GMO or not GMO? That’s not the Question

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Report by NewsroomPlus.com

Contributed by Adam James Ring.

The dialogue around what is and what isn’t a genetically modified organism (GMO) has again breached the surface of the political and public agenda, with Minister for the Environment, Nick Smith, announcing last week that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is seeking submissions on a proposal to clarify their legal definition.

Under current regulations, some commonly used crops are deemed GMO, despite being grown in New Zealand for decades. This difficulty of definitions can be attributed to the now outdated and easily misunderstood wording of the existing Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (Organisms Not Genetically Modified) Regulations 1998, something which the EPA document’s proposed amendments seek to amend.

Difficulties surrounding these regulations came to public attention during a controversial case last year, where the High Court overturned an EPA decision to allow Crown Research Institute Scion to bypass existing GM regulation laws and develop pine tree strains using new techniques based on ZFN-1 (Zinc Finger Nuclease Type 1) and TALEs (Transcription Activator-Like Effectors).

GreenDNA

These ‘targeted mutation’ techniques are widely considered ‘conventional’ or, perhaps more accurately, ‘not-GM’ by scientists and the international community, as they add no foreign genetic material to the organism. Many experts argue that these longstanding techniques should be excluded from regulation. Indeed, this was the EPA’s original ruling. Before being overturned in court due to regulation ‘technicalities’.

Responding to the High Court ruling in 2014, Associate Professor Peter Dearden, Director of Genetics at Otago University commented on the nature of these techniques, saying that “this technology leaves nothing behind. No extra, or added bit of DNA remains, only the change we want to make.”

The crux of the problem, which was highlighted by the court’s ruling, is that the distinction between GMO and non-GMO – according to current regulation – has “become vague over recent years” according to Dr Tony Conner of AgResearch.

Dr Elspeth MacRae, General Manager of Manufacturing and Bioproducts at Scion, speaking to the Science Media Centre, commented that “the legislation is now almost two decades old and well out of step with the rapid advancement in science and the large amount of scientific evidence regarding the risks and benefits of genetic technologies.”

While this is certainly not the first – nor most likely the last – time that GMO regulation has caused difficulties, the primary issue in this case, is not a lack of regulation but simply of new technology overtaking existing definitions.

At the request of the Ministry for the Environment, who assessed the regulations in the aftermath of the High Court ruling, the EPA have developed and released a discussion document, approved by Cabinet at the end of October. It outlines the proposed amendments, a process that the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO) 1996 allows for.

The EPA has said in a recent press release, that the “consultation document proposes a clarification to show that organisms and plants bred using chemical and radiation treatments which were in use on or before 29 July 1998 will not be considered genetically modified under the law.”

Though the High Court did overturn the EPA’s original decision, the judge who presided over the case noted at the time that the regulations are poorly drafted and open to misunderstanding. It is this ‘poor drafting’ that the proposed amendments intend to correct, thus realigning GMO governance with current understanding and innovation.

pine tree gmo

Without presupposing what submissions the EPA will receive, it seems unlikely that there will any major problem with the proposed amendments. Environment Minister Nick Smith has called the proposed changes “cautious”, saying that “they are necessary to ensure we do not inadvertently include many older breeding technologies within the definition of genetic modification and do not change the intent of the current policy.”

“Biotechnology has moved on from when the original regulations were put in place in 1998,” he added – a view shared by many leading scientists, as well as Scion, who were on the receiving end of the High Court case last year.

While there is often some automatic resistance from anti-GMO organisations, the general feeling is that the EPA’s proposed changes are sensible and won’t affect New Zealand’s international GMO status.

It’s practically a given that the public dialogue surrounding what is and what isn’t a GMO will no doubt continue; constantly shifting and adjusting to match new discoveries and techniques.

In this instance the Sustainability Council of New Zealand, who instigated the 2014 case against the EPA and Scion, support the proposed changes. That they opposed the exclusion back in 2014 has more, they say in a press release, to do with a desire to see GMO’s continue to be regulated, rather than unregulated, and not because they oppose the use of radiation and chemical techniques Scion wish to use.

Barring any unforeseen and legitimate opposition, it should be safe to say that once the submissions are reviewed and reported back to the Ministry, the current regulations will be sensibly adjusted to exclude the aforementioned techniques. This should and can be done without posing any danger to New Zealand’s international reputation as a GM-free food producer.

For more information and expert responses visit the Science Media Centre.

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Selwyn Manning, BCS (Hons.) MCS (Hons.) is an investigative political journalist with 23 years media experience. He specializes in reportage and analysis of socioeconomics, politics, foreign affairs, and security/intelligence issues. Selwyn has extensive experience as a commentator and has provided live political analysis to a wide range of television and radio organizations broadcasting in New Zealand, Australia and globally including the BBC (Five Live, London) and BBC (World Service). He is currently a correspondent to Australia's FiveAA radio, and is a regular live-on-air panelist on Radio New Zealand's The Panel with broadcaster Jim Mora.

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