Chief plant and food scientist excited by gene editing prospect

  • 05/10/2018

Plant and food scientists are excited by the possibiity of gene editing for New Zealand's primary industries.

A new discussion paper from the Royal Society Te Apārangi suggests gene editing could bring a range of benefits for the agriculture, horticulture and forestry sectors, zoning in on apples, mānuka, ryegrass, wilding pines, and dairy cows.

New Zealand has historically had a conservative approach to gene editing, but the report says embracing gene editing technology could allow us to create disease-resistant mānuka honey and remove certain allergens from milk.

The report is being welcomed by Chief Scientist at Plant and Food Research, Professor Richard Newcomb.

"We are excited by gene editing technology because it allows incredibly precise changes to the genetic makeup of an organism without necessarily introducing any foreign DNA," he said.

"As our climate, environment and population changes, gene editing could help us to adapt plants through pinpoint changes to key genes which control desirable traits," Professor Newcomb said. 

He said while breeding plants with the right combinations of genetic characteristics to resist pests, be more productive or to taste better takes decades today, it could be achieved in much less time with gene editing  and with more predictable outcomes.

"While gene editing offers lots of promise, its successful use to breed better plants needs to be proven by more science not only to understand the benefits but the potential risks associated with the technology," said Professor Newcomb.

"As such we believe it is timely to consider having a national discussion here on gene editing in New Zealand for farming, food, pest control and conservation," he said.

The Royal Society Te Apārangi is seeking public feedback on the paper and holding three workshops around the country this month to discuss the findings.