Time to play with nature?

Realising the potential benefits of gene editing technology in New Zealand has been given a boost this year with a government-backed reference report setting a case for a national discussion to amend legislation preventing its use.

Realising the potential benefits of gene editing technology in New Zealand has been given a boost this year with a government-backed reference report setting a case for a national discussion to amend legislation currently preventing its use. But as the evidence continues to stack up in favour of a regulatory review, there’s still plenty standing in the way of reaching a point where the science could be unleashed. What will it take to shift the dial, and for NZ to line up with our key trading partners? Phil Edmonds reports.


In February this year, Te Puna Whakaaronui, New Zealand’s government-funded food and fibre sector think tank published a ‘state of play’ report on modern genetic technology.

It was somewhat of a landmark; while neutral in tone, and deliberately accessible, it makes a sound case for reviewing the rules governing genetically modified organism (GMO) use in NZ (established in the Hazardous Substances and Organisms Act 1996). Numerous reports have looked at the appropriateness of the legislation in recent times, including the 2019 Royal Society consideration of gene editing in NZ, but none have been as effectively blessed by the government until now.

In short, the report documents the evolution of GMO technology (emergence of gene editing via new breeding techniques), where NZ sits among its peers on regulatory advances (close to the back) and what consumers think (perhaps not as abhorred by the prospect as they might once have been). It adds up to an albeit unstated recommendation to explore the possibility of changing the way we oversee the use of gene technology.

Running through the arguments in favour of a review reveals support is coming from a wide range of standpoints.

For a start, there’s a national economic one – identified by the Productivity Commission in its 2021 report to the government on measures needed to advance NZ’s firms to the ‘frontier’.

In a discussion on reducing constraints to innovation in the primary sector, it boldly stated that current regulation of GM does not reflect technological advances and is a check on potential productivity improvements. The commission made the case for a review in the context of trying to find solutions to a trend that shows productivity of NZ frontier firms lags on average up to 45% behind that of high-performing small, advanced economies.

Then there is the environmental argument.

Another government-sponsored, independent voice, the Climate Change Commission provided advice in 2021 that said reducing biogenic agricultural emissions would be assisted by the use of new technologies providing greater flexibility to meet the more ambitious end of the 2050 biogenic methane target range.

Like the Productivity Commission, the Climate Change Commission called for a review and development of a long-term plan for technologies (including evaluating the role of emerging tech (such as GE) that could reduce biogenic emissions from agriculture.

Then come a range of arguments that suggest NZ’s collective intellectual property is being put at risk by rules denying our research institutions the ability to compete with counterparts offshore. In February this year Science New Zealand, on behalf of its members (including AgResearch, Plant & Food Research, Scion and NIWA) said it was time to update the regulations so Crown Research Institutes could continue benefiting NZ.

It said genetic modification technologies, in particular gene editing technology, offer potential benefits in improving health, protecting the environment and developing new products that could help all New Zealanders. Echoing the Productivity Commission’s rationale for a review, Science New Zealand said “New Zealand risks being outcompeted, particularly in nationally vital areas such as agriculture and pest control, by overseas innovators that  have easier access to gene editing technologies.”

Meanwhile, at farm level, there is a compelling case to suggest costs of production could be significantly reduced if gene editing techniques were employed to lower the risk of crop failure and increase confidence and predictability of output. The expense incurred by farmers, for example in managing crop or grass seed performance could be eliminated if there was guaranteed pest resistance or new plant varieties providing more reliable, more densely nutritious food. DairyNZ strategy and investment leader Dr Bruce Thorrold fully endorses a review.

“As farmers and growers look for solutions to sector-wide issues, including adapting to climate change, we should explore all promising avenues which could help with the challenges we face.”

Farmers have much to gain, but do they know it? Despite being obvious beneficiaries, is the promise of gene technology’s game-changing advances top of mind for farmers? Realistically, probably not. That’s not to say farmers are at all dismissive of what ‘could be’, but it is justifiably hard to get excited about the advantages of an unleashed technology when the journey to that point hasn’t even begun.

John Caradus, AgResearch subsidiary Grasslanz Technology chief executive says “the opportunities that will arise from GE technologies are not going to solve all the problems farmers currently face.”

“Gene editing represents one of the technologies that will assist farmers remaining competitive without destroying the environment. Farmers should be aware that these solutions to the problems we have in the environment do exist, but are unattainable because of the outdated legislation.”

AgResearch science team leader Richard Scott has extensive expertise in the area and suggests there is still some engrained thinking that farmers need to overcome about where NZ’s primary sector export value lies.

“That is the value of New Zealand being GM-free to our primary producers. But the evidence of that doesn’t exist.”

By now, none of this should be a surprise. While a quite public head of steam for change has emerged, these advantages have been known for some time. So why then has there been such little movement to at least review the relevance of existing legislation, let alone change it?

What is it we’re trying to fix?

At a pretty basic level, Jarred Mair, executive director of Te Puna Whakaaronui says none of the interested parties in the debate have actually got around to forming a collective view on what it is we are trying to address.

As indicated above, there’s a range of arguments that identify the benefits of being able to use gene editing technology, but there’s not necessarily a ‘national’ view on what a shared, positive outcome looks like.

To some that might sound like a quick job for a wordsmith. But as Mair says, we need to decide what we want – do we simply want researchers to be able to undertake field trials with gene-edited material? Or do we want to allow the full use of genetically modified organisms in NZ? Or do we want to more pragmatically align our rules with those of our trading partners?

The only way we can satisfactorily answer that question is via a formal, national conversation.

When the first legislative move was made to govern

GMO use in NZ, the rules were set based on the findings from a Royal Commission of Inquiry.

A similar royal commission-like inquiry would probably be necessary to incorporate a wider community perspective to take account of all interests, Mair says. It would only really be possible to make change if a process like this was undertaken, which would give the government the confidence to amend the rules.

Second, despite a conglomerate of pretty respectable organisations making convincing cases for change in public arenas, there remains very low awareness or engagement with the issues – perhaps beyond those whose work and lives might most obviously benefit.

Not only is it a challenge generating awareness, but the concepts of gene editing and GMO technology are not immediately easy to understand. For those not closely involved in the debates, a certain level of time and energy is required to understand what is at stake. Nothing lets the government off the hook from ‘doing something’ more than a lack of popular interest.

To overcome that challenge, the believers probably need to take ownership of disseminating the kind of information that enables broader education on gene technologies – which in a climate of rising levels of mistrust in established ‘official’ narratives will not necessarily be easy.

In March this year John Caradus published a paper in the NZ Journal of Agricultural Research titled ‘Perceptions of Plant Breeding Methods’, which illustrates that challenge. He summarised a range of hindrances to advancing the debate including inherent suspicions of corporate multinationals (most commercialised GM crops have been developed by such organisations), beliefs that gene technology is ‘playing with nature’, that no public benefit arises from introducing GM crops, and topically, the phenomena of misinformation in and about science.

Caradus concludes by saying “the science community has a responsibility to work with government and industry decision-makers to counter misinformation.” He adds that “involving public engagement more in the process of delivering new technologies rather than simply seeking consent is a priority.”

Is the difficulty in coalescing support for GE tech a New Zealand problem?

As AgResearch’s Richard Scott touched on above, there seems to be a deep-seated belief that NZ is different to everywhere else in the world, and our status as GE-free is part of our inherent advantage.

It is probably true that few if any other countries have made a play to trade on their GE-free status, and in that respect making changes to legislation for them is inevitably not such a big deal. The experience of the United Kingdom’s recent shift is a case in point. Rather than see the need for a wide-ranging conversation, its government started a small, tactical legislative process.

In 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s first speech pledged to “liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules”. This did not result in any significant objections.

As in NZ, the sentiment was championed by biologists, as well as the UK farming leadership. The National Farmers Union (NFU) used language in support of change that mirrored what has been articulated here – that a danger existed that the UK was not moving in line with the rest of the world, and the idea that a negative impact on trade would exist was improbable, particularly as the European Union had already signalled its intentions to move forward on gene editing and precision breeding.

Interestingly, the only noteworthy opposition to change in the UK came from the Scottish Government, which argued (to the annoyance of some of its leading crop scientists) that it wanted to ensure Scotland operates to the highest environmental standards, that protects the strengths of Scottish agriculture and food production. It stated that its own stakeholders – including the spectrum of industry interests as well as the public as a whole must be central to how those regulations apply.

Similar arguments have been made in Ireland, although, as an EU member, its status of being GE-free would be compromised in an anticipated shift by European powers.

What the Scottish and Irish concerns show, is that it’s not only NZ that has concerns about the impact on its branding.

How about our nearest trade partner, Australia?

There doesn’t appear to be much of a buzz about the issue across the Tasman. That’s probably not surprising, given they took a different regulatory route from the outset.

In 2019 the Australian government deregulated the use of gene-editing techniques in plants, animals and human cell lines that do not introduce new genetic material. At the time the Australian Green Party attempted to overturn the new rules, but its bid failed to gain enough support in the Federal Senate.

As far as concerns about national branding exist in Australia, Mair says a conscious decision was made not to use GE technology in high-value food products. However this has been determined, it would seem to be deemed enough to protect whatever reputation their food producers might perceive to be at risk.

Should Australia’s approach and experience give comfort to concerned NZ farmers or growers of premium food products? It’s difficult to judge, but there’s some validity in the argument that there’s more at stake for NZ than Australia in a change of its GM rules.

It’s the consumers, stupid… is it?

Well, answering that question is not immediately simple – indeed, it’s much harder to measure the mood of consumers than it is scientists on genetic tech. There is no association of international consumers, for example, to seek a representative view on the impact of a particular country’s adoption of gene technology.

In some ways it would be like trying to measure mist – there’s no possible way of capturing it with complete certainty. That is not to say consumer sentiment isn’t researched.

As part of Te Puna Whakaaronui’s fact finding to support its reference report, it used a “broad set of global studies and research reports to understand consumers’ perceptions of genetic technology and willingness to buy the resulting food product”. In summary, it found that notwithstanding various nuanced factors, consumers are prepared to buy GM foods, and GM doesn’t have an impact on a country’s brand. It did however acknowledge a premium is attached to non-GM products.

Lincoln University’s Agribusiness & Economics Research Unit (AERU) Associate Professor Peter Tait acknowledges these claims, but their imprecise nature and the limited sources used to arrive at the conclusions doesn’t inspire him with definitive confidence.

“What worries me is that we have a large literature on the issue, but we don’t have much to go on in terms of New Zealand products and what their acceptability would be  like with GMOs in our realm. “AERU has run a vast number of surveys where we look at consumers’ likelihood of purchasing products, including beef tenderlion in China, lamb leg in the UK, Sauvignon Blanc in California, kiwifruit in Japan and so on.

“Not all, but many of the surveys include a GM attribute for consumers to make judgements on. What we found is that overall, consumers are telling us they would require a discount to purchase those goods if they were in some way connected with GMO. Some consumers of course are indifferent, but they are in the minority by some scale.”

Further doubting the usefulness of relying on global studies to arrive at conclusions on consumer preferences, Tait says they don’t recognise the unique circumstances in which NZ’s economy is structured, and what impact that might have.

“We are a small, open trading economy and if as a country we are trying to push away from the supply chain commodity space, and into the value chain value-add space – which is the trajectory of how economies like ours develop – it means moving away from exporting commodities to service-based, high-value, tech-based products.

“Essentially, becoming more artisanal and thinking artisanally.

“If we are in a place where we have reached peak cow, and we are looking to grow the ag sector, then we don’t really have much choice than to move into the non-commodity space. So, we have to add and grow value in different ways. If you think about those bits of the puzzle, we have to be very careful about viewing general consumer preference reporting as objective and reliable.”

As a counterpoint to those who fail to understand why consumers can’t already see the benefit of GMO, Tait says the technology, at the moment, is a production capacity argument.

“This is of zero interest to consumers. It’s true that consumers may be technically incorrect in failing to see the biophysical science point of view, but you are never really going to draw concordance across those two spheres.” While this might be read as a dig at scientists with a fairly singular production mindset, it is an argument that is acknowledged as requiring attention by Grasslanz Technology’s John Caradus.

Another challenge for those dismissing concerns about NZ food exports being at risk if we loosen the regulations will be convincing the brands selling that food. You only have to look at our major primary sector exporters to see how prominently they play on NZ’s non-GMO status. For example, as part of its ‘what makes our milk so good’ proposition, Fonterra says “Nothing we grow contains genetically modified organisms, it’s not in our nature”.

Fonterra has 42 products verified for the Non-GMO Project (a non-profit organisation offering North America’s most trusted third-party verification programme for non-GMO food and products). Similarly, exporter of lamb to the United States, Atkins Ranch has its non-GMO verification by the same organisation glaringly stated on its homepage, as does First Light Farms: “We believe you have the right to know what goes into the food you eat so you can make an informed choice about the products you buy. The Non-GMO Project seal is an independent verification that guarantees all First Light cattle are raised on a diet that is free from genetically modified organisms or crops.”

It’s true that these claims refer to GMO, and not the nuanced gene editing tech at stake here. But it does show that these exporters of NZ’s best-known food products have clearly invested heavily in marketing these attributes, no doubt having understood their importance to the premium consumers they are targeting.

Prem Maan, executive chairman of NZ farming group Southern Pastures is forthright in his belief that NZ’s status of being GM-free is critical to our ability to maintain premium prices for our food.

“If we look to the future when cows’ milk can be essentially mimicked in a lab, what are our points of difference? They are all the attributes of wholesome products, namely free-range cows, pasture-raised and grass-fed. There will always be premium consumers willing to pay for this.

“If New Zealand moves in the GMO direction, a lot of big name customers will not take the risk of GMO leakage and will buy from those deemed to be safe even if some of NZ dairy products are certified GMO free.”

While Southern Pastures has been the only prominent player in the dairy space to have advocated against manoeuvring on gene technology, equally there has been silence from all others on endorsing a shift that the science community is calling a commonsense move.

John Caradus concedes Fonterra’s reluctance to speak in favour of change is disappointing, but it could be a sign that “despite our evidence, we haven’t done a good enough job of making a case for the benefits”.

Towards knowing the unknown

Peter Tait suggests it wouldn’t take too much to answer his questions. It could be partly solved by some targeted research of international consumers of NZ food. “What we do know is that people overseas think of our food as safe to eat, and high quality – that is the mouth feel of kiwifruit or health benefits of pasture-raised beef.

“In Asian markets, where there is low consumer trust, they view the quality of the natural environment where the food is grown as a proxy for their validation of food safety. For them, ‘healthy cow, healthy is me’. What we don’t know about Asian consumers – where a lot of our products end up – is how a healthy environment dovetails with GMO. This kind of consumer preference modelling hasn’t been done.”

On another level, what would need to be understood in more detail in NZ is the long-term costs and benefits. Tait says if, for example, gene-edited technology will lead to lower greenhouse gas-emitting pastures, how long would it take to switch pastures, and how much would that cost? And then how much less revenue would be generated from our milk or meat products discounted or traded away because of that move?

This work would almost certainly be necessary, and no doubt form part of the terms in a royal commission-type review, to give the government confidence it was making the right decision.

How to get from here to there…

Jarred Mair is confident there is now enough momentum to start a review process, and the importance of the EU’s move in this direction should not be under-estimated. “The EU is the world’s super-power in regulation. It sets the tone and structure of regulation in food, and we know that as soon as the EU makes a change, then China will flip – they don’t want to move until the EU does. When our key, high-value export markets make a move to continue their GM journey, the current conversation will start to evaporate.”

Mair says we now have a unique window of time. The EU has delayed its response until after the European elections later this year. It is then expected they will start a formal process.

At that point we in NZ would have a very low risk in having a conversation. Before that, Te Puna Whakaaranonui is planning a pre-emptive conversation with the food industry to try and get some consensus on terms needed to start a NZ review. If this is achieved, it will be easier for politicians to be more comfortable in supporting it.

Interestingly, a scan of the political parties on the issue suggests there already is comfort. National’s spokesperson for science, innovation and technology Judith Collins says “It’s time for an intelligent conversation … The issue needs exploration as to what New Zealand can do better to regulate in a more thoughtful way for the benefit of the planet, and for its inhabitants.” ACT’s primary industries’ spokesperson Mark Cameron was more forthright: “New Zealand can’t afford to be left behind as genetic engineering advancements transform the agriculture sector.

ACT would make changes to the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act to allow the agriculture industry to access game-changing technology that can revolutionise agriculture. ACT would liberalise New Zealand’s laws on genetic engineering and allow New Zealand’s agricultural industry to be a leader, not a laggard, in the field.”

It’s not just the right side of Parliament that seems to acknowledge at least a step forward needs to be made. Last year Green Party co-leader James Shaw said a conversation was needed, which should start with understanding what area the technology would be best used in the first instance – pest control, or food.

Minister for Primary Industries Damien O’Connor has also for some time been warm to a ‘mature conversation’, which he first indicated following the release of the interim advice from the Climate Change Commission in 2019.

So why the inertia? Most likely it is simply a question of it being a low priority, on an increasingly long list of must-do’s.

Jarred Mair says the best-case scenario is for a review to be started in the second quarter of 2024, after both the NZ and EU elections. The EU is likely to move fairly quickly, because it has specific climate change profiles and agendas to make progress on, which gene editing technology has been earmarked to help. The smoothest path would be for the EU to make the first move.

The climate change perspective in this will be really important and will create the momentum, he says. This is something Peter Tait agrees with. “Perhaps the only way forward where it might work is if an alignment between the current gene editing narrative and the primary sector generating positive environmental outcomes is successfully conveyed… where the public can be seen to be reaping the environmental benefits.”

Easy as…