Professor says it’s time to open up the conversation about GMOs

Professor Peter Kemp, Head of the Institute of Agriculture and the Environment at Massey University, has challenged the champions of bans on genetically modified organisms.

Writing in Hawke’s Bay Today (see here), he notes there have been no successful applications to introduce genetically modified plants or animals into New Zealand under the current legislation because the criteria are set extremely high.

But he says we need to open up the conversation about genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

…because there may come a time in the future when we will need to use this technology to save species dear to us – and a genetically modified option may be the only solution.

For example, the papaya industry in Hawaii was all but wiped out by the papaya ringspot virus, so the University of Hawaii worked on a genetically modified papaya resistant to the virus.

Although this was highly controversial, that GMO papaya now forms the basis of the industry there. The world is facing a similar issue with bananas, and one of the solutions could be a GM banana.

There is a “fear factor” around GMOs because we are dealing with DNA, Professor Kemp says.

But it’s a process that also occurs in nature.

The humble kumara that we eat is the result of bacteria inserting some genes to affect the plant hormone more than 8000 years ago. This made them bigger and better – and formed the basis of the kumara plants we eat today.

We use genetically modified products all the time. Most of the cotton used in clothing is from GM crops – which are bred to need fewer pesticides – which is better for the farmer and the environment.

Insulin and some vaccines are produced using GM bacteria – so a blanket ban on GMOs is short-sighted.

The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification reported back on its findings 15 years ago, when GM research had already been in place for 10 years.

Professor Kemp says that after a quarter of a century it is time our long-term plans for GMOs were reviewed.

Putting our heads in the sand and saying “we don’t like it, so we’ll ban it” is not helpful. This technology has the ability to save species and create a healthier environment, so we need to talk about how and when it could be used. We may still want to hold off releasing it into the environment, but we need to have the conversation around when that could potentially be.

The research on GMO products is extensive, and New Zealand needs to keep itself in the game by continuing to develop this technology. We can’t rely on other countries to do our research for us – they have no interest in kauri dieback or the potential loss of pohutukawa from myrtle rust.

But New Zealanders understand the importance of those trees to our history and our future.

GMOs undergo rigorous testing and are usually better evaluated for safety than non-GMO products, Professor Kemp says. Moreover the technology is advancing at a rapid rate.

At the same time, he says, it is  becoming increasingly difficult to decide what a GMO is, and how to identify it. Any maize-based products from the United States are likely to be genetically modified.

GMOs – he argues – are just part of the toolbox New Zealand scientists need to keep the country’s agriculture and horticulture industries competitive.




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