NZ's outdated GMO regulations hamstringing battle with climate crisis - scientists

One of New Zealand's most divisive political issues is back in the spotlight as the Government moves to review some aspects of our decades-old regulation on genetic modification. 

Widespread protests in the 90s and a Royal Commission in 2001 led to New Zealand adopting some of the most stringent genetic modification regulations in the world. 

But since then calls have mounted, including from the Climate Commission and Productivity Commission, to review our stance in light of new technologies. 

Now Environment Minister David Parker is moving on the issue. 

"We are looking at whether some of the regulatory settings around biomedical research and laboratory research are a bit outdated," he told Newshub Nation.  

However the changes will be narrow and focused solely on the health sector. 

"We're not changing the rules that would relate to the release of a genetically modified organism into the environment, for example, a plant or an animal," he said. 

No genetically modified organism (GMO) may leave a New Zealand laboratory without approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). To date only one GMO has been approved for unconditional release in New Zealand, a vaccine for horses.

Scientists like Professor Andrew Allan are frustrated by not being able to use every tool at their disposal to combat climate change.    

"New Zealand needs to be cleaner and greener in the future. I totally agree with that image. But with climate change it is going to be a brown wasteland if we don't fight back. Fighting back on climate change requires technology," he said. 

"Gene editing is revolutionary for plant biology. We can go in and make slight new variants of key genes, and then the resulting plant is better. Coping with climate change. It could be higher nutrition. All sorts of new features."

Revolutionary because of underlying advances in gene technology. Whereas older forms of modification involved imprecisely combining genes from different species, modern gene editing techniques such as CRISPR enable precise changes which can be indistinguishable from those found in nature. 

However critics of the technology argue it over promises and underdelivers, distracting from practical steps we can take now to reduce emissions - such as reducing our reliance on destructive agricultural practices.

"The time frames that it takes to develop these technologies and test them and prove them are not the timeframes we have. We need to act now on what we know will address the problem of climate change," Greenpeace Senior Campaigner Steve Abel told Newshub Nation.

Parker offered no timeframe on when the current review will conclude but shut the door on any further movement, saying there are no plans to undertake a 'root and branch' review of legislation. 

Watch Newshub Nation 9:30am Saturday/10am Sunday on TV3, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Newshub Nation is supported by NZ On Air.