Engineering new outcomes

Insights Newsletter
3 November, 2023

The election is now firmly behind us, and the shape of the Sixth National Government of New Zealand will soon emerge. Likely coalition partners National and ACT have staunchly advocated for deregulation in their election campaigns. 

But how effective will this red-tape shredding enterprise be? GMO (genetically modified organism) regulation will be a useful litmus test.

New Zealand has a historic aversion to genetically modified organisms, not dissimilar to the country’s
irrational ideological opposition to nuclear power. Resistance to GMOs peaked in the late 1990s, culminating in the passing of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act 1996. This piece of legislation has prevented commercial use of GMOs ever since.  

This situation is economically disadvantageous for New Zealand. GMOs have been proven safe and highly productive – consider the success of GMO cotton and canola in Australia.
We are an agricultural nation, with agriculture accounting for 62.8% of our total exports in 2022. Our primary industries are our backbone, and GMO is a boon to agriculture. Yet the HSNO inhibits our agricultural sector from becoming more efficient, productive, and sustainable.  

Gene-editing is currently harnessed globally to enhance crops in ways that mitigate the environmental footprint of farming. Advancements include providing
disease resistance (reducing reliance on herbicides), enhancing soil nutrient uptake (diminishing the need for fertilizers), and bolstering drought tolerance. Furthermore, gene-editing can improve the nutritional profiles of various foods while simultaneously curbing food wastage by increasing product shelf-life. 

For example, consider the apple tree breeding techniques mentioned by the New Zealand Society of Pl
ant Biologists’ panel on GMO. Traditional apple trees take decades to breed. At least five years are required for an apple tree to reach the flowering stage, and six to seven generations are needed to develop a new variety. However, precise gene editing can reduce the flowering period to less than a year, greatly accelerating the breeding of novel apple varieties.  

is simple process is completely indistinguishable from natural genetic evolution and benefits NZ’s internationally regarded fruit cultivars. Yet, it is barred by the HSNO. 

New Zealand’s Royal Society, Productivity Commission, and Society of Plant Biologists have all called for change.

National has announced an intention to reform New Zealand's GMO regulations. Its ability to do so productively and comprehensively will be a litmus test for its broader anti-red-tape agenda.

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