Modifying a failing regulatory system

Insights Newsletter
26 April, 2024

It is time we liberalised our Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) regulations.

Benefits to New Zealand would include pest-resistant crops, more productive crops and fruit, sterile pines for forestry, reduced carbon emissions, reduced agricultural methane, better healthcare products, cheaper medication, and pest control.  

Yet these are only a few of the benefits that could be realised with existing technology. More are sure to follow as other countries continue to liberalise their regulations and invest in further research.

New Zealand's productivity is stalling, and the nation needs revitalisation. An injection of economic vigour is crucial, and outdated and restrictive legislation is holding us back.

The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act of 1996, which governs genetically modified organisms (GMO), has become an obstacle to national progress.

Without change, New Zealand risks playing an eternal game of catch-up as other nations use this technology to become increasingly more competitive, particularly in agriculture.

The current system, in practice, applies one-size-fits-all restrictions to creating new organisms. The number of field tests (outside of containment) for GMOs in New Zealand substantially declined after the introduction of the HSNO Act, and virtually ceased following a later amendment.

Regulation is so restrictive that GMO research in New Zealand is often conducted overseas. Obtaining approvals for field tests has become more cumbersome and costly than conducting the experiments themselves.

Regulation has also failed to stay abreast of technological developments. Genetic engineering involves editing genetic information already present in an organism's cells. It is often indistinguishable from selective breeding practices but is significantly faster and more accurate. Yet engineered organisms are currently treated identically to modified organisms, which involves introducing foreign genetic material.

Fortunately, there is a growing political appetite for change. Judith Collins, the current Minister for Science, Innovation, and Technology, has been vocal in her support for reform. Her ministerial colleagues Shane Jones and Andrew Hoggard, who hold relevant portfolios, also agree.

Support also comes from influential bodies, such as the Royal Society Te Apārangi, the former New Zealand Productivity Commission, and the wider scientific community.

A new regulatory environment could include a stable risk framework to evaluate applications, recognition of the difference between engineering and modification, and the provision of certainty to investors and researchers on application processing times.

New Zealand stands to reap benefits from GMO, all we need do is reform and harvest the benefits.

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