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Genetic modification in New Zealand

The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 (HSNO Act) regulates research into and release of all living things that do not already exist in New Zealand, including those that are genetically modified. The HSNO Act applies to anything that can potentially grow, reproduce and be reproduced, whether or not it is also a food or a medicine.

Before any new organism (including a genetically modified organism) can be imported, developed, field tested or released into the environment, the applicant must get the approval of the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA). ERMA is an independent, quasi judicial body set up specifically for this purpose, and it considers each application on a case-by-case basis, reflecting the fact that each organism is different and will therefore pose different potential risks and/or benefits (for more information, see What applications can be made to ERMA?).

What is genetic modification used for in New Zealand?

Genetic modification has been used in New Zealand and overseas since the 1970s.

Research

New Zealand scientists use genetic modification in the laboratory and in contained field tests to try to understand how genes work, to improve traits of plants and animals used in agriculture, to seek treatments for diseases, and to find new ways of controlling pests. Since 30 October 2003 applications can be made to conditionally release genetically modified organisms to study the effects on the New Zealand environment.

Medicine

Some medicines used in New Zealand are produced from organisms genetically modified for that purpose. Genetic modification may also be used as a diagnostic tool in a laboratory. Some genetic modification research is being carried out to help us understand and treat human diseases and medical conditions such as cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis and cancers (for more information, see Genetically modified medicines and food).

Education

Laboratory techniques and the potential uses of genetic modification are taught as part of science-based courses at universities and other educational institutions.

Food

Some work is going on at the development stage involving the genetic modification of vegetables (eg, onions that are herbicide resistant and potatoes that are resistant to disease). To date, no fresh produce (fruit, vegetables, meat or milk) originating in New Zealand is genetically modified. Some processed foods may, however, contain genetically modified ingredients sourced from overseas (eg, soy or corn flour). These ingredients must be assessed for safety by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) before they can be used in New Zealand, and the final food product must comply with the labelling laws (for more information, see What is labelled?).

How is genetic modification controlled?

"Genetic modification means that for the first time humans can make living things to our own design, without relying on nature. The implications are vast. Although any new technology may have its risks, this one has special features. They need to be addressed with wisdom and discernment."

Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, July 2001

The Government established the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification in May 2000 to examine issues surrounding genetic modification, hear people's views and advise on the way forward. The Royal Commission reported its findings in July 2001. Its main conclusion was that New Zealand should keep its options open. "It would be unwise", the Commission commented, "to turn our back on the potential advantages on offer, but we should proceed carefully, minimising and managing risks".

That approach was adopted by the Government and provided the basis for many of the decisions they made, including legislative changes. These decisions included:

  • amending New Zealand's already rigorous laws covering genetic modification to strengthen the way they operate in managing the potential risks posed by the technology
  • establishing or strengthening research programmes investigating the potential social, economic, ethical, environmental and agricultural impacts of genetic modification
  • exploring ways to ensure that genetic modification and other forms of agriculture can coexist, including through the introduction of a new category of release called 'conditional release'
  • ensuring the Treaty of Waitangi relationship is appropriately provided for under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act 1996
  • setting up Toi te Taiao: The Bioethics Council to advise, guide and promote dialogue on the cultural, ethical and spiritual issues associated with biotechnology
  • developing a Biotechnology Strategy to ensure New Zealand keeps abreast of developments in biotechnology, including maintaining a balance between benefits and risks.

All of these changes have been completed.

A two-year restricted period (or moratorium) preventing applications for the release of genetically modified organisms was put in place in 2001 to allow time for this work to be completed. It also allowed time for research into the potential benefits of genetic modification for New Zealand and ways of more effectively managing any potential risks. The restricted period expired in October 2003.

New Zealand's laws and regulations governing genetic modification are among the most rigorous in the world, and strike a balance between protecting our health and environment and preserving opportunities for all types of production - genetically modified and non-genetically modified. Our laws regulate the importation and use of genetic modification technology and the genetic modification of plants, animals and other living things, as well as food and medicines containing genetically modified ingredients.

Did you know?

Releasing a genetically modified organism in New Zealand without approval is illegal.

Public input is an important part of this process. All applications to release a genetically modified organism or field test a genetically modified organism in containment must be publicly notified and go through a public consultation process. For more information on how to make a submission on an application, contact ERMA.

In New Zealand you cannot import, develop, field test or release a genetically modified organism without approval from the Environmental Risk Management Authority.