Plant & Food $8.5m research grant

The grant was part of the total investment announced this week of more than $209 million over the next five years.

An $8.5 million research grant awarded to crown research institute Plant & Food this week for new breeding technologies for high value plant industries includes gene editing which is considered in New Zealand to be part of genetic modification.

The grant was part of the total investment announced this week of more than $209 million over the next five years in new scientific research projects through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) 2016 Endeavour Fund.

Plant & Food chief executive Peter Landon-Lane told the NZBio conference today that one of the new breeding technologies is CRISPR gene editing, which gives biologists the ability to target and study particular DNA sequences in the expanse of a genome and then edit them.

In May 2014 the New Zealand High Court was the first in the world to give a judicial opinion on the legal classification of gene-editing technique in a case involving CRI Scion which had been given Environmental Protection Authority approval to use two new breeding techniques to develop new varieties of pine trees.

The court ruled they were techniques of genetic modification and fell within New Zealand law which restricts genetically modified crops, a finding now at odds with how gene editing is treated in many other jurisdictions.

More recently, the government is considering how to respond to last month's High Court ruling allowing regional councils to control the release of GMOs under the Resource Management Act, rather than having those decisions made through the EPA.

Plant & Food's research project aims to develop next generation breeding tools for New Zealand tree crops, such as apricots, cherries, and kiwiberry, to produce high-value cultivars seven times faster than currently possible. Novel traits such as long storage and shelf-life can be delivered through altering the plant's genome, without introducing foreign DNA.

Gene editing involves the insertion, deletion or replacement of DNA within the genome of an organism.

Landon-Lane said the gene editing will only be used in contained laboratories and not end up in any finished products.

But he said New Zealand's regulations on gene editing are out of step with the rest of the world and "we need to ensure it moves ahead or we risk getting left behind", he said.

Plant & Food's position on genetic modification was that it's not a science problem, he said.

"We know that it's not a science issue and is very safe. There are more hoops that GM crops need to jump through than naturally occurring wild things that could effectively kill you more quickly," he said. "But at the moment our customers are saying that their customers and consumers are not willing to accept some of the biotechnology tools available."

Newer technologies are starting to raise more questions about exactly what is GM, he said.

He pointed to the plant-based burger patty that tastes like meat developed by Impossible Foods, the four-year-old start-up backed by Bill Gates and others, which is pitching the genetically-modified product as a way to save the planet by reducing beef consumption.

"It's highly unnatural but it will save the planet. If there's a good enough reason for a GM product, then that's where the acceptance will come in," Landon-Lane said. "It's a value judgement by people that is not based on logic or science."

(BusinessDesk)

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