We hear about the benefits of Gene Editing, but what about the risks? 

When it comes to navigating an ethical biotechnology strategy for the future, there are questions to be asked and different types of risk to be considered.

What is the value to Brand New Zealand of a future committed to agroecology and producing food more naturally?  How does this compare to a future of industrial, intensive, artificial food with claims of sustainability? 

Nobody seems to agree on which direction represents the best chance of real action on climate change. Right now industry is largely ignoring proven solutions such as stock management and mixed feed for methane reduction.

Science has an important role in making our farming more sustainable but there are different kinds of science. 

Medical gene science is pretty much accepted as it is carefully regulated and can be controlled. 

But the public’s appetite for the risks of Gene Editing in the open environment is different. 

Claims that only biotechnology can save us and that we must release Gene Edited organisms into the environment in order to fix climate change, are not credible when existing alternatives are left on the shelf. 

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There are lessons to be learned from inaction on climate, and from past mistakes.

So what are the risks? 


Climate Action Risk

Climate Action is being delayed by people waiting for technical fixes and magic bullets. It turns out that fake meat may have benefits for animal welfare but may be useless for responding to climate change. New Scientist reports that lab-grown meat could be 25 times worse for climate than beef. 

The promise of creating GE-ryegrass has allowed long delays in taking action to help farmers reduce methane. There is an opportunity-cost for New Zealand in delaying the transition to sustainability.


Scientific Risk

Gene Editing is not fool proof, and things go wrong.

‘Hornless cows’ are one of the first Gene Edited products launched to market. It was only later that unexpected foreign DNA was discovered. “They had a major screw up” said the headline in MIT Technology Review.

There is also the discovery of chaos in the genome from Gene Editing. 

CRISPRthripsis’ is where several hundred genetic changes happen simultaneously in a catastrophic event with genetic material swapped, twisted, recombined or even lost. It was discovered in tomatoes. But it doesn’t just happen in tomatoes.



Animal Welfare Risk

Despite strict regulation there are examples of things going wrong before.

AgResearch has been called out on animal welfare by the NZ Herald when it reported the story of GE calves developing ovaries that ruptured and killed them. The headline ‘mutant cows die in GM trial‘ was not a good look for New Zealand either.

The destruction of 3000 GE sheep at Whakamaru was made necessary after the product they were genetically engineered to make, failed clinical trials. The company PPL went bankrupt.There was no insurance or bond to cover costs so the public had to pay to clean up the mess.


Ethical Risk 

The regulation of GE must be informed by Te Ao Maori, settlement of Y262 and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples.  

Human genetic engineering raises the prospect of eugenics, and unacceptable practices that the BioEthics Council was established to advise on. The need for a Technology Regulator across Biotechnology, AI, Nanotechnology and Synthetic Biology is made greater as technologies converge.


Environmental risk

In Europe, Environment Ministers are challenging the EU Commission to keep regulation on Genetic Edited products to protect the environment. They say the precautionary principle must be maintained. New Zealand must take heed. 

Those arguing for the release of Gene Edited organisms say that the science has changed and we know more. We know more about ecology too, and about a crisis of biodiversity loss and chemical pollution from previous innovations that have had unintended consequences.

GE crops have increased use of glyphosate and other toxic chemicals as weeds have become resistant. 

But solutions offered by future Gene Editing in the open field could be worse. Scientists are working on new pesticides comprising naked RNA combined with carbon nano-particles to penetrate plant and insect cells more easily, to be directly sprayed onto fields. The implications revealed in Frontiers (link below) is sobering, even for the most avid proponent of GE.


Reputational Risk 

The trend for natural, ethical food applies to vegetarians as much as meat and dairy consumers. 

Demand for plant based foods is about real climate action and animal welfare, not about investing in artificial lab-grown products.

New Zealand products, whether animal or non-animal, must focus on ‘natural’ in contrast to ‘fake’.

Fonterra and other exporters say their exports are advantaged by being GE-free and our brand association with Nature.

Stuff reports that Tesco, the biggest buyer of New Zealand products in Britain wants products that are sustainable, with the focus on biodiversity, soil health, water management, worker human rights and animal welfare.

It’s surprising that Silver Fern Farms chief executive Simon Limmer wants a review of genetic modification’ to give ”optionality’. If he is thinking options for ‘GE ryegrass’ or Gene Edited lamb, he needs to speak with the people at Tesco.


Insurance Risk 

Arguably, the only organisations really expert in calculating risk are the Insurance companies. In the past they have refused to cover the risks of GE, so what should be commercial risk is ‘socialised’. 

‘Polluter pays’ and requiring users of Gene Edited products to have commercial liability insurance are important tools to protect Brand New Zealand from unintended consequences of biotechnology.

Public trust that Gene Editing is ‘safe’ would be encouraged by the Insurance industry calculating and underwriting the risks.

Proponents of Gene Editing say “the science has changed”. Has the Insurance industry’s view of risk changed too?


Jon Carapiet: Born in Ghana and educated at Cambridge and Auckland Universities, Jon is a consumer researcher and advocate, photographer and writer. Jon started talking about valuing and protecting Brand New Zealand in the early 2000’s and is spokesman for GE-Free NZ (in food and environment). Twitter  jon@brandnewzealand

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