Twenty years ago, the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification (2001) determined an overall approach for New Zealand to genetic engineering technologies – “proceed with caution while preserving opportunities”. The purpose of the Gene Editing Forum on 21 October was to review how far we had come since then.
Presentations were given by the Royal Society of New Zealand, University and Crown Research Institute scientists, and others. Many speakers concluded that the HSNO Act is no longer fit for purpose as it was written in the early days of genetic engineering when transgenic technology prevailed (inserting genes from different species into one another) and was easy to detect by testing at the New Zealand border. New gene editing technologies, such as CRISPR are very different. These technologies introduced very precise changes in the DNA, which arguably makes them much safer than less predictable changes made through traditional breeding (mutagenesis) and genetic engineering. The edited plants are virtually undetectable at the border.
Genetic engineering applications have been adopted in the healthcare and veterinary medicine areas, but people still fear GE so strongly that it is unclear who will lead a meaningful conversation about gene editing in the primary sectors.
Speakers argued for a new approach, moving from regulations based on how the plant has been produced to one that focuses on the traits of the plant itself. The Royal Society of New Zealand concluded that it’s time for an overhaul of the regulations and an urgent need for wide discussion and debate about gene editing within and across all New Zealand communities. They have published a series of papers targeted towards policy makers on CRISPR technologies, gene editing in healthcare, for pest control and for the primary industries https://www.royalsociety.org.nz/major-issues-and-projects/gene-editing-in-aotearoa/
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020 was awarded to two women scientists involved in the discovery of the CRISPR technology, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna. This tool has contributed to many important discoveries in basic research and internationally, plant researchers have been able to develop crops that withstand mould, pests and drought. In medicine, clinical trials of new cancer therapies are underway. These genetic scissors have taken the life sciences into a new epoch.
Scientists and university professors have said that if CRISPR applications have to go through the HSNO Act’s regulatory process, it will make them too expensive and so the ideas will be sold overseas rather than being used to benefit New Zealander’s.
- Political processes are largely reactive
- Policy follows political demands
- There is a need to tell meaningful stories / scenarios that balance the risks and benefits (eg. CRISPR for wasp control).
- Younger people are far more willing to consider both the benefits and risks of all new technologies.
- As a society, we must not avoid confronting complex issues. We need to build capacity and capability of people to enable meaningful consideration of new and emerging technologies.