Revealed: New Zealand's archaic genetic technology law stifling breakthrough science

Pressure is mounting on the Government to tackle the controversial area of genetic technology, with officials warning if it doesn't, the country could face lost opportunities - ranging from economic benefits to cutting-edge medical treatments and combating diseases like kauri dieback.

Documents obtained by Newshub under the Official Information Act reveal the current law around genetically modified organisms (GMO) is out of date and could be restricting New Zealand's access to the advancements the technologies provide.

In a Ministry for the Environment briefing to Environment Minister David Parker in June 2018, officials warned New Zealand could fall behind the rest of the world in the genetic engineering space. It said the rapid pace of technological change is forcing countries to clarify their positions, and recommended the Government update the law and at the very least spark a national conversation about genetic modification.

"The developments raise questions as to whether New Zealand's regulatory framework is still appropriate as the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 (HSNO) is becoming outdated in light of developments. We believe a broad public conversation is required to ascertain New Zealanders' views on the developments."

The HSNO Act has never had a full review, meaning it hasn't evolved since 1998.  

"The current regime is inflexible and reflects a 1998 understanding of genetic modification (GM) and the social priorities at the time."

National's research, science and innovation spokesperson Parmjeet Parmar told Newshub the Government's dropped the ball and the law should be looked at.

"Looking at the way this technology has evolved over the last seven or eight years, it's outdated and definitely not fit for purpose."

Parmar believes ignoring the advice is harming the environment and the economy.

"This is shutting down the conversation, which is not good for any Government. I think we should be really open-minded about seeing how we can take advantage of any technology. This is just like any technology - we need to learn to use it to our advantage and that is where they're lacking."

Officials also warned it may be stopping New Zealand economically benefiting from new technologies.

"Anecdotal feedback from stakeholders and Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) is that the high thresholds make it essentially impossible to obtain a release approval for virtually any GMO in pastoral and horticultural species, and that there is no clear path to market, which discourages commercial development."

Ecologist Jamie Steer told Newshub the legislation needs to be reviewed because the technology could be a game-changer.

"In terms of gene editing, it's already been raised as a possibility to affect the Predator Free 2050 goals, including the possibility to achieve one of the interim goals around making a science solution that's capable of eradicating one of the target species. Another possibility is using genetic modification for increasing the survival and fitness of a species. Both are feasible but would require significant research and public engagement."

No GMOs are commercially available and no applications for a full environmental release have ever been received by the EPA.

"This may result in organisms being regulated at a level not proportionate to the risk they pose and New Zealand missing out on the benefits they could provide (such as medical treatments, crops, trees or forage with beneficial properties)," officials said.

Parker refused Newshub's request for an interview.

GM law
Photo credit: Newshub.

Kauri dieback

In New Zealand, a genetically modified organism is defined as any organism containing or derived from genetic material that has been modified in a test tube, this applies to plants, animals and microbes.

AgResearch is currently undertaking field trials on a drought-tolerant ryegrass in the United States - it chose not to apply for approval to test in New Zealand.

In March 2018, the United States Department of Agriculture clarified there is no regulation for plants created using new technologies provided they could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques; are not plant pests; have not been developed using plant pests. Several of these crops have been given regulatory approval and are commercially available, including apples that don't go brown.

There's also been development of disease-resistant American chestnut trees. This technology has been raised as having potential to help combat kauri dieback and myrtle rust.

What the Government could do next

Currently there is no clear international consensus on the best way to regulate the use of new genetic technologies.

Officials said there's an opportunity for New Zealand to position itself, and warned consequences will arise if action doesn't happen now.

Having a national conversation on the topic is being touted as the way forward and recommendations for how that could look range from a discussion document to a full-blown royal commission.

"Leaving a public consultation for too long (eg two-three years away) could mean that New Zealand risks missing opportunities, playing catch-up on the international stage, and facing increasing compliance issues from GMOs indistinguishable from conventionally developed organisms. It could also run the risk of having to narrow the conversation to specific legislative changes as a response to international positioning without gauging high-level attitudes within New Zealand first."

The Environment Minister was also told unless the conversation is done well, the outcome could be worse than not having a conversation at all.

"There is also a risk that conversations will be informed by overseas models and practices which may not be relevant to New Zealand, or by interest groups that don't have a good understanding of the science involved, which could result in misinformation and misunderstanding about what the new technologies are and can do."

Multiple options for the national discussion were recommended.  

  • A high level conversation to gauge overall public views and identify key issues about the development of genetic technologies and New Zealand's regulatory environment without putting forward options for change. The conversation could be done through another royal commission, the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor, the Productivity Commission or the Ministry.
  • Consultation on the primary legislation through a general discussion document seeking feedback on the performance of the system, following by proposing specific amendments.
  • Consultation on the scope and risk settings of the Not-GM regulations through a discussion document and workshops, followed by a consultation document setting out specific proposals for amendment.
  • Structuring a public conversation around specific opportunities or challenges where GM organisms may provide a significant benefit eg. health, environmental, (kauri dieback, myrtle rust) or sterile pine trees.

In 2001-2002 a royal commission investigated a way forward for GM in New Zealand, it recommended to 'proceed with caution' and it didn't advocate for a complete ban on the technology.

Parmar says National's already seeking feedback on the topic through its environment policy discussion paper.

"We want to go out and see what New Zealanders think. It's really important we have this conversation with a very open mind. This conversation needs to be knowledge-based."

Dr Steer says the way the engagement process is carried out is crucial.

"We still don't have a good gauge of what the public appetite for this sort of stuff is in specific areas. We're aware the public may be pretty wary about the use of genetic modification in general but they might be more open to particular technologies," he said.  

"I would encourage the Government to engage with the public and to coincide that with a bit of education about what the options might be and the risks and benefits as well".

To date only three GMOs have been approved for conditional release in New Zealand.

  • Proteqflu, an equine influenza vaccine.
  • Pexa-Vec, used in a clinical trial for patients with liver cancer.
  • Telomelysin, used in a clinical trial for patients with advanced and inoperable melanoma.
GMO doc
Photo credit: Supplied


Newshub revealed in February the Conservation Minister penned a letter of expectation to Predator Free 2050 Limited, explicitly telling the company not to invest in research into genetic engineering technology.

That's despite official advice from the Department of Conservation suggesting it could be used to help rid New Zealand of predators.

Ministry for the Environment advice explained there is potential for new technologies to benefit pest control however it is a long way off.

"There is still uncertainty as to whether such methods would be successful or should be used and significant background research would be required before testing could even occur. For that reason we do not believe the use of genetic technologies for predator control should be the instigator for a public conversation on genetic technologies.

Newshub also revealed DoC has significantly increased its spending on finding alternatives to 1080. Since 2011, the trend in spending has jumped from $1.06 million a year to $3.55 million planned spend in 2018/19.

GE-Free New Zealand was approached for comment.