Review of gene editing and GMOs in NZ is triggered by High Court ruling in Scion case

A High Court ruling on genetic modification – it quashed a decision by the Environmental Protection Authority to allow the development of GM pine crops – is examined on a Sciblogs post today and in an article in the NZ Herald.

Scion, the Crown Research Institute, had gone to the authority in 2012 to find if it could use two new breeding techniques to grow pine trees.

The authority ruled the trees were not genetically modified and allowed them to be exempt from the law which restricts genetically modified crops in New Zealand.

The High Court has found it misinterpreted the law.

In his post today (the first of two, he promises) Dr Grant Jacobs says people have sought to improve agricultural species since antiquity.

He discusses a range of ways of doing this then concludes:

The court case that sparked this article examined an opinion that use of ZFN-1 or TALEN gene editing techniques did not create GMOs in response to an appeal to the opinion. Scion’s question for an opinion from EPA is a general one, rather than based detailed plans for a particular project, but one possible project they named was developing pines that are less prone to wilding seedlings. Let’s use this as an example.

If you know a gene in pine is important for, say, fertility or for cones to develop, you could knock out that gene leaving the rest of the plant’s genes exactly as they were. It’d be the same as if natural radiation knocked the gene out – you’d end up with a variant individual that is unable to produce offspring.

No DNA from another species is being added, nor DNA from the same species added for that matter. What you are trying to do is create a variant with one gene disabled.

I’ve tried to keep the above neutral, to sketch out some background without taking a stance. In part two, I’ll offer my opinions on the ruling and some thoughts about the Act. (I may dive into the court ruling and the Act itself either in part two or as a third part, but I’m sure only die-hards would read that…!)

Jacobs is a senior computational biologist who works with research groups and companies through his consultancy, BioinfoTools.

The article in the NZ Herald says debate over New Zealand’s stance on genetic engineering is set to reignite with a review of the rules defining what is – and what isn’t – GM research.

It also backgrounds the Scion application and the Sustainability Council’s opposition.

It says:

The court verdict has frustrated many scientists who claim technology has advanced so fast in the 16 years since our new organism regulations were drawn up that we risk being left behind.

“These technologies are a key breakthrough,” says Otago University director of genetics Associate Professor Peter Dearden. “The [court] decision indicates a problem with the legal definition of a genetically modified organism which has consequences for science, agriculture and pest control.”

The science group leader at AgResearch, Dr Tony Conner, is quoted as saying the ruling highlights that New Zealand’s GM regulatory system is broken.

“Changes need to be made urgently, otherwise further innovation in New Zealand’s genetic research will be severely stifled.”

Scion says the regulations are seriously deficient and the ruling puts New Zealand at odds with other regulators.

But Plant and Food, which is using the gene-splitting techniques in containment, says its food industry partners remain sensitive to negative consumer attitudes to GM products.

The NZ Herald notes that, in her ruling, Justice Jillian Mallon said decisions about what techniques were GM were for the Government to make and the EPA committee’s judgment call “does not sit well with the purpose of the act or [its] precautionary approach”.

The technologies in question were relatively new and intended to cause more specific and rapid changes than traditional techniques.

“There is no evidence before me which says that the environmental effects of these changes … are established and therefore certain.”

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