation to take advantage of the economic opportunities presented by having these tools at our disposal.

It would lower emissions while increasing food production, and could tackle various environmental, conservation and health issues.

Not to mention protecting us from an invasion of biotech-modified items in our ecosystem that the law is unable to detect.

Australia, our significant agri-business partner, has already brought their law change into effect on 8 October. The world around us is sensing the need to change.

New Zealand is now behind. How long can we keep avoiding the latest advancements?

We need a legislation that is fit for purpose, regulates what needs regulating and imposes penalties that are in proportion to the risks. The current legislation fails to do so.

There is actually more risk in not changing the law.

- Dr Parmjeet Parmar is the National List MP based in Mt Roskill and Opposition's Spokesperson for Research, Science and Innovation. Dr Parmar holds a PhD in Biological Sciences from the University of Auckland, as well as Bachelor and Masters degrees in Biochemistry from the University of Pune in India. Prior to entering Parliament, Dr Parmar worked as a scientist, businesswoman, broadcaster and community advocate.