Scientists are calling on the government to consider a law change to enable gene editing to help eradicate pests.
They say it’s time for an overhaul of the regulations if New Zealand wants to eradicate pests by 2050.
In a Royal Society Te Apārangi report released Monday night, scientists say the country’s legal framework relating to the technology is out of date, with the Government largely ruling it out.
“It’s not going to happen by 2050 if we don’t change the legislative framework,” Massey University molecular genetics professor Barry Scott said.
The regulations were formed in 1996 and had left experts’ hands tied when it came to researching the potential of gene editing.
“It reminds me of politicians in New Zealand in the 1970s saying that we shouldn’t invest in cancer research because it’s already being done overseas … that’s nonsense, because we have really smart people in this country.”
Scott said it was foolish to exclude researchers from investigating the options.
“We’ve got to do the research on it … it’s 30 years away and there will be a lot of things, solutions we haven’t even dreamt of yet.”
Scott, who was also on the report’s expert panel, said the report was two years in the making and set out to highlight the deficiencies for the Government and the public.
“Now it’s up to the policymakers, and they need to do something about it.”
More than 4000 native New Zealand plants and animals, including the kererū and kiwi, are at risk of extinction despite community conservation efforts.
Gene editing has the potential to prevent pests from reproducing.
In the past, experts have said at this rate, it’s unlikely New Zealand will have a self-disseminating tool for predators in place by 2050.
The Predator Free 2050 (PF 2050) strategy to be released this year will outline ways of achieving the goal.
Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage said the plan had a limited budget of about $6 millon, and needed to focus on improving existing tools such as traps, lures, toxins, and landscape scale control.
“This includes furthering our basic knowledge about the population genetics of rats, possums and stoats, as well as further research on pest control options such as AI [artificial intelligence], smart traps, species-specific toxins, and super lures.”
There was no “silver bullet” gene editing solution ready to be used now, with more research and public discussion needed, Sage said.
It was generally agreed by experts that a gene drive for predator control in New Zealand was still a long way off, she said.
The report said New Zealand had an “ethical obligation” to contribute to the global knowledge of gene editing technology.
“New Zealand cannot leave this to other nations.”
Department of Conservation (Doc) PF 2050 communications and engagement manager Barbara Bercic said comprehensive engagement was needed before any gene technology developments were pursued.
Co-chairman of the gene editing panel Dr David Penman said New Zealand needed to develop its own view on gene editing and the special challenges faced here.
Forest and Bird chief conservation advisor Kevin Hackwell said gene editing could lead to a final push to get rid of some pests. “It could be one of the tools that we use to mop up those very, very last animals.”
But it wouldn’t be able to replace the use of toxins and poisons, Hackwell said.
The number of modified animals that would need to be created to eradicate pests would be too high.
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