It’s time to move regulation of genetic modification forward. The current set-up is temporary and unsound. We use a risk-based approach for almost everything because that’s what makes sense. But New Zealand takes an arbitrary approach to genetic modification. So we ‘ban’ a technique that evidence shows there is no special risk in using. That poor logic plays to a vocal minority, rather than the science or public views of biotechnology. It also puts other country’s regulatory issues ahead of opportunities for NZ. Furthermore, real risk management isn’t just regulations. It’s good farm management practices and education.
Central to this article is a list of bullet points about regulation of genetic modification. Each is short, but I hope they will help move the discussion forward.
Since I started this Bob Brockie has written an opinion piece, Every obstacle put in the way of GE research in NZ. His article is worth reading, as it lightly sketches out NZ’s past in GM regulation. It might help to read some of my background on the current legislation mess; this article might provide a useful starting point.
Below is a list of some thoughts on the situation. I expect some things to be missing, and others to need refinement. But it’s a start for discussion. It’s worth noting that few problems are science-based ones. To make things easy I’ve referred to crops, but the same thinking applies to animals.
The list: thoughts on regulating gene-edited varieties
- ‘GMO’ has little scientific meaning. People have different ideas about what it means, and it carries emotive baggage. Instead, use specific terms appropriate to each application.
- They’re new varieties, call them that. They’re basically the parent plant with one feature tweaked.
- The key to making these new varieties is being able to ‘read’ genomes, and work out what particular genes do. Editing technologies are ‘just’ tools to make ‘whatever’.
- Risks, if any, align with the traits of the varieties and their use. The EPA noted this. Focusing on editing technologies distracts from actual risks. It can miss risks entirely.
- There’s much more to these new varieties than herbicide tolerance. The regulations should reflect the many different types of applications.
The concern about transferring genes between species (transgenesis) is culture-based, not science-based. This wants education, not regulation.
- Some applications do not add new genes, but only alter or remove existing ones. An example is the proposal that might end NZ’s wilding pine problem.
Don’t conflate big business practices and crop safety. GE empowers small groups. Encouraging support of smaller players and charity efforts may help.
GE varieties do not endanger organic farming. Allow both. The diversity may mitigate market risks.
Tackle risks with education about agricultural practices and sound farm management.
Some worry about “unexpected risks” from using GE. The outcome of editing are in the plants made, and can be assessed there. Speculative what-ifs are unhelpful. Blocking technology on that basis abuses ‘the’ precautionary approach.
- Regulations always conflict with other nation’s rules. Create opportunities for NZ; worry about other nations later.
The current approach was a temporary compromise to respond quickly to a court ruling. It’s been two years now. The court ruling itself has problems. The focus must shift to something less negative, less defensive and look forwards.
Are education and agricultural practices the key?
My current thinking is that we need to get away from this idea that the only way to tackling problems is regulation. That’s only one tool in the toolbox.
It seems to me that risk mitigation for new crop varieties comes down to education in agricultural practices, and in sound farm management. If you accept this, legislation targeting GM varieties could be removed or scaled back.
There’s nothing offensive in suggesting education as part of the solution. This is the ordinary stuff of any business learning how to do their thing. For example, some small businesses might take courses intellectual property (IP) management. The government might step in, thinking it’s worthwhile laying out courses for free on the basis that it’ll mitigate the risk of NZ businesses losing their IP. As we introduce crops needing new management, we could do similar?
Another thought might be to for a few years limit gene edited varieties to varieties of plants whose management is well understood in NZ. Basically, varieties of crops we already grow.
Next: Lessons from views on gene therapy and enhancement
This list above is long and there is more I could add. One might be that discussion of regulations too often focuses on potential (often speculative) risks) without also considering benefits.
I’d like to look to observations made by the authors of the survey covered in my previous post. Their comments consider gene therapy and enhancement, but apply more widely. Public views of biotechnology in other areas might help us to see general patterns that could be useful in thinking how to move regulation of genetic modification forward.*
In the meantime you are welcome to write your thoughts in the comments section below. Feel free to suggest points that are not in my list; I will probably add a few of my own!
Other articles on Code for life
To find other’s writing on this topic, return to the Sciblogs homepage, click the magnifying glass symbol at the top-right, enter ‘GMO’, and press return.
Kumara are transgenic (Transgenes occur in nature too.)
Genetic modification now accepted by most New Zealanders (A survey indicates New Zealanders now accept GM food as safe.)
GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural” (An essay on food.)
Green Party GM policy and discussion about GE or GMOs (The Green Party should revise their stance on GM.)
In a demon-haunted world (Not about GM, but unfortunately relevant. A tribute to Sagan, sorely needed in these times.)
Is GM corn really different to non-GM corn? (Reporting other’s objections to one controversy.)
Séralini GMO maize and Roundup study republished with no scientific peer review (One of the ‘unorthodox’ researchers opposing GMOs re-publishes a retracted paper with no fresh peer-review.)
Christmas trees weedy and not (The proposed project that the court case shut down – despite EPA approval, and that it didn’t involve introducing new genes. Wilding pines are a curse in New Zealand.)
Carrots for my neighbour (A short story of sorts.)
New Zealand political spokesperson for GE and more endorses homeopathy for Ebola (What can we say. Some people are… interesting. He re-asserted this claim in his valedictory speech.)
Changing the GMO regulations – the ministry options (The options that set the current legislation.)
Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part one (A short series; parts two and three are linked at the start.)
GMOs and legislation: useful suggestions for New Zealand in British report (A summary of a large UK report. Not a short read!)
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on GMO legislation (Lighter take on the previous article.)
My follow-on piece might not come out for a few days. I’d rather like to get back to some lighter writing—where I can have a little more fun with the writing itself—and to get back to gene therapy.
* Originally I intended to include this in this article but now will defer this to a later piece. There is potential to write a piece on each of the points in the list… One I will almost certainly write on public and scientist views on transgenes.
Prof. Higgins and colleagues examining pod borer resistant cowpea lines in a field trial in Ghana. Taken from CSIRO article, Insect protected cowpeas. Image ©CSIRO. Image credit: Mumuni Abudulai. (For copyright permissions, see CSIRO copyright page.)
The cowpea project is publicly-funded. It intends that the seeds be made available for free, possibly by next year. Farmers can store and plant saved seed. Political moves may delay this. Others argue delaying projects like this can have financial impacts.