GM is inspiring the same kind of "techno-fix" mentality as information technology – Prof Jack Heinemann
This long article is worth reading to the end for the insights of Prof Jack Heinemann of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, and Jon Carapiet of GE-Free NZ.
Why NZ ought to allow genetic engineering - and why avoiding it might be even better
Stuff, Nov 25 2019
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* The gene-engineering debate is firing up again. It probably isn't going anywhere. But here – along with the alternative – is why it matters. JOHN McCRONE reports.
Relax. Put down your placards. Don't bother with the march on Parliament. A change to New Zealand's genetic modification (GM) laws just isn't on the current political agenda.
Back in the 1990s, being anti-GM joined "no nukes" as something New Zealand could stand for – something that defined the country on the world stage as being the "clean and green" one.
We had the 1996 Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act. We had the 2000 Royal Commission on GM. There were the GE-free hikoi and public rallies aplenty.
These resulted in a tight regulatory framework – about the most prescriptive anywhere – that has remained our policy for the last 20 years.
Every now and then, someone has a go at stirring the pot on behalf of the country's agricultural scientists and primary industries lobby.
The latest was by the Royal Society/Te Apārangi (RS). A three-year special panel delivered a report in August making a loud call for legislative reform.
Look, the panel said, gene technology has evolved way beyond what it was in the 1990s. It isn't about the old Frankenstein scenarios anymore – fish genes in tomatoes, rat genes in lettuce. All those obviously unnatural trans-species kinds of things.
Instead, there are new precision techniques – gene-editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9, and gene-silencing ones like dsRNA – that work within the existing genetic kitset of an organism to make desirable tweaks.
Really it is no different from traditional selective breeding where you are seeking to turn up, or turn down, particular traits.
Except that rather than relying on some random variation to show – perhaps after blasting the germline with radiation or a chemical mutagen to produce the lucky surprise – this is fast and targeted.
And hey, added the panel, aren't we going to need this new biological wizardry to deal with the rising challenges of climate change and global food supply?
As an agricultural nation, why would New Zealand want to cut itself out of this next phase of technological advance?
The Royal Society sounded like it was making a solid case. Even the Prime Minister's chief science advisor, Professor Juliet Gerrard, weighed in to declare the current GM laws "no longer fit for purpose".
Yet the calls for a legislative rethink have been met with the quick brush-off.
Otago University associate professor Richard Macknight – a ryegrass researcher and president of the NZ Society of Plant Biologists (NZSPB) – was one of a number who wrote to Environment Minister David Parker, asking basically "well, what next?".
Macknight shows the brief reply he got from Parker, thanking the Royal Society for its efforts, but saying there were "no plans to review the regulatory framework relating to genetic modification".
Macknight blames coalition politics. "There's the coalition with the Green Party. And the Green Party's traditionally had a view against GM technology."
Massey University professor of molecular genetics Barry Scott – co-chair of the RS panel – agrees, but feels there are time-tabling issues too.
An election year is coming up, he says, and the Government has a crowded legislative plate. "There's all sorts of other things – mental health, poverty, infrastructure – that are much higher on the agenda."
So any big changes are likely going to have to wait another couple of years, says Scott. The anti-GM crowd can afford to relax.
However what if a policy rewrite were up for grabs? What would New Zealanders have to say about GM today?
As it turns out, the pro-GM camp does have a pretty persuasive story to tell. But also, the anti's have a case for why "NZ Inc" might still want to go its own way.
GM NOT ACTUALLY BANNED
Scott, the panel co-chair, says a surprising thing is there is no actual ban or moratorium on GM research in New Zealand. Most people don't realise that.
The Royal Commission in 2000 simply said "proceed with caution", he says. Yet in practice, the HSNO Act creates so much red tape – especially when it comes to making the step from laboratory to field trial – that it has effectively halted activity.
Only three GMOs (genetically modified organisms) have made it through for clinical testing in the medical setting – Pexa-Vec for liver cancer, Telomelysin for skin cancer, and Proteqflu, a horse flu vaccine.
When it comes to agriculture and the primary industries, there is just a Scion pine tree trial, an AgResearch project on low-allergy milk, and an AgResearch project on High Metabolisable Energy (HME) ryegrass – a modified "cow fart" strain intended to reduce methane emissions.
Scott says this GM ryegrass could be critical to New Zealand farming hitting its climate change targets. But our research restrictions are so stringent the field trials are in fact being done in the US.
"The problem is anything that goes into the field requires public notification. The public can make submissions and it becomes a very expensive process. So almost de facto, there has been a moratorium."
And it is not that GM researchers are arguing for radical deregulation, Scott, says. "Everyone believes there should be rules."
It is just that 20 years have gone by and a highly prescriptive framework has fallen behind the times.
Otago's Macknight adds the world has also had a further two decades of actual experience with GMOs.
As a statement from the NZSPB notes, multiple reviews have found that GM crops are as safe as those produced by any other breeding technique, he says.
GM crops now make up 15 per cent of world agriculture. And they are common in many products imported into New Zealand without fuss.
We wear plenty of Australian cotton, for instance. Its GM strains need 85 per cent less insecticide, 62 per cent less grass herbicide, and 33 per cent less weed herbicide. A clear win for the environment.
So it is time for a GM policy that better reflects the balance of reward and risk, Macknight says.
THINGS NZ COULD BE DOING
One of the aims of the RS panel's review was to highlight concrete examples of how New Zealand is missing out. And how with the new gene-editing, the old simplistic dividing line between GM and non-GM is becoming blurred.
"There are some good applications queuing up that would have real benefits," Scott says.
A compelling case is apple breeding. New Zealand has built an export industry around a selective breeding programme producing trade-marked cultivars like Jazz, Eve and Envy.
Yet traditional methods take time, says Scott. A young tree needs five years to flower. It can require a further six generations of trees to establish a variety with the desired consumer traits.
But gene-editing techniques like CRISPR-Cas9 – which hit the world with a bang in 2012 – let researchers switch out genes in an instant targeted fashion.
CRISPR is a gene-reading molecule that can zero in on a particular gene location on a strand of DNA. Cas9 is then an attached bacterial enzyme that acts as a pair of scissors to snip a gene out, and can even allow a different one to be inserted.
As a concept, gene-editing has been around since the 1980s. But suddenly – along with a host of allied gene-tinkering advances – it has become cheap and easy to apply. Even home hobbyists can afford to buy some of the basic capabilities off the shelf.
Scott says what apple growers want to do is edit seedlings so they flower within their first year. That way, they can get through a half dozen generations of a selective breeding programme in double quick time.
And once the variety is created, gene-editing can be used again to remove the flowering mutation, he says.
"At the end, you take all the machinery out. And so you've got a new cultivar of the apple that has no introduced genes whatsoever."
The outcome is non-GM. And yet the existing HSNO legislation means the approach has to be treated with all the rigmarole as if it were, Scott says.
SAVING THE PLANET
The Greens led the fight against GM, but now they should be all for it, says Macknight, who in September won an Endeavour Fund grant for his own ryegrass flowering project.
Macknight says when ryegrass flowers in late spring, it becomes less nutritious for grazing stock. Editing a variety to make it non-flowering would help farming yield.
However as regulations stand, he can start the task of identifying the right target genes, but moving into field trials looks problematic unless he follows AgResearch and goes overseas.
Yet going to the US would then mean the strain wouldn't have been proven in New Zealand growing conditions. It might not do so well here. There would also still be the difficulty of getting permission to bring it back in as a GM crop.
Macknight says New Zealand needs to remove these kinds of barriers because a fast-changing world means we will want to be able to rely on our own local GM expertise.
With climate change, we may soon have to develop replacement plant strains that can better tolerate drought, salt and heat stress.
Disease is another big issue. Psa could have wiped out our Kiwifruit industry.
And New Zealand will be at a simple competitive disadvantage if China and others start racing ahead, applying the new GM to apples, milk production, and other areas where we feel we have a lead.
There are so many reasons why the anti-GM attitudes of the 1990s are past their sell-by date, Macknight says.
"At university, I'm teaching young students who weren't born 20 years ago and they actually can't understand.
"They see all these cool things we can do. They're worried about climate change, our environment, issues like nitrogen run-off. And yet we're not allowed to commercialise any of it."
DNA REPAIRING SUNCREAM
At the University of Canterbury, professor of gene ecology Jack Heinemann has been tracking the twist and turns of the GM debate since he appeared as a technical expert at the 2000 Royal Commission.
Heinemann says the technology is indeed moving at breakneck speed.
Leaping up from his chair, he grabs a gene-altering sunscreen – Neova Damage Control – he has just brought back from a US trip.
The cream claims to repair DNA strands fractured by the sun's ultraviolet rays. "It's a chemical formulation with two different bacterial nucleases. Those nucleases are taken into your skin cells and act on your DNA."
Get it, he asks? This is doing GM on your own body. And under US laws, because it makes no specific medical claims, it can be sold unregulated.
Does it work? "Who the hell knows. But their patent says it does. And 50 bucks for two fluid ounces," he exclaims.
What worries him more is that if this sunscreen can deliver DNA-manipulating nucleases simply by being rubbed on your arms, what is stopping "biohacker" enthusiasts repurposing it to deliver anything else they might dream of?
This is the way it is going. Heinemann says GM is inspiring the same kind of "techno-fix" mentality as information technology. Biology is seen as machinery. So all you have to do is some clever re-programming – edit the genome like a document.
Silicon Valley now has its biohacker community. In a notorious stunt in 2017, an online seller of DIY gene kits injected himself live in front of a conference audience with a CRISPR formulation meant to promote muscle growth by knocking out his myostatin gene.
Nothing happened. But Heinemann says it illustrates the new mood behind calls for deregulation. Innovation needs to be freed up, even if it gets a little crazy at times.
However Heinemann says what many people do not realise is – beyond the hype – just how little GM has actually delivered so far.
The truth is biology is complicated. Desirable traits are normally under the control of a maze of genetic factors. It is rare anything useful can be changed with single gene changes.
Heinemann drags out a journal article from 1972 forecasting how genetic-engineering was going to transform world crop growing.
"The roadmap said we would have crops that could fix their own nitrogen, crops that were resistant to drought, salt and heavy metals. We would have biofuels coming out of our ears because we would so massively increase plant yields."
Yet the same article has been basically rewritten every year since, he says. "Here we are almost 40 years later. And exactly zero of those products are available to us."
Heinemann says the irony is that traditional selective breeding has produced significant advances in these kinds of growing qualities. "Non-GMO techniques have increased drought tolerance by 20 to 30 per cent."
So society is being pressured to deregulate GM research on the fear of missing out. "But no reduction in regulations has ever resulted in these products. We've been told every decade we're going to fall behind. But it hasn't actually happened."
FIXES TO FIX THE FIX
An exception to the rule has been pesticide-related applications, Heinemann admits. There, single genes can be usefully targeted.
"That's the reason 90 to 99 per cent of all commercial GMOs are about pesticidal traits."
Either a plant is edited so it produces its own insecticides. Or as with Monsanto's Roundup Ready, the crop is engineered to be resistant to a herbicide like glyphosphate. You can then blast the weeds and leave the cotton or soy behind.
But Heinemann says this is really only important to the growers of bulk commodity crops. It is why the US and Canada have been more liberal with their own GM regulation..
Vast monoculture cropping is not even an end of the market New Zealand wants to be in. And we have been doing as well as anyone just using ordinary breeding methods to produce premium products like better-tasting apples or sheep.
So Heinemann says he doesn't see any burning need to roll back the highly precautionary approach built into the HSNO Act.
It could do with some updating because of the new techniques and possibilities. However repealing the legislation isn't going to suddenly turbo-charge New Zealand agricultural innovation.
Heinemann says if you want a cautionary story, look at one of the proposed uses for the latest development of site-directed nucleases (SDNs) – the "spray-on" GM trick being used by Neova sunscreen.
The US now has the problem it has used so much herbicide in growing its GM crops, the weeds have evolved their own glyphosate resistance.
So the next step in this war will be to spray the weeds with a gene-silencing nuclease that can soak through their leaves and switch that off.
"The product will knock out the resistance gene in the weed, but not in the GM crop plant. And that way, they can spray more glyphosate again."
Heinemann pauses to let it sink in. Techno-fix being piled on techno-fix.
Except now rather than doing the gene-editing to create a changed organism within the controlled conditions of a lab, this is using a topical GM spray to reset the DNA of plants already growing out in the wild.
It thus becomes an experiment with everything else it touches, Heinemann says.
"All the fungi, bacteria, and insects living in that field. You don't know what the nucleases are doing to all those other species."
A POSITIVE ALTERNATIVE
Jon Carapiet, an Auckland market researcher and national spokesman for GE-Free NZ, says the calls for deregulation reflect a cavalier confidence about what science can control.
But also there is the problem that more attention is not given to GM's alternative, he feels.
The GM debate is regularly cast in the negative light of being about standing in the way of scientific advance. The anti's are framed as the out-of-touch luddites, Carapiet says.
However there is a positive story to be told – one he wishes the RS panel had devoted the same amount of attention to – about the science to be done in support of natural "regenerative" farming practices.
As Heinemann notes, says Carapiet, GM makes most sense for those focused on commodity monocultures – where biology is being imposed on a landscape with brute force.
But if New Zealand is staking its future on the market for premium foods and top-end customers, then – as a country – it ought to be putting its own research emphasis on agriculture at the exact opposite end of the spectrum.
"If we are talking about public interest science, we ought to be debating the alternative commercial arguments around being organic, sustainable, ethical, environmentally clean and green – which is really what the cornerstones for our market exports are."
Carapiet says it is no secret why researchers are agitating to do more GM work. "Let's be real. A lot of the drive behind wanting to deregulate is about the patents, intellectual property rights, profits and licensing fees."
By contrast, it is hard to monetise simple good husbandry techniques.
Yet for those concerned about climate change, things like rich and healthy soils are likely to lock up far more carbon than HME grass is ever going to save in methane emissions.
A regenerative or agro-ecological approach could be just as futuristic, just as exciting for the country, as dreaming about techno-fix GM, says Carapiet.
So it is another sound reason for continuing with a cautious regulatory approach to GM.
Radical change to GM policy might not be on the Government's agenda right at the moment.
But understanding what GM can and can't do could not be more important to deciding the long-term direction that "Brand NZ" might want to steer, Carapiet says.