“Inventing around the law” with New GM Techniques

GM developers are pursuing a renaissance strategy.  Its intent is to bridge the huge gap to consumer acceptance of the technology. Yet rather than engage with the fundamental sources of concern, the strategy is to invent around current rules governing GM release through developing new GM techniques.

An advance guard of the new techniques is an approach called zinc finger nuclease or ZFN-1. While use of the technique is still in the early stages, developers have already approached the Environmental Protection Authority to determine whether the technique is covered by New Zealand’s GM laws.

In 2013, in a surprise decision that went against EPA staff advice, a specially appointed EPA committee deemed ZFN-1 not to be GM under New Zealand law – meaning that ZFN-1 crops could be grown in New Zealand without having to undergo an economic and environmental assessment by the EPA.

The Sustainability Council successfully appealed the decision. The High Court quashed the EPA decision, finding that the regulator had misinterpreted the law when it decided that GMOs from two new breeding techniques could go into New Zealand fields without any formal consultation or assessment of the impacts.  The EPA was also criticised for failing to act cautiously in the face of uncertainty.

The ruling is good news for food exporters supplying high value markets such as Europe that will generally not tolerate any detectable level of GM content.

ZFN-1 is sufficiently new that few countries have even ruled whether it is GM under their regulations.  Were anyone to plant ZFN-1 crops in New Zealand, companies exporting into markets that recognise the new technique as GM could suffer serious economic damage.  Exports could be rejected if there was physical contamination and brands could be hit simply because of a perception that products are no longer GM Free.

Key documents

High Court Prevents Developers From Bypassing GM Laws. Media statement, May 22 2014.

Key Background to the High Court Decision, May 22 2014.

New GM Foods Designed to Escape Regulation. Opinion piece, Dominion Post, November 2013.

Dow Excluded from Precedent Setting Case on GM Law. Media statement, October 2013.

Genetic Engineers Get Approval to Bypass Regulator. Media statement, June 2013.

Zinc Finger Nuclease. Backgrounder, June 2013.