News Item

July 2018

Gene Drive study finds International Agreements and Domestic Laws inadequate

Research into the uses of Gene Drive, a new form of genetic engineering to wipe out pests, has had a lot of attention but there has been scant recognition of its potential to cross borders and affect a number of other nations.

A new Law Foundation-funded study by the Sustainability Council on the governance of gene drives says there needs to be a process of ‘collective consent’ with affected countries.

The researchers say this is important for New Zealand as we have a strong interest in biosecurity and releasing a gene drive could wipe out a species that is of value to New Zealand farming or ecology. We need to be aware of how gene drive releases in other countries could present significant biosecurity threats to us.

Conversely, release of a gene drive designed to eliminate possums in New Zealand would raise significant issues for Australia where the species is protected, should it eventually reach their shores, as scientists believe it would.

The study recommends that if New Zealand is serious about exploring the use of gene drive to help protect native species, it should be leading development of the international rules. We need to fundamentally reappraise gene drive’s risks and benefits and adopt policy to match this.

While gene drives targeting possums, stoats and rats in New Zealand are years away, there is real urgency to reach a global agreement to govern gene drives as research and development around the world is gathering pace. Developers acknowledge that even small scale field trials pose regional or potentially global risks.

The study recommends, as a first step, New Zealand should establish a constraint period during which no gene drive release would be permitted here until international governance that is fit for purpose is in place. This would also allow New Zealand to introduce a level of protection that is not currently delivered by its domestic regulation, and align that domestic law with an internationally agreed approach to the technology.

At the same time, New Zealand’s stance would help build momentum for a similar constraint period to be agreed internationally, and so lay the ground for the governance that is required to meet the challenges gene drive presents this country and the global community.

Research report – pdf 78 pages
Sustainability Council media release on their Gene Drive research report “A Constitutional Moment – Gene Drive and International Governance”
Stuff News item by Charlie Mitchell provides a good overview of Gene Drive issues raised in the research report “Extinction on demand: Is it acceptable to wipe a species off the face of the Earth?”
Link to Radio NZ news item and 10+min interview with Simon Terry, ED of Sustainability Council, on 30th July

The Law Foundation awarded $20,840 to this Sustainability Council project on Gene Drive Governance