Genetic technologies


4 min read

What is DairyNZ doing? Understanding genetic technologies Government reform Dairy sector considerations Potential technologies Terms and definitions Additional resources

The Government is reviewing New Zealand’s genetic technology rules. DairyNZ is working to understand the potential opportunities and risks these technologies might present for the dairy sector in the future. There are also important social, cultural, and economic considerations.

What is DairyNZ doing?

Our current view is that it is time to revisit the regulations governing genetic technologies in New Zealand. Science has advanced rapidly in recent years. As farmers and growers look for solutions to sector-wide issues, we should explore all promising avenues that could help with the challenges we face. However, we need to tread carefully and ensure a regulated approach to genetic technologies that considers the wide range of views, opportunities, and risks.

As well as engaging with you, we are also talking to dairy companies, industry organisations, other research organisations, and other key stakeholders.

We will continue to update this page as more details are available from the Government, including sharing ways that you can engage both with us and with the Government as the public submission process gets underway.

Understanding genetic technologies

Genetic technologies provide ways to change genes and the genome. Genes can be modified to:

  • Produce or remove specific traits or functions
  • Speed up or slow down natural processes

For thousands of years, humans have been manipulating genomes through traditional methods, such as selective breeding. That is, choosing organisms with a desired trait and producing offspring with those desired traits. But these traditional methods can take a long time and it can be difficult to make very specific changes. 

The first genetic modification ‘techniques’ were developed in the 1970’s, which allowed scientists to introduce specific traits within an organism and therefore make changes to it more quickly, precisely, and in novel ways. 

These techniques have continued to evolve and become more precise over time. They are often referred to as 'new breeding techniques' which allow targeted changes to genes or introduction of genes within the genome. They are used in a wide variety of applications internationally, including in healthcare, pest control and farming.

Government reform

Current legislation
New Zealand’s genetic technology laws were set over 25 years ago. They take a conservative and precautionary approach, which made sense at the time as the technology was emerging. 

The current settings do not ban the development and use of genetic technologies. New Zealand scientists can experiment with them in laboratories and in contained field trials. However, the criteria are very strict, and New Zealand has only approved 13 applications for GM plants for contained outdoor field trials since 1996, with no contained field trials applied for since 2010. 

Rules regarding importing genetically modified food into New Zealand are similarly strict. Other than genetically modified bananas, recently approved for sale here and in Australia, no genetically modified fresh vegetables, fruit, or meat can be sold. However, some ingredients from genetically modified crops grown overseas have been approved for sale here, for example soy, wheat, potatoes, corn, and rice. 

Future legislation
Several of New Zealand’s major trading partners have recently reviewed and updated their genetic technology regulations or have proposed amendments. This includes the UK, Australia, India, the EU, Canada and the US. None of these countries permit open development or release of new organisms without oversight, but all use diverse regulatory models that seek to manage risk based on factors such as the nature of genetic alterations and the traits they express.  

The Coalition Government has signalled that it intends to introduce new laws to enable greater use of genetic technologies in New Zealand, while still ensuring strong protections for human health and the environment. High-level Cabinet decisions are expected in August 2024, followed by draft legislation and a public select committee process in late 2024 or early 2025. Final legislation for the new regulatory system is expected by August 2025.

Dairy sector considerations

Greater access to genetic technologies presents both opportunities and risks for the dairy sector. There are also important social, cultural, and economic considerations. 

Potential opportunities for the dairy sector:

  • Beneficial plant traits, e.g. drought tolerance, pest/disease resistance, improved nutritional value, reduced greenhouse gas emissions etc.
  • Beneficial animal traits, e.g. disease resistance, heat tolerance, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reduced bloat and ryegrass staggers, polledness (no horns) etc.

Potential risks for the dairy sector:

  • Market, customer, and consumer concerns with a change in New Zealand’s position on use of genetic technologies.
  • Finding appropriate solutions for the coexistence of genetic technologies alongside conventional and organic farming systems, e.g. traceability concerns, pollen and seed dispersal etc.
  • Upholding cultural values of whakapapa, mauri, mana and kaitiakitanga.
  • Protecting against/managing for unintended consequences, e.g. increased weediness, negative impacts on soil biology or animal health/longevity, impacts on non-target species.

It is important to remember that many genetic technologies have a long pathway to market. Even if New Zealand’s regulations were relaxed tomorrow, it could still be 5-10 years before technologies are available on the market here. Some may be accessed faster, depending on their commercial availability overseas, but even these are still some years away.

Potential technologies

Having a good understanding of the different potential technologies and how they might be used on New Zealand dairy farms is important for ensuring that the risks and opportunities associated with each are not over- or under-stated.

Technology application Current situation Future of NZ dairy sector
Gene edited endophytes of grasses
NZ scientists are researching how naturally occurring endophytes in ryegrass can be gene edited to generate further gains on top of progress already made via conventional selection, e.g. to reduce heat stress and ryegrass staggers, and potentially improve ryegrass persistence. The technology was developed in NZ but is not currently tested here in field conditions. Agronomy trials are underway in Australia. Being able to test in NZ conditions, with relevant insect pests and climatic pressures, would greatly speed up the development of this technology and a better understanding of its benefits and risks and how they can be managed. Note that as the endophyte is contained within the plant and seed and isn’t in the pollen, the risk of spread outside of containment is low.
High-condensed tannin (Hi-CT) white clover
Condensed tannins occur naturally in the flowers of white clover. NZ scientists have genetically modified white clover with a gene taken from another species of clover to enable expression of condensed tannins in the leaves of white clover. This could reduce GHG emissions and N leaching, as well as potentially bloat and internal parasite burden and enhance milk yield and increased liveweight gain. The technology was developed in NZ but is not currently tested here in field conditions. This is taking place in Australia and the US. Animal trials to test for methane reduction will also be underway soon in Australia. Early-stage seed multiplication is also underway in Australia, enabling this technology to be brought to market faster if NZ legislation changes. Being able to test in NZ conditions, with lactating cows, would greatly speed up the development of this technology and a better understanding of its benefits and risks and how they can be managed.
Polled animals
Polled animals are those that are born without horns from a breed that traditionally has horns. Animals can be conventionally bred and selected to have no horns. However, other attributes like Breeding Worth and milk production may be sacrificed. In addition, conventional breeding takes multiple generations. Gene editing could mean other key traits did not have to be sacrificed. This would have positive welfare outcomes for the animal as well as potentially reduced cost for farmers. Gene editing can also speed up the process of breeding for polled cattle.
High Metabolisable Energy (HME) ryegrass
HME ryegrass has been genetically modified to increase lipid content in the leaf. This adds to the nutrition and energy available to livestock eating the grass and may also reduce N loss and methane and nitrous oxide emissions. The technology was developed in NZ but cannot currently be tested in field conditions. This has taken place in the US and may start in Australia. DairyNZ is a co-investor in this technology. Being able to test in NZ conditions, with lactating cows, would greatly speed up the development of this technology and a better understanding of its benefits and risks and how they can be managed.
Gene editing in the rumen microbiome
Frontier research is underway in the US to explore the potential to engineer rumen microbes to produce less methane. NZ scientists are not involved in this research, but it has potential application for our farming systems. If successful, this research could result in treatments for calves that could alter their methane production permanently.

Terms and definitions

Below are some common terms and definitions for understanding genetic technologies: 

  • Gene: Sequences of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acids) that organisms use to create proteins, ‘the building blocks of life’. DNA and genes pass from generation to generation and are found in the cells of living things, like animals, plants and microorganisms.
  • Genome: The complete set of genes or genetic material present in a cell or organism.
  • Genomics is the study and mapping of genes within the genome and their connection to traits of an organism.
  • Trait: A characteristic or attribute of an organism.
  • Genetic modification: The process of taking DNA from the genome of one organism and inserting it in the genome of another organism. Also referred to as genetic engineering and transgenics.
  • Genetically modified organism (GMO): A plant, animal or other organism that has been modified using gene technology or that has inherited modified traits from a parent GMO.
  • Gene editing: This involves a change to the DNA of an organism by inserting, deleting, or replacing a section of genetic material at a particular location in the genome, which can change the characteristics of an organism. CRISPR-Cas9 is a commonly mentioned precision gene editing technique.

Additional Resources

Last updated: Jul 2024

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