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Gene Editing A Hot Debate

Industry lobbying for deregulation of gene editing (GE) is reigniting the public concern for protecting New Zealand's agricultural export reputation and environment. Dr. Jon Hickford recently chaired a forum with speakers from industry and Crown Research Institutes who are designing gene edited animals, insects, plants, and the soil itself. [1]

The speakers covered a range of disciplines from sheep genetics to genetically engineering bees to withstand neonicotinoids; to sterilising wasps; to GE plants to grow longer roots; GE endophytes to make pesticides and assist plant health. Dr. Travis Glare of Bio-Protection Research Centre prefaced his talk saying, “Killing insects is what I love to do," when accounting for his use of GE to design plants inserted with bio insecticides from bacterial toxins.

The concept of using GE to fix the problems from years of intensive pesticide-dependent industrial agriculture echoed the promises made GE twenty years ago. There were no citations of studies on the safety of GE technology.

Many of the speakers hold patents on gene-edited organisms [2] and strongly advocated the need to speed up change to the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO). They were divided as to how a change in legislation should be achieved, arguing whether regulation should be trait based or totally exempt gene editing, claiming the legislation was slowing innovation. They ignored the fact that precautionary legislation has kept New Zealand free of GE organisms and its acknowledged failures and risks.

Dr. William Rolleston, ex chair of LifeScience Network and Federated Farmers called GE-free groups 'dangerous' for wanting independent oversight of the safety of GE through regulation. He went on to display contempt for the media's coverage of the Northland GMO Court case, claiming the Northern Advocate was “supportive of the activists”, and further went on to send a veiled threat to STUFF journalists, expressing hope the new owners would be more responsible and see that “anti-GE are in the same false fold as anti-Vaxers, anti-Fluoride, and anti-1080.”

Such comments suggest a threat to independent journalism and signal that there could be retribution if media reported on the concerns of GE-free groups.

"We are not opposed to GE applied ethically and in containment, but we are very concerned about the forum’s inability to acknowledge the thousands of published articles [3] in respected scientific journals showing that Gene Editing has serious off-target effects, with mutations that pose long-term risks to the environment and people. These need to be properly documented and assessed by regulators before deciding if there is to be any commercial release," said spokesman Jon Carapiet.

"We cannot leave the foxes in charge of the GE hen house as commercial players are demanding."

Speakers for GE deregulation suggested the way to influence all sectors of the community, including the media, government and Maori, and to achieve their goal is to build capacity, and influence policy, using known names to work with Ministries at staff level and then advise the Minister to take their advice. Such actions will subject the new Government to immense pressure to comply. A massive push is proposed in order to influence Maori into accepting GE. This will cause the public to distrust and bring into disrepute scientists and the media's independence and balance.

Dr. Penman asked, “What is there to debate?” when talking about GE-Free NZ calling for a national debate. We believe there is much to debate that was missed by the AgScience forum of industry, patent holders [2], and other speakers with vested interests. What about the environment, people, and ensuring the safety or prohibition of GE through robust legislation?” said Mr. Carapiet.

It is time that a national debate on GE is broadcast. We hope that the media takes a step to organize such a debate and not be cowed into silence by these threats on this extremely important issue.


[1] https://www.agscience.org.nz/canterbury-forum-2020-gene-editing/
[2] Patent holders – not all patents are here. 
Travis Glare 
Andrew Allan
Colin Eady
Anthony Conner
[3] https://gmoresearch.org

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