Genetic modification (GM) is a technology for altering the genetic make-up (the DNA) of living organisms so they are able to make new substances or perform new or different functions. Genetic modification is sometimes referred to as genetic engineering, or GE.

Like all organisms new to New Zealand, genetically modified organisms potentially have positive or negative effects on the environment, the economy and our society. This is because different organisms have different characteristics, and their risks and benefits will depend on where and how each organism is used. For this reason, New Zealand's evaluations of genetically modified organisms are based on the principle of case-by-case assessment.

There are widely differing views on genetic modification. Many people insist that genetic modification is safe if done carefully and monitored closely. Others consider the potential risks to be too great to allow the release of genetically modified organisms but will support laboratory research. Some say that all genetic modification goes too far in "tampering with nature" and should be completely stopped.

People also have differing views about the benefits genetic modification might bring and the risks it could pose. Some of the potential benefits are obvious. Genetic modification in containment has been used in New Zealand scientific research for more than 20 years to better understand how living things work and to produce certain medicines. Some food-processing aids such as rennet for cheeses are also produced using genetic modification technology. In these ways it is already providing benefits. Potential benefits for New Zealand in the future might include treatments for diseases, crops that are resistant to particular pests and diseases and require fewer agricultural chemicals, food that has greater nutritional value, the production of pharmaceuticals from plants, and better ways to control pests such as possums.

On the other hand, we can't always be certain about the effects of modifying living organisms in this way. For example, if released some of these organisms, like other new organisms, could have characteristics that may be undesirable in New Zealand. Some farmers worry that the inadvertent presence of genetically modified material in their products could damage their sales and affect markets. Some New Zealanders are uncertain about the safety of genetically modified food.

That is why New Zealand has implemented a strict system for controlling genetic modification. This looks at each case on its own merits to manage potential risks and maximise potential benefits.

Did you know?

New Zealand has a strict system for controlling genetic modification and managing potential risks.

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