12 Jun 2023

Biotech and agritech firms welcome National's plan to rethink genetic modification ban

8:26 pm on 12 June 2023
The tractor harvester working on the field

AgriTech NZ says genetic engineering can offer options to address challenges faced by the agricultural sector. (file image) Photo: 123RF

Biotech and agritech firms are welcoming a potential rethink on genetic modification, saying New Zealand lags behind other countries where the practice is already common.

The National Party has said it would overhaul restrictions on genetic modification (GM), which were last amended 20 years ago, if it leads the next government.

Under the current rules, genetic research is permitted in laboratories, but trials outside the lab need approval, which often resulted in scientists heading overseas to continue their research.

BiotechNZ executive director Dr Zahra Champion said modern biotech research had the opportunity to add value to the agriculture, forestry, marine and health industries.

"Biotech in the hands of our innovators will enable us to address these challenges from reducing greenhouse gas emissions, developing sustainable agricultural practices, and creating new life-saving medicines," she said.

"With our world-class expertise and exceptional strengths in key industries, such as agriculture, horticulture, renewables, and healthcare, we have a unique opportunity to leverage biotech innovations to drive growth and create a more prosperous future."

Dr Champion said changing consumer attitudes, with some people opting for plant-based alternatives for meat and dairy products, reflected shifting ideas about GM.

"We're starting to see a lot of the GMO (genetically modified organism) products in terms of ingredients on our shelves and so our consumers are not saying they're not going to buy these products, we're consuming these products daily.

"I imagine that most people who have a soy latte, a significant amount of that soy will be GMO, so I think it's a perfect time to have this conversation and it's really important that our researchers, our companies, our innovators have those tools that we can elevate our way forward."

Dr Champion said the biotech sector delivered high-value jobs, including in fields of immunotherapy and vaccine production, showing Aotearoa had pathways to attract international funding for its tech.

AgriTech NZ chief executive Brendan O'Connell said while the use of genetic technologies, like gene editing, could help reduce on-farm emissions, systems to address concerns surrounding the safety and cultural appropriateness of how it could be applied would require a unique New Zealand approach.

"We need to empower our farmers and growers with the right agritech solutions for climate adaptation, whilst ensuring that produce meets the values and quality expected of New Zealand," he said.

O'Connell said Aotearoa could take lessons from the regulatory frameworks established in other countries.

"Genetic engineering can offer vital, safe and effective options to address the numerous challenges faced by the agricultural sector," he said.

"In a climate crisis coupled with global food security challenges, our agritech researchers and developers need appropriate tools to empower farmers and growers in this challenge.

"With appropriate regulation and development, New Zealand can maintain both high standards and natural food claims whilst accessing the capabilities needed to address emissions reduction and sustainable production."

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