Exclusive: Government advised genetic technology could replace 1080

The case is building for the Government to take a serious look at the role genetic technologies could play in New Zealand - even replacing the controversial use of 1080. 

Documents obtained by Newshub under the Official Information Act show briefings to the Minister for Research, Science and Innovation Megan Woods made the case for the technology to replace 1080.

The advice explained how it's difficult to develop alternatives to using the tool. 

"Currently no alternative options exist at the scale required to replace 1080, but several promising lines of research and development exist that could potentially deliver a replacement in the future.

"Genetic and fertility control technologies do have potential at scale, but there are technological, social and policy hurdles to implementation."

The advice raised concerns about the limited research capability in New Zealand and overseas but there is potential to leverage international work to address the New Zealand problem. 

Further advice said: "a broad public conversation on gene editing and its benefits and risks could help improve the social licence and lay the foundation for future changes to the 23-year-old regulatory regime". 

The HSNO Act (Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act) regulates the technology and has never had a full review, meaning it hasn't evolved since 1998. Officials said New Zealand "has one of the strictest regulatory regimes in the world for handling GM [genetic modification]". 

The Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor Juliet Gerrard also wrote to Megan Woods with her intentions in the genetic technology area.

"The current framework pre-dates the advent of modern techniques and presents a major barrier to constructive debate on the extent of social licence."

New Zealand's top scientific body, The Royal Society, called for an overhaul of the regulations earlier this year.

"I propose that we build on the RSNZ piece of careful legal work to harmonise definitions across acts and regulatory bodies, to facilitate a constructive conversation about the degree of social license to use the technologies in different contexts," Gerrard said.

"The first piece of work could be carefully framed to enable the debate, rather than advocate for a particular position."

Gerrard also mentioned she'd had a preliminary conversation with the Prime Minister on the topic.

Officials did raise concerns with Minister Woods about pushing ahead with the conversation.

"There is a minor risk that discussing a public conversation on gene editing could be perceived as pushing ahead with something that is not yet agreed within Government," the officials said. 

"You might like to mention to your Ministerial colleagues, particularly Ministers [David] Parker, [Eugenie] Sage and [James] Shaw that Prof Gerrard is proposing such a conversation."

The documents also reveal Scion's concerns towards the current regime. It has a GM field trial in New Zealand that has demonstrated herbicide resistance under outdoor growing and spraying conditions. 

Officials told the minister the institute is concerned there is potential not to be able to commercialise results for the benefit of New Zealand if regulations remain the same.

"Scion believes this as a key strategic issue for the New Zealand research community."

Woods refused Newshub's request for an interview, instead releasing a statement.

"Any research that intends to alter an organism's genes or genetic material, even if it will not be released outside of the laboratory, must have approval under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act. This Act is administered by the Environmental Protection Authority and overseen by the Minister for the Environment. The Minister of Research, Science and Innovation does not have responsibility for the HSNO Act.".

National's Science, Research and Innovation spokesperson Parmjeet Parmar told Newshub there's no desire within the Government to review the current regulations and that's a broken promise.

"I would say to her to stop dismissing concerns expressed by Crown research institutes and to support science," Parmar said.

"It is concerning, it looks like they're stuck with their ideology rather than following science."

This isn't the first time Government ministers have been encouraged to consider the benefits of genetic technology. 

Newshub previously revealed officials warned the Minister for the Environment David Parker New Zealand will fall behind the rest of the world in the area if it isn't tackled now. Advice said there could be lost opportunities including economic developments, medical treatments and combating the likes of kauri dieback and myrtle rust.

"The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 (HSNO) is becoming outdated in light of developments," the advice to Environment Minister said.

"We believe a broad public conversation is required to ascertain New Zealanders' views on the developments."

Newshub also revealed Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage has stopped work or research being done in the area despite official advice suggesting it could be used to help rid New Zealand of predators.

In her first official briefing from the Department of Conservation (DoC), DoC concluded the "technology is one of the approaches with potential to achieve the 2025 interim goal of a breakthrough science solution for predator eradication".

"We want to focus on existing tools, making them better and finding new tools without being diverted down the potential rabbit hole of GE research." Sage said.

Parmjeet Parmar says traps aren't the answer.

"New Zealand wants to eradicate pests and that is a big project for us to achieve by 2050. If we are really serious about it, gene technology is the tool as we've seen in advice provided to the minister."

National announced it would review the HSNO Act and make changes to it in its first 100 days of Government if elected in 2020.

Parmar says industry players are suffering because of the out of date legislation and that needs to change.

"The knowledge we have about this technology makes the timing right to act on it. This is a high value sector, it requires a highly skilled workforce and in National we want to see scientists feeling confident progressing their work in this field here in New Zealand which will benefit New Zealand."