Two top scientists back National's policy to loosen genetic modification laws

Two prominent scientists are throwing their support behind a policy proposal from the National Party to end New Zealand's effective ban on genetic engineering and genetic modification.

National said the policy will have huge benefits for fighting climate change, agricultural production and health.

It's backed by former chief science advisor to the Prime Minister Sir Peter Gluckman and former Lincoln University vice chancellor Dr Andy West, but Environment Minister David Parker said it's troubling National hasn't mentioned the risks that changes to our GE-free brand pose to New Zealand's primary exports.

Twenty years ago, thousands marched to convince the Government to keep genetic engineering restrictions in place.

Now the National Party has said it's time to move on.

"We are hauling New Zealand into the 21st century," leader Christopher Luxon said.

It was 2003 when the law was last amended, which permits genetic research in the lab, but field trials are effectively illegal.

National said the loosening of the law will stop scientists from having to go overseas to conduct further research, like the developers of an emissions-reducing, more drought-resistant ryegrass.

"We are losing our way because we're not giving scientists the tools that they need," National's science and research spokesperson Judith Collins said.

Scientists agree.

"I think we're denying ourselves the opportunity to reduce the environmental footprint from a lot of what we do, particularly the farming space, particularly the forestry space," Dr Andy West said.

Sir Peter said these technologies will be what determines whether New Zealand is competitive or not in a world where climate change and environmental factors have significant impact.

"We've lost the capacity to keep up at the leading edge of agriculture and environmental protection," Sir Peter said.

National proposes to create a dedicated biotechnology regulator funded with $5 million a year from the Environmental Protection Agency budget.

It will ensure biotech is safe and ethical.

The regulator will also be tasked with reducing delays by approving trials of non-GE or GM biotech that have already been approved by at least two other OECD countries.

Sir Peter said the regulator is important as the technologies will continue to evolve.

"We now know the fears associated with GM technologies 30 years ago are not justified, and therefore we should be loosening the reins on these technologies," he said.

"Equally, there's an array of new technologies coming on board and we need to be prepared to evaluate them alongside other countries and where they're appropriate, use them."

Luxon said: "This is a huge opportunity for us to say we either are serious about solving climate change, or we keep talking about it."

One risk is "horizontal gene transfer" where the genetic material jumps species boundaries, but West said that can be managed through good regulation.

West said it will also be crucial to gauge the international markets' views on GM and GE products.

"We need to listen to overseas customers as much as anything to see where it can be used and in what way can it be used sensibly," he said.

The Greens said they're comfortable with reviewing GM laws.

"We also always have to prioritise reducing climate pollution and not just leaving it all up to technology alone," Green co-leader Marama Davidson said.

Luxon said on Sunday that biotech solutions will play a big part in cutting farmers' emissions.

It comes as National pulled its support for the climate change initiative He Waka Eke Noa, which briefly enjoyed bipartisan support as a way the sector could help decide how its emissions are priced.

He Waka Eke Noa's future is now uncertain, and National said its own agricultural emissions policy is coming soon.

Meanwhile, Minister Parker said National is kicking the can down the road on climate action, because GE is not a shortcut.

"Our main focus right now is on supporting farmers reduce emissions, grow their exports, and maintain our international market edge in a world where customers are paying a premium for sustainable products," Parker said.

But scientists said there are big emissions cuts to be had through biotechnology.

Dr West said hitting New Zealand's methane reduction goal by 2030 will cost up to $24 billion, spent buying overseas carbon credits.

"If we can reduce the amount of methane produced by sheep and beef farming and dairy farming, partly using genetic modification, then that's gonna save us a huge amount of money," West said.