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.


Gene editing upsets the GM applecart, says Dr Rolleston

“New Zealand will slip behind its competitors and forfeit opportunities to address climate change, water quality, pests and other environmental concerns if we reject the use of gene editing in our primary industries,” the chairman of the Life Sciences Network, Dr William Rolleston, said today.

A report released by the Royal Society of New Zealand explores the potential uses of gene editing in the primary sector such as removing allergens from milk, making mānuka disease-resistant, preventing wilding pines and accelerating apple breeding.

Gene editing enables more precise and targeted breeding than is available through traditional breeding methods but because it is considered genetic modification in New Zealand its use will be significantly limited.

The use of genetic modification has been difficult in New Zealand due to the current regulation and strong pressure from activist groups however the advent of gene editing has changed the stakes in the debate on genetic modification.

Dr Rolleston said only time would tell if gene editing would upset the anti-GM applecart,

‘” … but we are seeing encouraging signs that science, not fear, is coming to the fore in the debate on genetic modification as it already has in the debates on immunisation and fluoride.”

Genetic modification no longer was a hypothetical argument for New Zealand, he said.

The examples presented in the Royal Society paper showed there were tangible benefits to using gene editing technology which would  be obvious to farmers and the public.  He hoped they became involved in the discussion.

Source:  Life Science Network

Gene editing in primary industries – Science Media Centre gathers expert reaction

New Zealand has historically had a conservative approach to gene editing, but embracing gene editing technology could allow us to create disease-resistant mānuka honey and remove certain allergens from milk, a new Royal Society Te Apārangi report says.

This discussion paper – the third in a series from the Society’s Gene Editing in Aotearoa project – says gene editing could bring a range of benefits for our agriculture, horticulture and forestry sectors, zoning in on apples, mānuka, ryegrass, wilding pines, and dairy cows.

The society is seeking public feedback on the paper and holding three workshops around the country this month to discuss the findings.

The Science Media Centre collected the following commentary from scientists.

Dr Prof Peter Dearden, Bio-Protection Research Centre, Director of Genomics Aotearoa, and Professor of Genetics at University of Otago:

“The panel has looked at a number of scenarios in primary production in New Zealand in which gene editing could be used. These scenarios are not really futuristic, but ideas that could be implemented relatively quickly. The report clearly shows that the biggest barriers to using these technologies are regulatory ones and that the regulatory regimen is complex and often contradictory.

“The scenarios show the benefits that gene editing could bring in each scenario, clearly indicating the benefits we would miss out on if we do not engage with this technology, and develop the skills to carry out effective gene editing in New Zealand. Without skills and research in gene editing we will not be able to determine risk vs benefits, nor have the ability to understand and assess technologies coming from overseas.”

Conflict of interest statement: I am a member of The Royal Society Panel on gene editing, but am not an author of this work.

Dr Tony Conner, Science Group Leader, AgResearch:

“It is timely to have a public discussion about the merits or otherwise of gene editing, and potential applications and opportunities for New Zealand as a food-producing nation. The genetic technologies are developing at such a pace internationally that it’s important we don’t get left behind, and as a society that we understand what gene editing is, and what it is not.

“The difficulty with public perceptions of any genetic technology is that it tends to be skewed in favour of the worst-case scenario, even when there is no real evidence of harm. It puts the onus on us as scientists to communicate what the evidence actually shows.

“My colleagues at AgResearch have already demonstrated what is possible with gene editing in both the plant and animal space. My colleagues in animal science have proven that they can use CRISPR technology to remove a major allergen from a cow’s milk, and this shows one path to enhancing our food supply and human health (this example is captured in the Royal Society discussion paper).

“In the plant space, a lot has already been achieved over the decades in selective breeding to make our pastures perform better. This has meant production from our farms, that is the backbone of the NZ economy, has flourished. Billions of dollars have been saved through the targeted use of endophytes (a type of fungi that lives within grasses) to deter pasture pests, but there is also an issue with some endophytes being harmful to the livestock. Gene editing has the potential to remove that harm to livestock, while maintaining the huge benefits the endophytes offer.

“My hope is that this discussion paper from the Royal Society will not only provoke discussion about gene editing, but also help lift the general understanding of this technology, with the evidence at the heart of the discussion.”

Conflict of interest statement: Tony is the Vice President (Biological and Life Sciences) at Royal Society Te Apārangi, but he was not involved in producing the report.

Professor Andy Allan, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland:

“Gene editing of plants should be treated in the same way as any breeding method. If the resulting plant is measurably better for the environment or the consumer then that is the only hurdle it should meet.

“At present, these plants are categorised as ‘genetically modified’ (GM) by NZ law, even though the DNA changes made are exactly the same as those created by sunlight, and a lot less than those made by traditional breeding. The simple message should be: these plants now contain new DNA.

“Fast flowering of apple was used as one example in the Royal Society’s discussion document. Why use this technique? Because with changing climate new cultivars have to be constantly developed. Otherwise, we lose our production. Growing what cultivars we have under slightly warmer conditions won’t be an option. In addition, new plant pathogens arrive or evolve in our areas of production. The best way to protect against these events is good breeding, and fast breeding should be one of these tools.

“I hope that the RSNZ’s discussion paper on the use of gene editing in the primary industries will be a great start to an adult conversation on benefit versus risk for this breeding method.”

No conflict of interest statement received.

Professor Richard Newcomb, Chief Scientist at Plant & Food Research:

“Scientists at Plant & Food Research are excited by gene editing technology because it allows incredibly precise changes to the genetic makeup of an organism without necessarily introducing any foreign DNA.

“As our climate, environment and population changes, gene editing could help us to adapt plants through pinpoint changes to key genes which control desirable traits. Breeding plants with the right combinations of genetic characteristics to resist pests, be more productive or to taste better takes decades today, but could be achieved in much less time with gene editing – and with more predictable outcomes.

“Plant & Food Research is here to help ensure a smart, green future for New Zealand. To achieve that future we need plants that grow more, healthier food with less chemical and water inputs on less land. Those plants also need to be resilient to climate change and able to create foods which global consumers will love and pay a premium price for. If we can learn how to apply gene editing in the right crops it offers the promise of breeding those new plant cultivars faster and with a higher chance of success.

“While gene editing offers lots of promise, its successful use to breed better plants needs to be proven by more science not only to understand the benefits but the potential risks associated with the technology.

“As such we believe it is timely to consider having a national discussion here on gene editing in New Zealand for farming, food, pest control and conservation. Plant & Food Research would like to be part of this national conversation.”

Dr James Millner, Senior Lecturer, School of Agriculture and Environment, Massey University:

“Mānuka (Leptospermum scoparium) is very valuable as a pioneer species after disturbance caused by erosion or fire. More recently, the high value of mānuka honey is driving a lot of investment in the honey industry, ranging from the establishment of mānuka plantations for honey production to the acquisition of hives so that apiarists can increase collection of nectar.

“The Ministry for Primary Industry, Massey University and industry partners have recently completed a Primary Growth Partnership programme to lift investment and production of high-value mānuka honey; thousands of hectares have been planted, mostly on steep erosion-prone hill country. This will result in benefits for the environment and allow landowners to generate income from land which is generally unproductive.

“There have been a number of examples of self-introducing pests and diseases (blown in on the wind) which have or potentially could affect mānuka. Myrtle rust is the latest example; prior to that there have been a number of scale insects which also arrived from Australia. Leptospermum scoparium is present in Australia so there is considerable potential for more pest and disease arrivals and a risk that one or more of these new organisms could threaten mānuka.

“If there is little natural resistance in existing populations we may not be able to do anything about this because extensive use of pesticides, for example, is not likely to be feasible due to cost and environmental issues. If gene editing was able to provide opportunities for combating existing or future incursions then it should be evaluated.”

Conflict of interest statement: None declared.

Dr Elspeth MacRae, Chief Innovation and Science Officer, Scion:

“I am pleased to see the Royal Society document inviting discussion on the potential for gene editing to significantly advance New Zealand’s primary industries and solve potential problems with diseased taonga species.

“Gene editing is a very precise approach to modifying a genome, more precise than anything else we can do, and can result in exactly the same result as normal mutations that can occur naturally but very rarely. New Zealand already accepts much less precise approaches to modifying plants such as radiation mutagenesis.

“Scion is actively researching the potential to use gene editing to make sterile conifers and currently has both glasshouse and field trials. We are also researching other opportunities to modify conifers such as their productivity and tree characteristics.

“We believe this is very important for New Zealand as trees take a very long time to breed desired characteristics, even using the latest breeding techniques. Plantation trees in New Zealand are really just long-lived crops, and others are progressing modifying trees to achieve goals faster. An example is the reintroduction of the American Chestnut following a devastating disease outbreak.

“New Zealand does not have to rely on FSC certification, but can also use New Zealand’s PEFC accreditation (used by more of the world’s forests than FSC) which is currently more accepting of modern technologies.

“An added advantage to creating sterile trees is a boost to reaching New Zealand’s zero carbon by 2050 and low emissions economy targets. Faster-growing sterile trees take more carbon out of the atmosphere in any unit of time because they use energy to grow rather than to reproduce. Achieving sterile Douglas fir and other plantation conifers will also benefit the one billion trees planting initiative of the current government by preventing unmanaged spread of wilding trees.

“Our global interactions tell us that other than the EU (but not some individual countries within the EU), most countries are deciding that gene editing without adding any new DNA will not be regulated. New Zealand needs to have a well-informed debate on the implications of this for our economy and our future.”

Conflict of interest statement: Scion is actively researching the potential to use gene editing to make sterile conifers and currently has both glasshouse and field trials.

Dr Phillip Wilcox, statistician, University of Otago:

“Gene editing of conifers to prevent or accelerate reproduction has both benefits and risks.

“On the benefits side, preventing the formation of cones and/or pollen has environmental and financial benefits from dramatically reduced weedy-ness. In theory, this means the trees could reallocate their energy to producing wood over reproduction, potentially improving productivity and therefore profitability. It is likely to reduce the costs of wilding control and improve the acceptability of conifers for some local authorities. In addition, there are likely health benefits for those allergic to pine pollen.

“Accelerating flowering under controlled conditions could also shorten the breeding cycle of commercially important conifers, further enhancing profitability.

“There are risks, however. For example, the prospect of artificially-modified sterile pine or Douglas Fir forests does not sit comfortably with some New Zealanders, who may perceive such forests as unnatural and inconsistent with New Zealand’s clean, green image.

“Widespread use of such sterile conifers could exacerbate some of the other issues associated with commercial forestry, including perceived loss of biodiversity and in some cases, poor environmental management.

“There are still substantive technical challenges required to get us to the point where we can actually produce these artificially-modified conifers, which could impact reputations of those promoting such an approach if the research does not deliver promised outcomes. A balanced, careful and considered approach is needed, which this report can make a valuable contribution to.”

Conflict of interest statement: I am a member of The Royal Society Panel on gene editing. I collaborate with the Radiata Pine Breeding Company in the areas of breeding strategy and applied genomics, and collaborate with researchers from Plant and Food Research Ltd and University of Waikato regarding cultural perspectives on gene editing.

Source:  Science Media Centre

Potential uses of gene editing for New Zealand’s primary industries

Removing allergens from milk, making mānuka disease-resistant and preventing wilding pines are some potential future uses of gene editing in New Zealand if we choose to utilise this new technology.

These are among the potential uses explored in the Royal Society Te Apārangi’s new discussion paper ‘The use of gene editing in the primary industries’, released today. The paper outlines the relevant considerations, risks and potential benefits for five scenarios of how gene editing could be used for primary production sectors including agriculture, forestry and horticulture.

It’s part of the society’s larger Gene Editing in Aotearoa project, for which a multidisciplinary expert panel and reference group have been brought together to explore the wider social, cultural, legal and economic implications of gene editing in New Zealand, incorporating Māori perspectives and broader cultural contexts.

Gene editing techniques will allow more targeted and precise genetic changes than has been possible before in crop and livestock breeding, says Professor Barry Scott, Professor of Molecular Genetics at Massey University and co-chair of the expert panel.

“It’s a good time for New Zealanders to consider what gene editing could offer our primary industries and how they’d feel about its use.”

One potential application of gene editing is to speed up the time it takes to produce new apple varieties. New Zealand is known internationally for its apples and there is strong commercial pressure to develop new and improved varieties, Professor Scott said.

But the process is slow because it can take five years before any fruit is produced to start the evaluation and testing of potential new apple varieties.

Gene editing could enable the temporary removal of the gene that slows down flowering, so the trees would flower in eight months instead of five years.

Once a new variety of apple with desirable characteristics had been selected, traditional plant breeding would reintroduce the genes that slow down flowering. This means the resulting trees sold to growers would not contain any of the gene editing changes, but would have been introduced to the market much faster than by using existing breeding methods.

Another scenario the paper discusses is using gene editing to make mānuka resistant to disease.

Lawyer and panel member Irene Kereama-Royal, who is also a research partner at Unitec, says myrtle rust and kauri dieback disease have got people thinking about what can or should be done to conserve native species.

“Extracts of leaves and bark from mānuka have been used for centuries by Māori and, with the growth in the mānuka honey industry, mānuka is now an important plant for New Zealand both culturally and economically.  Should we use gene-editing to create new varieties of mānuka that are resistant to disease?”

A third scenario is to use gene editing to make exotic conifer trees, such as Douglas fir, sterile.

Dr Phil Wilcox, Senior Lecturer in statistics at the University of Otago and a member of the expert panel, who has over 30 years experience in forestry research, said wilding trees are a big problem in New Zealand.

“Not only do they outcompete native species, they invade and modify unique natural ecosystems, are costly to remove and can contribute to pollen allergies.

“Gene editing could halt the production of cones and pollen in these species, which would mean that when these trees are planted for forestry, shelter belts, or to help prevent erosion or climate change, they wouldn’t escape into places where they are not wanted.”

How do New Zealanders feel about using gene editing for this?

The society is encouraging them to consider this and the four other scenarios and let the panel know what they think.

Feedback should be sent to marc.rands@royalsociety.org.nz.

Three workshops are being held around the country to discuss the potential use of gene editing in the primary industries with the panel and reference group members:

  • Hamilton | Wednesday 10 October,  9:45am – 2:30pm, The Verandah, Rotoroa Drive, Hamilton Lake
  • Napier | Monday 15 October  9:45am – 2:30 pm, Napier Conference Centre, Exhibition Room, 48 Marine Parade
  • Dunedin | Tuesday 23 October 10:00am – 2:30 pm, The Dunedin Centre, Fullwood Room, 1 Harrop St

This discussion paper is the third in a series, which includes papers exploring the potential use of gene editing for human health and pest control in New Zealand. All resources are available online at royalsociety.org.nz/gene-editing

Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi

O’Connor’s speech on NZ agriculture, food production and GHG overlooked Sir Peter’s advice on GM

The Point of Order blog credited Agriculture  Minister  Damian  O’Connor  with delivering a good speech to the International Conference on Agricultural GHG Emissions and Food Security  this week.

He  told   his audience the global community needs more food of a higher quality and with less environmental impact than ever before, and New Zealand, with its low population density and a temperate climate, is ideal for agricultural production. He said: 

Through innovation and impressive productivity gains, helped by the removal of agricultural subsidies and tariffs in the 1980s, NZ can produce more food, more efficiently than ever before.

“We are not a large agricultural producer in global terms; our low population means we export a high proportion of our production. We’re the number 1 dairy exporter in the world, but produce only 3% of the world’s milk. We’re the number 6 beef exporter in the world, but  produce only 6% of the world’s beef.

“We live in the South-West Pacific, where our winters coincide with the North’s summers. This means NZ is in a position to supply food to the 90% of the global population who live in the Northern Hemisphere, outside of the North’s growing season”.

In the  drive to  reduce  agricultural  emissions, NZ is making a significant investment in research and development. Mr O’Connor drew attention to this:

“In the livestock sector we’ve found promising leads. Working with others, we’ve measured thousands of animals and have been able to identify some that emit lower levels of methane.

“We’ve screened hundreds of thousands of chemical compounds and isolated a handful that have large potential to reduce emissions. We’re undertaking world-leading research to try to develop a vaccine to reduce methane from livestock”.

The Minister continued by noting that the  Sustainable Land Management and Climate Change research programme was established

  • To help NZ meet international greenhouse gas reduction goals,
  • Maintain profitable and sustainable agriculture and forestry sectors, and
  • Address the lack of information on the impacts, implications and adaptations needed in the face of a changing climate.

In  the decade since its inception more than 150 projects have been funded with $50m from government– some with returns 10 times the original public investment.

But another 2.3 billion people will join the world’s human population by 2050. Feeding them means more food will have to be produced in the next 50 years than in the past 500.

If  NZ is to play its part  in boosting food production, Point of Order thought it was strange that Mr O’Connor omitted  from his speech any reference  to  the advice Sir Peter  Gluckman has been  giving the government.

In his final report as the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor, Sir  Peter contended NZ must revise its moratorium on genetic modification to access the most promising innovations to reduce agricultural emissions.

The July paper to the PM says farmers can take  immediate steps to start reducing agricultural emissions – but for NZ to make meaningful steps it will need to embrace technological innovations.

And  the most promising technologies rely on genetic engineering.

Those technologies include transgenic forage plants which reduce livestock emissions, transgenic endophytes which inhibit nitrogen, and GE forestry to accelerate tree growth for afforestation.

The  report noted social licence for these technologies does not exist in NZ.

“However, given the progression of science on one hand and a broader understanding of the crisis of climate change on the other, not having a further discussion of these technologies at some point may limit our options.”

A big political question is raised by this:  will the Labour-led  coalition  ignore the advice  of  someone as eminent as  Sir Peter  Gluckman  and sidestep the use of  GM  technologies,  when  clearly  they would  be the  most effective instruments to  reduce  agricultural emissions  while at the same  time expanding  production of  the  food the  world  so  urgently  will need?

EU court rules GMO laws apply to gene-edited plants

The Science Media Centre has posted expert New Zealand comment on a ruling by Europe’s highest court that gene-edited crops should be subject to the same stringent regulations as genetically modified organisms.

The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that crops created through processes such as CRISPR are subject to the 2001 directive that legislates deliberate release of GMOs into the environment.”

  • Professor Peter Dearden, Director Genomics Aotearoa and University of Otago, comments:

“The EU ruling that gene edited organisms need to be regulated in the same way as GMOs will be a major blow to those in the EU developing novel crops using gene editing techniques. Here in New Zealand, such a determination appears to have been already made, so the EU decision will have little impact here.

“The problem is that we, and the EU, yet again, are trying to regulate technologies rather than outcomes. Gene editing is a far more accurate way to make a mutation than standard mutagenesis techniques. That the more efficient, less damaging and more specific approach is the one vastly more heavily regulated is unfortunate. In the end, the key things to test are the risks and benefits of the organism to be released. Surely this is more important than the way it was made.

“What worries me, and our EU colleagues, is that these determinations will stop innovation in gene editing in NZ or the EU. That loss of capability and capacity will mean we will lose the ability to deploy a technology that, if well used, carefully assessed, and appropriately regulated, could be immensely beneficial to New Zealand in health, agriculture and conservation.”

No conflict of interest.

  • Professor Barry Scott, Massey University and co-chair of the Royal Society Te Apārangi gene editing panel, comments:

“This is hugely disappointing and does not seem to take into account the significant differences in the new gene editing technologies compared to the older technologies. Subjecting the new technologies to the rules and regulations of the older technologies does not appear to take into account the increased scientific knowledge and precision associated with the former. It maintains a process of ‘technology-based’ regulation rather than ‘outcome-based’ regulation which should be the basis of a sound risk management decision making process.

“Such regulation will stifle innovation and development and make it very difficult for the agriculture sector to develop breeding solutions to a rapidly changing environment and therefore enhance the risks of real issues around food security associated with new diseases and the impacts of climate change.”

No conflict of interest

  • Dr Kieran Elborough, General Manager Science, New Cultivar Innovation, Plant & Food Research, comments:

“It is important to clarify that this is a court ruling to determine where a technology fits within existing regulations, not a scientific paper detailing the safety or efficacy of these technologies. The decision by the EU court deals specifically with how this technology is regulated in Europe. This is an example of the challenges faced by regulators as potential new solutions to important issues such as food sustainability and security in the face of a growing population and climate change emerge.

“Over time, it will be interesting to see whether new, more detailed regulations develop to restrict or enable this or other new technologies around the world, including in New Zealand.

“Gene editing is a relatively new technology and Plant & Food Research is investigating how we could apply this technology in plants, as proof of concept in containment. It’s important that we understand the potential of this technology and how this could be applied to benefit New Zealand. This will continue to inform any discussion in this country.”

More comments from the UK Science Media Centre are available HERE.  

Source:  Science Media Centre

GE Free NZ says ryegrass trial results are “an illusion”

AgResearch a few days ago enthused about an important milestone being reachedin its development of a new generation grass “that could prove a game-changer for agriculture”.

The genetically modified High Metabolisable Energy ryegrass had been shown in AgResearch’s laboratories to grow up to 50 per cent faster than conventional ryegrass, to be able to store more energy for better animal growth, to be more resistant to drought, and to produce up to 23 per cent less methane (the largest single contributor to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions) from livestock.

Modelling also predicts less nitrogen excreted into the environment by animals feeding on the ryegrass, and consequently less nitrate leaching and lower emissions of another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.

Development of the HME ryegrass is progressing in the mid-west of the United States, where genetically modified organisms can be field tested outside the lab.

GE Free NZ is unimpressed.

Today it has said the GE ryegrass “is still at the starting line, after unimpressive results from US field trials”.

Approval was given in April 2017 for a one-year trial in the US State of Missouri, GE Free NZ said, “but AgResearch’s costly GE ryegrass field trial has not been able to measure any significant outcomes”.

The statement said:

AgResearch’s GM rye grass has been ‘in development’ since 2001 and was intended to be commercially available in 2004. More recently trials were undertaken in Australia in 2012, the outcome is confidential. After 17 years of promises for GE Rye grass, the benefits remain just supposition, with no proper safety evaluation of impacts on the environment, or animal health.

US farmers are fearful that pollen from the unregulated GE grass trials might contaminate their farms, in the same way the escape from field trials of unapproved Roundup resistant GM grass is afflicting farmers as it spreads uncontrolled across Oregon. [1]

GE ryegrass cannot address the need for smarter farm practices. The pursuit of a GE ‘magic bullet’ is diverting vital funding for development of alternative forage crops with proven benefits. [2]

The New Zealand pastoral industry is funding the GM ryegrass trials to the sum of $25 million. This is a slap in the face for farmers who are facing the dire situation of culling their animals due to the Mycoplasma bovis outbreak. It is disappointing that funders – Ministry of Business, Innovation and Enterprise (MBIE) and Dairy NZ – have deliberately sidelined and ignored the proven qualities of NZ own valuable research. [3]

“There is an opportunity cost in pouring money into GE that deprives farmers of real needed help,” said Claire Bleakley, president of GE-Free NZ (in food and environment).

“Since the idea of GE ryegrass was first conceived advantages provided by quality mixed forages and non-GM High metabolic energy rye grasses with proven safety and performance have been disregarded,” said Claire Bleakley.

“AgResearch must be called to account. The GM ryegrass project is a costly miscalculation and has not improved the quality and resilience of the agricultural system for farmers.”

A systems approach based on mixed forage plants and sustainable practices is the best way to add value and resilience that lives up to the reputation of Brand New Zealand that benefits farmers.

GE Free NZ’s references were:

[1] https://www.hcn.org/issues/50.11/plants-genetically-modified-grass-creeps-across-eastern-oregon

[2] Pembleton KG, Hills JL, Freeman MJ, McLaren DK, French M, Rawnsley RP (2016) More milk from forage: Milk production, blood metabolites, and forage intake of dairy cows grazing pasture mixtures and spatially adjacent monocultures. J Dairy Sci, 99(5):3512-3528. doi: 10.3168/jds.2015-10542. Epub 2016 Feb 28.

[3] https://www.nbr.co.nz/article/new-ryegrass-could-end-gm-test-case-fr-p-216870

The AgResearch announcement quoted the CRI’s principal scientist.

After a successful preliminary growing trial last year confirmed the conditions were suitable, AgResearch principal scientist Dr Greg Bryan says the full growing trial began in the United States last month and will continue for five months.

“The preliminary trial was only two months, so it’s not over a timeframe that has any statistical merit, however we did see the increased photosynthesis that we saw with the plants in the greenhouses in New Zealand,” Dr Bryan says.

“In this full trial now underway, we will be measuring the photosynthesis, plant growth and the markers that lead to increased growth rates. While the growth has previously been studied in glasshouses in pots and as plants spaced out in the field, this will be the first opportunity to assess the growth in a pasture-like situation where plants compete with each other.”

“The five-month timeframe will allow us to determine if increased growth is consistent across the summer and autumn, and we will simulate grazing by cutting plants back every 3-4 weeks.”

“Animal feeding trials are planned to take place in two years, which we will need regulatory approvals for, and the information we get over the next two years will help us with our application for those feeding trials.”

DairyNZ strategy and investment leader for new systems and competitiveness, Dr Bruce Thorrold, says the HME ryegrass is a science breakthrough and holds great potential for New Zealand farmers.

“HME ryegrass could help us achieve less nitrogen leaching and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as improving pasture quality and productivity,” says Dr Thorrold. “This research could be transformational in future and so it is important we explore all promising avenues which could help dairy farmers respond to the challenges we face.”

While New Zealand has not yet approved the release of genetically modified crops,AgResearch principal scientist Dr Greg Bryan says it is important the science options are kept open.

He agreed with the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification that it would be unwise to turn our backs on the potential advantages on offer.

Sources: AgResearch, GE Free NZ