sign up log in
Want to go ad-free? Find out how, here.

The Government plans to unveil GE proposals by the end of August and is expected to use Australia's experience as a guide

Rural News / news
The Government plans to unveil GE proposals by the end of August and is expected to use Australia's experience as a guide

New Zealanders will know within a couple of months what the Government has in mind on genetic engineering (GE).

It appears the system at work in Australia will provide a model for New Zealand, and it is likely to focus on altering the genetic makeup of common grasses for animal health and environmental reasons.

National pledged to liberalise GE laws in its coalition agreements with both the Act Party and New Zealand First, and last week said changes would be announced in the third quarter of 2024, and then opened up for debate. 

The lead minister Judith Collins, is staying tight lipped on details of her plans.  But has spoken anonymously to some people close to this matter, and has learned the system in place in Australia will provide a template for what happens here. 

In New Zealand, gene technologies are regulated by the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 (HSNO), which was last amended in 2003. Two years earlier, a Royal Commission urged New Zealand to keep its options open but effectively put a block on significant developments of GE. No commercial GE or Genetically Modified (GM) crops are grown here, and field trials sometimes have to be done overseas. 

The Australian model bans all genetic engineering unless it gets approval from a special body operating at the Federal level: the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR). 

One expert in this matter forecasts a sort of “Australia-plus” for New Zealand. 

Under this proposal, a two-tiered system would be suggested for New Zealand. Techniques that involve removing a gene from a species would be able to get approval relatively easily. But techniques that add a new gene to an organism would face much tougher scrutiny. 

There is also speculation that GE applications would be dealt with by a single organisation. A clue to this effect was given in a declaration from three ministers, David Seymour, Penny Simmonds and Andrew Hoggard, that new agricultural chemicals and medicines should be handled by one agency, not both the Environmental Protection Authority and Food Safety New Zealand, as at present. 

Although that statement specifically excludes GE, farmer groups believe the Government’s dislike of duplication would extend to GE as well. 

It also seems likely that GE in this country would be aimed more at plants than animals. The main objective would be to introduce feed for cows that would lower the methane content of cattle burps. This is thought likely to produce a favourable response from the public. But there are fears that using GE to change the characteristics of animals could bring the popular stereotype of the mad scientist from science fiction into the public mind. 

An exception, however, could be made for animal welfare. One example would be altering cattle so they no longer grow horns. Horns are often removed anyway, to safeguard other cows and farm workers from injury, and some cows are bred without horns using conventional technology. But GE could hasten this process.

GE could also help cows avert heat stress, which is a growing problem, especially in the era of climate change. GE might also win public approval if it deals with pressing environmental problems like wilding pines, by attacking the fertility of plantation forests.  

A common theme is that GE is needed to help farmer groups deal with stiff environmental challenges that face them. But not everyone agrees with this view. 

Prem Maan is executive chairman of the 20-farm company, Southern Pastures, and says new technologies are coming on stream to reduce agricultural emissions without using GE. And relying on them, not GE, makes economic sense. 

“New Zealand products actually sell at a premium. Our competitors are the Irish, they are the only ones that come close to our grass-fed systems,” he says.

“When it comes to pastures, we need to be careful. In terms of our grass-fed, free-range products, that is our USP, our Unique Selling Point. We can’t run ahead of the Irish, because that would be handing over our premium markets to our competitors on a silver platter.”

Maan adds some big clients tell him they actually prefer buying GE-free product, because it averts the need for expensive, time-consuming paper work to satisfy local regulators.   

But John Caradus, from the research body, Grasslanz, says both Australia and the US have been able to export agricultural products without customers worrying about their use of GE. He adds organic farming has been able to co-exist with GE farms in both those countries. 

“We have got to be careful we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” he says.

“We have heard numerous times about the environmental targets that have been put in front of us as a nation, and a lot of those will need to be achieved in the pastoral agricultural space. Do we just want to walk away from an opportunity that might deliver some of those benefits by putting genetic modification back to a position where we cannot even access it?’ he asks. 

The industry group, Dairy NZ, is steering clear of passing judgement on a proposal that no-one has yet seen because it is still under wraps.  But it wants to keep its farmers informed about this issue, in order that the Government’s announcement does not come out of the blue. 

To this end, it has published an information package, which avoids comment and is largely a what, where and why of GE. It lists potential benefits and drawbacks of GE, and describes several likely directions for research. 

One would involve altering naturally occurring endophytes, such fungi, to combat the serious livestock disease, ryegrass staggers. This would follow existing genetic work on ryegrass using conventional techniques. 

A related programme would be High Metabolism Energy Ryegrass, which is genetically modified to increase lipid content in the leaf, and boost its nutritional output. 

Another process would alter the flowers of white clover, which would have animal health benefits and reduce both greenhouse gas emissions from livestock and nitrogen leaching. This technology was developed in New Zealand but is being tested overseas. 

The Dairy NZ document stresses that actual work by scientists and businesses following any Government law change would be slow and everyday use in the paddock could be as much as 10 years away.

Supporters say GE is simply an advanced version of a long tradition of changing species by selective breeding, grafting, or irradiation. The previous Trade Minister Damien O’Connor often countered that being GE free was a point of difference for New Zealand farm exports that appealed to choosy customers. His successor, Todd McClay was asked about that and replied that O’Connor “took that argument to the election and lost.”

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.


A foot in the door for the synthetic organism industry. A short step for a government deprived of ethics, or wisdom.  


Good idea. The arguments against GE are weak at best.

Anti-GE crowd will eat a food that was grown drenched in pesticides and tell you how health-conscious they are being.


Look at the US food system, and health outcomes.


I'm not necessarily anti GE but what about Roundup Ready GE crops? Set up to reduce pesticide use but often end up breeding superweeds

Nature is very persistent...

GE crops can also suffer from "yield drag" (lower yields)



"took that to the election and lost"

Well thought out and concise answer (sarc)



"GE could also help cows avert heat stress, which is a growing problem, especially in the era of climate change."

Or you could create some areas of shade for the animals? 


Double glass bifacial solar panels could provide shade and power, plus still allow grass growth. Would need to be higher up for cows , but don't see that as a huge problem.


The arguments against GE don't really stack up when examined with any kind of rigour. Which is why opponents use hysteria and vague fear as their tool. If they had anything specific that would justify a blanket ban then we would have long heard it by now.