Gene technology - tomorrow’s technology today

17 June 1997.

In a special article in the 1997 "Situation and Outlook for New Zealand Agriculture", Dr. Graeme King examines controversial and emotive topic of gene technology. As the debate on genetically modified food commences in New Zealand, Dr King writes "one thing is certain - gene technology is now a reality."

Gene technology and biotechnology

Biotechnology uses living organisms (microbes, plants or animals) or parts of living organisms, such as isolated cells or proteins, to create useful new products. It is a very old technology. As long ago as 6,000 BC, our ancestors discovered (much to their delight!) that bacteria and yeasts could ferment plant juices to produce beer and wine. As humans learned to control these processes, a wide range of products were developed using biotechnology, including bread, cheese, vinegar and yoghurt.

Gene technology is a specialised form of biotechnology, altering the genetic characteristics of organisms to introduce desirable traits. Many of these modifications could be achieved by traditional breeding methods, but gene technology provides a faster and more precise method. However gene technology also facilitates the introduction of genes from unrelated organisms. This capability has been used for many years to produce pharmaceuticals - since 1982, gene technology has helped meet the world demand for insulin.

In August 1996, 16 lay New Zealanders evaluated the use of gene technology in plants during New Zealand’s first Talking Technology Conference. The panel concluded:

"We have to accept plant biotechnology is a reality and it is better that it be conducted in an open environment where checks and controls can be put in place and the process open to public scrutiny."

Gene technology and agriculture

New Zealand’s competitive advantage lies in exporting high quality primary products to overseas markets. New Zealand is continuing to move from commodity trading into marketing branded consumer products to extract maximum value from international markets. Freer trade in agriculture arising from the GATT Uruguay Round will open new international markets for New Zealand’s agricultural products and also the New Zealand domestic market to new products imported from overseas.

Dr King writes that international trade is driving the use of gene technology in New Zealand agriculture. He lists five reasons for this:

  1. Gene technology is a global technology
  2. Gene technology can provide reliable supplies of pharmaceuticals
  3. Gene technology can improve agricultural production and product quality
  4. Gene technology can enhance New Zealand products
  5. New Zealand has invested heavily in research using gene technology

New Zealand’s image as a clean and green producer of high quality products is vital to our ongoing international competitiveness. The use of gene technology in plants, which is currently being commercialised internationally, has raised debate on three main issues of importance to agriculture in New Zealand:

  • unintended modifications of relatives;
  • altered balance of ecosystems; and
  • the development of super pests and diseases.

A legally binding protocol on biosafety is currently being developed under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. The protocol is scheduled for completion in 1998. As a signatory to the Convention, New Zealand will be bound by the items ultimately included in the protocol.

Dr King concludes that gene technology is a reality, that it provides many opportunities for the development of agriculture in New Zealand, but that it also poses specific risks that must be carefully considered.

"As a relatively new technology, the long term effects cannot be completely predicted. A precautionary approach to assessing the risks is essential and integral in New Zealand’s developing legislative structure. Acceptance of gene technology in the food chain will rest on food manufacturers demonstrating to consumers that ethical and intelligent use of gene technology will produce positive benefits. The final decision, therefore, on the acceptability of gene technology, will rest with consumers."

Situation and Outlook for New Zealand Agriculture is now available from MAF and Bennetts Bookshops.

  

 

Last Updated: 09 September 2010

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