History was being made (we were told by mainstream media) when 170,000 New Zealanders took to the streets to demand decisive action against climate change. It capped a week in which the 16-year-old Swedish girl Greta Thunberg dressed down a summit in New York of world leaders:
“We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth”.
That apocalyptic vision was clearly shared by many young New Zealanders: one Wellington student called on the government immediately to cull the country’s entire dairy herd.
So what has happened in the fortnight since?
Nothing very much.
Which is probably a relief at least to those who understand the dairy industry is one of the pillars of economy, without which national living standards would fall drastically (and young New Zealanders would be faced with walking to school or university).
Now there have been fresh protests on climate change by groups labelling themselves Extinction Rebellion, who adopt the technique of glueing their hands to the pavement. Good luck with that, we say.
Strange as it may seem to the protestors, there are many among older New Zealanders who believe the Ardern government, with its Green Party allies, have been dragging the chain when it comes to action on climate change.
They don’t believe the government has focused as hard as it should on issues where science could make a real difference in the battle to preserve the world as we know it from the impact of global warming.
For example, why isn’t the government removing the restrictions on genetic engineering which has huge potential to reduce methane emissions?
The new technology of gene editing has emerged as a real option in tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges in food production, conservation, and climate change, as well as in medicine. Even though genetic modification technologies and products are safe, they continue to be shrouded in controversy in NZ, though they are being applied in agriculture – for example in the US.
AgResearch has succeeded in gaining approval to develop and maintain genome-edited cattle and has launched a $10m study with the aim of developing dairy animals producing fewer emissions and better milk output.
They are doing so within NZ’s only EPA-approved large animal outdoor containment unit. Approved for 200 cattle, the double-fenced, 46ha unit includes animal handling, milking and surgical facilities, along with portable weather stations required for the tests.
AgResearch has developed methods to zero in on genetic gains, as far back as the early embryo stage, which are starting to be used in large-scale commercial breeding.
In a five-year programme the researchers plan to expand this concept into a new platform which will combine gene editing with strategies to multiply rapidly chosen embryos.
It’s this kind of science which the government should be driving hard. At present Plant & Food Research breeds only 100% GM-free fruit, vegetable and grains. While it has never developed GM foods for commercial use, its scientists routinely use gene technology to expand its knowledge.
They have learned that gene editing can help in achieving breeding targets around nutrition and sustainability much faster. That means consumers get more healthy foods sooner.
Other Crown Research Institutes have identified similar options, for example, in growing trees or fighting pests.
Scientists don’t want a re-run of the GM debate which produced the restrictions currently applied in NZ. The technology now available is very different and according to David Hughes, chief executive of Plant and Food Research, gene editing offers game-changing capability well beyond earlier GM tools. He says those changes are the same as found in nature.
“You can’t ‘test’ for gene editing because it leaves no trace”.
Hughes says his institute sees great promise for gene editing in helping NZers to sustain their prosperity, communities and environment.
It is not just in agricultural science where gene editing can be transformatory. In medicine, immune cells can be told to follow doctors’ orders and stem cells better coaxed into new tissues.
The Healthier Lives Science Challenge, funded by the government and under the direction of Professor Jim Mann of Otago University has already developed a simple, cost effective DNA-based (or genomic) diagnostic test for cancer progression which could be used in many locations around the country. It could particularly benefit people living in isolated rural areas who currently have to travel to larger centres for tests.
Here are programmes where the government, if it really believed in its rhetoric of transformation, could be driving hard the changes the country needs.