Food Matters and genetic modification

Dr Grant Jacobs, a senior computational biologist, has posted at Sciblogs some thoughts provoked by the Food Matters Aotearoa event at Te Papa.

He notes the organisers’ selected keynote speakers from several groups opposed to genetic modification (GM) with “views that sit on the fringe of the science of the subject”.

Green Party GE spokesperson, Steffan Browning, hosted several of them at an event in Parliament.

Jacobs makes plain his contrary position:

GM is important to all New Zealanders, whether they’ve taken time to understand it or not. It’s more than ‘just’ plants, too.

There is work developing bacteria (or yeast) that can produce biofuels. So-called ‘gene therapy’ has been successfully applied to treat a number of rare illnesses, such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia and beta-thalassemia. Important biological products can be mass produced: insulin for diabetics, for example, is made using genetically-engineered bacteria gown in large stainless steel fermentation vats. This list goes on.

For plants, GM creates small variants of existing plants; it is unable to do the wholesale genetic changes that some older breeding techniques can. Its changes are few and targeted. It can create drought-resistant crops important for coping with climate change. We could develop pines that don’t pollute our landscape and native forests with wilding trees, an accursed nuisance in this country. Crops supplementing dietary deficiencies have been developed and grown, as have crops resistant to disease.


Our legislation regulating GMOs badly needs revision, as last year’s odd blocking of a technique considered exempt showed,[2] but fringe speakers are not a sound guide for new policy. Bleakley and Browning’s cast do not reflect the science on the subject, but advocate opinions at odds with it.

Steffan Browning issued a press release on the Food Matters conference, saying it would be discussing the negative impacts of genetic engineering.


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