NZ embracing gene-editing is a 'no-brainer' - Geoff Simmons

Successive New Zealand governments have been "deaf to developing science" says The Opportunities Party (TOP) leader Geoff Simmons.

TOP is calling for deregulation of a form of gene editing called CRISPR, a technique that can be used to remove undesirable traits from an organism or add desirable ones.

Gene editing (GE) could be used for things like removing the genetic trigger for cystic fibrosis in a person, making manuka more resilient to myrtle rust or helping kauri trees fight dieback.

Simmons says since the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification in 2001, it has been all but impossible to use genetic modification (GM) technology in New Zealand.

"That was 18 years ago - pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, and pre-smartphone. A lot has changed since that time, except for our regulations on genetics."

New Zealand's current legislation puts restrictions on any form of GM. Research can be conducted here, but any edited organism must be cleared by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) before it can be released.

Only two organisms have been approved since 2003, and they were both vaccines for horses.

Simmons' proposal differs from other forms of GM - it doesn't add any new genetic material to an organism, just rearranges what's already there.

Research already underway in New Zealand includes a gene-edited form of ryegrass developed by AgResearch which grows 50 percent faster, requires less water and causes cattle to produce 23 percent less methane.

The company estimates the grass could result in up to $5 billion in additional revenue but due to current restrictions, it cannot be grown here.

Gene edits using CRISPR can be restricted to a single organism or performed so that the edited gene is passed on to every subsequent generation.

Opponents warn the latter is more controversial, as edited genes can rapidly spread through populations and across borders, and the technique could be used to wipe out entire species by editing the genes controlling reproduction.

This could be particularly effective at eliminating species with a short life-cycle, such as mosquitoes or rats. However, scientists warn eliminating entire species could have unpredictable and catastrophic effects on ecosystems.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage actively blocked any research into gene editing earlier this year, penning a Letter of Expectation to Predator Free 2050 Limited, explicitly telling them not to invest in research involving the technology.

This was despite Department of Conservation advice to Sage stating that "[gene editing] is one of the approaches with the potential to achieve the 2025 interim goal of a breakthrough science solution for predator eradication."

The breadth of applications for GE and potential for runaway effects has anti-GM advocates warning of a gene editing 'wild west', claiming we don't know enough about long-term consequences.

A Chinese scientist drew massive international backlash last year by announcing he had gene-edited twin babies to be more resistant to HIV. His claims cannot be checked however as GE is impossible to test for after the fact.

In a post on their website, GE Free New Zealand blasted TOP's proposals.

"Until GE technology, which is only the 6-years-old[sic], has shown safety the TOP party is inaccurate and misleading the public in its desire to find traction as a political party."

Read the full statement from GE Free New Zealand here.

Geoff Simmons was quick to hit back.

"GE Free NZ's lack of understanding of the science is breathtaking. In fact, their response to our policy borders on outright misdirection."

Speaking to Newshub Nation, Simmons said the gene editing TOP is advocating is just a faster version of techniques already in use in agriculture.

"The key difference is that gene editing is very different from 'old school' genetic modification. No new genetic material is added, it has identical outcomes to selective breeding."

Since it's impossible to test if an organism has been gene-edited, Simmons says that like it or not, New Zealanders are already buying gene-edited crops.

"If you see any new breed of potato, or apple or anything coming out of the US right now, I guarantee you it's gene-edited."

The United States has much more relaxed laws on GE and farmers are under no obligation label edited stock.

The TOP leader warns that New Zealand is at risk of being left behind.

"With the restrictions we suggest, gene-editing is a no brainer. We have some pretty big problems coming down the pipeline, like feeding 10 billion people by 2050 while also reducing our impact on the environment."

Newshub Nation.

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