RNZ report gives succinct rundown on the issues surrounding genetic modification

Offsetting Behaviour, an economics blog, has steered us to Radio NZ’s “good summary” of the case for allowing genetically modified plants and crops.

The RNZ Insight report, by Charlie Dreaver, is headed Has the time come for Genetic Modification?

It starts with a sub-heading: Gene edited plants are just as safe as normal plants, according to one scientist.

According to several scientists, actually.

But in this case Ms Dreaver is reporting on her visit to a Plant and Food Research greenhouse in Auckland, where one of the sections is filled with $300 apple trees and Andy Allan, a professor of plant biology, is pointing out one of his favourite experiment, a tree with bright, fuchsia-coloured flowers.

“The particular red gene we’re testing is under a strong expression, so the roots are red, the trunk is red, the leaves are copper and the fruit goes on to look more like a plum, it’s so dark.”

The apple has an extra apple gene, making it genetically modified. Other plants in this room have exactly the same number of genes, but they’ve been edited.

The report goes on:

“Along with the apples, pears, tomatoes and petunias are thriving, but many also flower all year round and produce seeds five years earlier than usual. 

“Mr Allen compares the practice of gene editing in plant breeding to key-hole surgery.

” ‘It just makes a cut in a place you know exactly where it’s going to go to.

” ‘That cut is repaired by the plant, but often the plant makes a mistake, but those mistakes are like the natural equivalent to mutation and variants you see out there in the environment.’ 

“He says the public’s perception of the research is much more sinister than what actually happens.

” ‘We are academics or public civil servants and we’re doing experiments using the plant’s own DNA, so the perception of what we do as being evil or dangerous, is way different than what actually happens in this greenhouse’.”

Other countries would plant these crops in the field, he tells Ms Dreaver, and he believes some of those growing in the greenhouse are ready for the outside world.

” ‘I think these plants are as safe as the normal plants are, there is risk associated with everything, but there are no additional risks associated with these plants.’

“And the benefits of what’s being grown could be significant, he believes, including trees which would not need cooler winters to flower and grow fruit.

“But everything that leaves the facility, even the soil, will have to be destroyed.

“The only thing exiting this greenhouse at the moment is knowledge.”

The item answers the question What is Gene Editing? And it reports the division among farmers on whether they should be able to use GMOs or not.

“But others, including the Minister for the Environment David Parker, argue there is no need to jump the gun on introducing GMOs into the environment.”

Ms Dreaver also quotes the former Chief Science Advisor for the prime minister, Sir Peter Gluckman.

In his last report, Sir Peter laid out the ways genetic modification or gene editing can benefit the agricultural sector with pasture management and emissions.

“New Zealand scientists have developed promising forages using genetic technologies that could be used to make major progress through higher energy, lipid rich rye grasses which are now in field trials in the United States.

“However, these have not been and effectively cannot be subjected to field testing in New Zealand.”

Sir Peter said New Zealand needed to revisit the contentious topic.

“We have such big challenges ahead of us, between environmental degradation, climate change, the future of agriculture, the future of New Zealand’s economy, the way we live, the way rural life and provincial life occurs.

“This is the core technology of the future, alongside the digital technologies and precision agriculture, we can’t afford not to have the conversation.”

Ms Dreaver concludes her piece with a rundown on GM and the law.

Legal and Scientific researcher Dr Julie Everett-Hincks, from the University of Otago, told Ms Dreaver she believes legislation is due for an update.

To the contrary, Pure Hawke’s Bay – which was instrumental in the move to make the Hastings District Council adopt a  10 year moratorium on genetically modified crops – says business would suffer if any changes were allowed and they argue that not enough is known about the technology and its effects.

There’s resistance to any change at this stage from the government.

Environment Minister David Parker agrees with the European Courts decision to include GE under genetic modification rules and has no intention of changing the legislation here.

” ‘It takes a precautionary approach, people who want to make an application to release the GMO can, that’s then dealt with by the regulator and we think the law is fit for purpose.

” ‘I’d have to be satisfied there was a need to change the law, and I’m not satisfied’.”

He also highlights the trade benefits in keeping crops GM-free.

” ‘Sometimes they might be overstated, but none the less they are real’.”

If there are to be any changes in the use of GM, Mr Parker says the government will first be looking at pest control, rather than agriculture.

Offsetting Behaviour blogger Eric Crampton suggests that, as part of any agricultural accession into the ETS, the Crown be liable for any additional costs falling on farmers because of the ban on using GE pastoral systems.

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