Is the gene editing revolution passing New Zealand by

New Zealand is a proudly GE-free country, meaning it is illegal to produce or sell genetically engineered foods here. There are some exclusions for processed foods that have imported GE ingredients, like soy or corn flour, but they must be approved by a local authority and clearly labelled. However, there is zero tolerance for GE in fresh foods – including foods bound for export. Considering that New Zealand’s “clean green” brand is a key part of our export trade, it makes sense that GE foods are treated with caution here. But are we being too conservative, given that a new technology called CRISPR is opening up opportunities for both our economy and our environment.

CRISPR (pronounced crisper) has made gene editing nearly as simple as editing a website. Tools like CRISPR-Cas9 allow scientists to edit parts of a genome by removing, adding or altering sections of its DNA sequence. It is truly a brave new world.

I can sense many of you getting outraged already. Your brow is furrowed, your fingers are twitching and you’ve just clicked ‘Compose new Tweet.’ But allow me to clarify my position. Firstly, I understand the need to go slow on human gene editing. Society already has enough inequality, so why add “designer babies” to the mix? Secondly, there’s no question that we need to adopt a safety-first approach to gene editing. As the US Defence Department agency Darpa recently noted, biosafety and biosecurity are paramount. All that said, what I’m going to suggest is that there is a lot of potential benefit for New Zealand. In particular, gene editing could greatly enhance our agriculture industry and our conservation efforts.

Let’s look at agriculture first. The Green Party sums up the prevailing view in New Zealand, when it states that “GE crops and foods have an uncertain effect on our health and the environment.” That’s true, and as noted already, we kiwis are reluctant to mess with our beautiful environment. However, recent developments in gene editing are muddying the waters of what is and isn’t GE. Dr. Jacqueline Rowarth, Chief Scientist at the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), cited the case of button mushrooms modified to prevent browning using CRISPR-Cas9. “In this case no gene insertion was required,” wrote Rowarth last year (before she joined the EPA), “and the non-browning mushroom is not subject to regulation” by the US Department of Agriculture. We’re going to come across more and more grey areas like this, thanks to CRISPR.

I reached out to the EPA and asked Dr. Rowarth how we can encourage more discussion about gene editing in food production. “It’s about helping New Zealanders – and indeed the world – to see how gene editing is more reliable in outcome than traditional breeding,” Dr. Rowarth replied. She also suggested that gene editing will help society keep up with demand for “affordable, nutritious, safe, sustainably produced food,” as the global population continues to rapidly expand. She added that “education is key to understanding, and that means educating about benefits and trade-offs as well as risks.”

Surprisingly, despite the strict regulations, there is no shortage of gene editing research happening in New Zealand’s agricultural sector. For example in 2012, a less allergenic milk was produced from the offspring of a GE cow called Daisy. Scientists at AgResearch used a genetic intervention called RNA interference to remove a protein that was known to cause an allergic response. Now, five years later, it’s been proven that the modified genetic trait was inherited by Daisy’s offspring. So they too are producing less allergenic milk.

Of course, don’t expect this new and improved milk to be sold to kiwi consumers any time soon. Certainly there’s a good case to be made that AgResearch must prove there are no negative consequences. That sort of scientific proof takes years. But with such a seemingly clear cut – and relatively minor – gene modification, there’s also a case for letting adults who are allergic to milk try it out for themselves. Writing on SciBlogs, Dr. Grant Jacobs argued that people don’t have to use milk from a genetically modified cow. “But there’s no need to block that option for others that do want to,” he wrote.

Even if New Zealand consumers are blocked from sampling the products of gene editing, some of the most innovative work being done by our scientists is being exported. The EPA’s Dr. Jacqueline Rowarth notes that some “drought-resistant grasses have been tested and are now in use overseas.” The most recent example to head offshore, according to Dr. Rowarth, was a “high lipid ryegrass which could improve the healthy fats in milk and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Despite these small exporting successes, clearly it’s still early days for GE food in New Zealand. What about conservation, another key part of our national brand? Helen Taylor, a conservation geneticist and research fellow at Otago University, sees potential for New Zealand to “use advanced gene editing techniques” to save our native species. She listed two main ways it could help our conservation efforts: firstly, predator control (targeting possums, for example); and secondly, to help restore the diversity of our native species by strengthening the genomes of those in danger (like some of our bird species).

But despite these opportunities, Taylor told me that gene editing isn’t yet ready for widespread deployment in New Zealand. She pointed out that even some famous conservationists have come out against gene editing. “Groups like SynBio Watch have made it quite clear they do not feel there is a place for gene editing in conservation,” she said, “and have some big names like Jane Goodall and David Suzuki backing them up.” Given this amount of negative sentiment, Taylor thinks the focus should be on helping people get “a better understanding of the methods, and potential risks and benefits” of the technology. She recommended a new web resource at The Royal Society of New Zealand, which “gives everyone an accessible introduction to gene editing and its possible uses.”

“Discussion is so important,” Helen Taylor concluded, “because I don’t feel we’re yet in a position to advocate for the use of the technique in conservation, or to put a moratorium on it. There’s too much at stake for either of those extreme positions to be appropriate.”

I started out this column by asking: is the gene editing revolution passing New Zealand by? What I’ve hopefully demonstrated is that New Zealand has a thriving research community – and even a nascent export industry – in gene editing. So the good news is that there are very capable people and businesses in New Zealand, all working hard to make gene editing a viable part of our economy and environment.

However, there’s a whole lot of work to do on educating ourselves about this technology. We may be a clean and green country, but we’re in danger of falling behind the rest of the world in agriculture and conservation if we don’t keep an open mind about gene editing.