Scion - New Zealand Forest Research Institute Limited

Innovation stifled by High Court decision

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Crown Research Institute Scion says that the recent High Court decision concerning new plant breeding technologies demonstrates that the 15-year old legislation and regulations covering genetically modified organisms are seriously deficient. 

Scion CEO Warren Parker said, “Indeed, the judge noted that the regulations are not well drafted, and led to the different interpretations put before the Court”.

This decision puts New Zealand at odds with other regulators around the world (e.g. US, Australia, Germany), who have stated opinions that organisms resulting from these technologies are not regarded as genetically modified.

“Not only does this decision put us behind other countries, it blocks New Zealand’s ability to innovate and reduces our options to respond scientifically to issues that affect our primary production,” said Dr Parker. 

“Our regulators need to be able to apply sound scientific principles to decision-making,” said Elspeth MacRae, Scion’s General Manager of Manufacturing and Bioproducts.

“In this instance, the two technologies - “ZFN-1” and “TALEs” - alter the genetic code of an organism but without the introduction of foreign genetic material into the genome of the cell. The technologies allow targeted mutations that are more precise and scientifically predictable than mutations achieved through traditional breeding methods,” explained Dr MacRae.

Such technologies are particularly important for forestry, which has long breeding cycles. Use of new breeding technologies like these, provide the forestry industry with a rapid response to issues that are becoming increasingly important. 

Scion would like to use the techniques for preventing the spread of wilding-pines, increasing tolerance to climate change, resistance to pathogens and improving wood quality and growth rate in response to shifts in the market place.

Technologies will continue to evolve and should be subject to a regulatory regime. The emphasis however, should not just focus on the techniques; it needs to also look at the changes (i.e., traits) being sought. In this instance, the target traits would fall within the natural variability of plant genomes and could be achieved with traditional breeding methods, but it would take many years and with less precision. 

The new breeding technologies that were the subject of the High Court decision would result in plants that that are similar or indistinguishable from plants developed from traditional breeding methods. Regulating these techniques poses an unnecessary burden on the industry and stifles innovation.

BackgroundAs a Crown Research Institute, Scion has a responsibility to pursue areas of science and technology that offer opportunities for the forestry sector in New Zealand, including gene technologies. The impetus from the industry and Government is to develop trees that grow faster, have higher value products, require lower inputs (such as herbicides and insecticides) and can mitigate climate change. Scion is at the forefront internationally in applying these genetic modification techniques to radiata pine and other conifers. 

In 2012 Scion asked the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) to determine whether trees produced using ZFN-1” and “TALES” technologies would be considered to be genetically modified organisms. The EPA’s opinion was that such trees would not be GMOs. The Sustainability Council appealed the EPA decision to the High Court. 
About ScionScion is a Crown Research Institute that undertakes research, science and technology development in forestry, wood products, biomaterials and bioenergy. Scion's work contributes to beneficial economic, environmental and social outcomes for New Zealand. Formerly the NZ Forest Research Institute, Scion employs approximately 340 people and has its head office in Rotorua. For more information, please visit www.scionresearch.com

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