Biotechnology applies science and technology to living things to solve problems and make products. New Zealand biotechnologies include the development of livestock improvement processes and medicine. In 2007 biotechnology contributed $400 million (0.5%) to New Zealand’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Over 75% of New Zealand’s biotechnology partnerships are with overseas agencies, reflecting the international nature of the industry.
New Zealand has some clear advantages for developing a world-leading biotechnology industry, especially in agricultural and medical research. Its land and marine environments are geographically isolated, so New Zealand native plants and wildlife have a unique genetic heritage which could provide highly valuable biological resources.
The country’s traditional emphasis on livestock farming, and the early necessity for self-reliance and innovation, made the country a world leader in raising sheep, cattle and, more recently, deer. This expertise has been combined with the scientific advances of biotechnology to lift livestock production to new levels.
Types of biotechnology
In 2007 the most common area of biotechnology application in New Zealand was the environment (32% of all projects were in this field). Other areas were:
- plant improvement
- plant growth
- functional foods, ‘nutriceuticals’
- biomanufacturing and medical diagnostics and devices.
There were 168 New Zealand organisations actively involved in biotechnology, an increase of one-third on the previous two years. Expenditure by biotechnology organisations increased by more than 60% between 2004 and 2007, and in 2007 totalled more than $250 million.
Agriculture and medicine
Livestock and humans share a large proportion of the same genes, so biotechnology research on animals can help to discover solutions to human medical problems. The convergence of agriculture and medicine is a unique feature of New Zealand’s biotechnology research.
Knowledge-based industries rely on legal protection of their ideas to make profits. New Zealand organisations were granted 225 biotechnology-related patents in the two years to June 2007. Of these, 75 were in the public sector, 48 in the higher education sector and 108 in the private sector.
A2 milk, containing high levels of the naturally occurring protein A2, comes from cows DNA-tested for A2 beta-casein type. They are bred for their genetic ability to produce this milk, which is thought to reduce the incidence of some diseases in people who drink it.
Genetic modification (GM) is a controversial area of biotechnology in New Zealand. In 2000 the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification was established by the government to investigate the options and risks for New Zealand in using GM. The commission concluded that the best approach was to remain aware of potential opportunities from GM technology while limiting and managing the risks.
In the early 2000s Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) maintained a record of all GM organisms made in the country.