Dairy cows on a farm in the Taranaki region. (Getty Images)
Dairy cows on a farm in the Taranaki region. (Getty Images)

The BulletinApril 13, 2022

The future of the GMO ban

Dairy cows on a farm in the Taranaki region. (Getty Images)
Dairy cows on a farm in the Taranaki region. (Getty Images)

New Zealand’s genetic engineering laws face a tough challenge from new technology, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.

The ban on genetic engineering is facing an impossible problem.

There’s a hole in the wall keeping genetically modified organisms out of New Zealand and it’s shaped like an impossible burger. As Chris Schulz wrote for The Spinoff, the lab-designed meat is the biggest name in the plant-based craze. However, the impossible burger would be impossible without genetic engineering. The core of the burger is a heme molecule that gives the meat its taste and bleeding character. The Listener (paywalled) also looked at the growth of consumer interest in plant-based alternatives. Aotearoa’s food safety regulator had to approve the impossible burger’s sale here, giving it an exemption to the country’s ban on GMOs. While it’s not the first genetically engineered technology allowed into the country, it’s a sign of the growing pressure on Aotearoa’s laws.

There’s a growing call for a review of the country’s regulations.

There hasn’t been a review of New Zealand’s laws covering GMOs in over two decades. RNZ reports that the Productivity Commission now warns that current regulations don’t reflect 20 years of breakneck technological advances. The commission has recommended that regulations should accomodate new technology and not “stifle” innovation. The government responded that Aotearoa’s brand is GMO-free and it wants to maintain a “proceed with caution” approach to genetic engineering. There’s also little public interest in changing regulations. However, the Productivity Commission is not alone. The Climate Change Commission also recommended last year that the government consider allowing genetic engineering that could cut emissions from agriculture.

The resistance to change can be fierce. So can the calls for it.

GMOs can be a passionate topic and there’s no easy way to define the arguments on both sides. Prem Maan, the executive chairman of Lewis Road Creamery and Southern Pastures, wrote a defence of current laws last year. He warned of possible massive damage to the environment from uncontrolled spread of GMOs and said the current ban keeps New Zealand’s food exports premium, “wholesome” products. Similar arguments are made every few years, when a new report comes out. Mia Sutherland, a former school strike for climate organiser, wrote for Stuff that GMOs are the climate option. With the country facing a serious challenge to rapidly slash climate emissions this decade, some genetically engineered grasses could help cut agricultural emissions by nearly half. Newsroom also looks at the advances in science and argues this goes far beyond GMOs, with New Zealand also strictly limiting gene editing.

The future holds a lot of radical biology.

It’s possible that you’ll be reading a newsletter in another 20 years that also covers the country’s largely GMO-free status. But it’s unlikely. While there’s been tremendous technological change in the 20 years since the country’s last GMO review, the next two decades promise to be even more transformative. “Biology is the most important technology of this century,” Wired argues in a recent review of what’s to come. In ways that already seem unthinkable, technology is being used right now to edit and rewrite life. The future, for better or worse, will be increasingly synthetic.

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