This is a short summary of a masters thesis by Ella Jensen. The full version follows this report.
The time has come for New Zealand to update its 24-year old legislation surrounding the use of genetic technologies on farms.
The Government has recently committed to becoming both carbon neutral and a global climate change leader. The agricultural sector produces nearly half of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions.
If we are serious as a nation about carbon neutrality, the agricultural sector must be supported with the potential tools to achieve that status.
It is time to re-open a nation-wide dialogue on the use of genetic technologies on New Zealand farms as a response to climate change.
In November 2019, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill as "New Zealand's second Nuclear Free Moment".
If this moment is as critical and monumental as our decision to ban nuclear testing, then this is the time for a serious public conversation about reconsidering the use and development of genetic technologies.
Legislation should be updated to permit new developments which will support environmental solutions.
The current focus on identifying and demonising those sectors that are perceived to cause environmental harm denies those sectors the tools to reduce their footprint and stalls progress in combating climate change.
New Zealand's primary legislative instrument regulating the use of genetically modified and gene edited organisms – the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO Act) – is one of the most restrictive in the world.
But since its enactment in the late 1990s, there has been significant improvement in the precision and efficiency of genetic technologies.
Various genetically modified or edited solutions are now available to help farmers reduce their environmental footprint.
New techniques are constantly being developed, such as improved breeding methods using genetic selection, the altering of the gut bacteria of livestock, and editing livestock's feed using gene editing techniques such as CRISPR.
These developments have demonstrated improved feed production efficiency, carbon efficiency and reduced water use.
In light of these advances, the essentially precautionary approach to the use of genetic technologies adopted by the HSNO Act two decades ago should be revisited.
The consequences of climate change are visible and growing, as we have seen recently with the Australian bushfires. We cannot afford to approach climate change "cautiously".
Phasing out the agricultural sector to achieve carbon neutrality is not viable. Agriculture is a backbone of the economy and supports the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders.
We should pursue an agricultural sector which can flourish in a carbon-neutral nation.
Support is required to enable the sector to become more sustainable in its practices though innovation and technology, including the safe use of gene editing techniques in livestock or feed to reduce carbon emissions.
A prominent ethical concern underpinning much of the debate about genetic technologies is whether humans have the right to alter nature and "play God". Particularly relevant in New Zealand is a Māori spiritual and cultural belief in the relationship between the natural and human world, centred in whakapapa where all things are interconnected by genealogy.
Objections towards biotechnology at the time of the enactment of the HSNO Act were rooted in the prospect of damage to the environment along with concerns about humans meddling with the natural world.
Humans have been modifying nature for thousands of years, using traditional breeding techniques to select for the desired yield or animal trait.
The rising challenge of climate change requires us to ask whether new developments in gene editing techniques can act as tools for mitigation of environmental damage and improved protection of the environment and native species, such as mānuka, pōhutukawa or native birds, through targeted disease and pest control.
Conversation surrounding the use of genetic technologies is well overdue a change in tone.
The technology has developed significantly since the creation of the HSNO Act and we face unprecedented challenges to the sustainability of our society and economy.
We cannot disregard the cultural, spiritual and ethical questions that have informed debate against biotechnology for decades, nor should we ignore the potential risks that come with any technology, but we should acknowledge that innovations and ideas based on biotechnology can help New Zealand reduce its environmental footprint and become more sustainable without sacrificing those values.
It is time to foster active conversation and debate across New Zealand, to create informed and updated policy which takes into consideration the rising challenge of climate change.
We should not ignore the opportunity to use new technologies to reduce New Zealand's farming footprint and foster a sustainable agricultural sector without sacrificing our cultural or environmental heritage.
- Ella Jensen is master of philosophy, political science and economics at Victoria University.