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.


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

Key step forward for game-changing grass

AgResearch is reporting an important milestone has been reached in its development of a new-generation grass that could prove a game-changer for agriculture.

With funding from the Government and industry partners, including DairyNZ, the genetically modified High Metabolisable Energy (HME) ryegrass has 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 now progressing in the mid-west of the United States, where genetically modified organisms can be field tested outside the lab.

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.  These will need regulatory approval.

The information gained over the next two years will help AgResearch with its application for the 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, Dr Bryan says it is important that the science keeps the options open and there is strong scientific evidence on any benefits or risks to be drawn on by policy-makers.

“As the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification found, `it would be unwise to turn our backs on the potential advantages on offer’,” says Dr Bryan.

“We think the advantages here could be very significant – with modelling to date showing the HME ryegrass could boost farm revenues by as much as $900 per hectare, while providing a tool for farmers to manage nitrogen run-off and greenhouse gas emissions.”

The Royal Commission also insisted on the need to proceed with caution, minimising and managing risks “which is how we are approaching this work with the ryegrass.”

Source: AgResearch

Impossible Burger fuels another call for fresh discussion on GM and its possibilities

Grant Jacobs has climbed in on the non-meat addition to Air New Zealand’s inflight menu, observing that in the New Zealand media and social media people are talking about this genetically modified ‘Impossible Burger’.

Except it’s not.

Sorry everyone, but it really isn’t genetically modified.

What was genetic engineered is a yeast that makes one the of the ingredients used in the ‘Impossible Burger’.

It’s just a different way of making that ingredient. The ingredient is the same as in soy plants. The burgers you can find in ‘natural’ plants.

A key part of what gives the burger it’s meaty taste is a “blood” protein, leghaemoglobin, Jacobs points out (Souxsie Wiles made the same point when describing the processes involved in cooking up the mock meat).

Jacobs goes on:

“The one used is actually from soy plants, not animals. Like the similarly-named haemoglobin in our blood, it’s a protein that tightly binds an iron atom to carry the oxygen around. Haemoglobins are a part of blood, and make the patty taste like we’d expect meat to.

(Plants don’t have blood, but evolution re-uses similar proteins in other forms of life, re-using the detailed molecular job they do—in this case, carting oxygen about. They’re structurally very similar, and, apparently smell and taste similar, too.)

The yeast have been made to biosynthetise the protein by adding a gene for the leghaemoglobin to them. The leghaemoglobin protein made by the yeast is identical to what is found in soy plants.

You could try to extract it from soy plants. Or you could get yeast to make the protein you’re wanting directly, more efficiently. In both cases, the protein is the exact same. The burger isn’t any different.

It’s not the burger that has been genetically modified, or anything in it: it’s the yeast that makes one of the ingredients.

This is basically the same as the way insulin is made, Jacobs says.

Diabetics take insulin to control the levels of sugar in their blood. Insulin was once made by extracting it from pancreases of cattle or pigs. Forty years ago scientists first made insulin from bacteria with a gene for insulin grafted into them. Since then biosynthesis using either bacteria or yeast has been commercialised, and is used worldwide by countless people.

Making medicines, vitamins, supplements, and other products are valuable applications of genetic engineering. Well-established examples include insulin, human growth hormone, vaccines, supplements (e.g. tryptophan), rennin (used in cheese making) and biofuels. There are many, many other examples under development.

There are wider-still applications, some of which have great potential – modified biomolecules as nano-engineering scaffolds, biomining (extracting minerals) and mopping up or breaking down waste, for example.

It’s not just bacteria or yeast. We can biosynthesise things using plants and animals, too. There’s research to develop plants that make medicines, or supplements. There is modified milk to reduce allergies, to give an example related to New Zealand.

But people opposing genetic engineering raise concerns about things they say might happen one day to justify their demands we ban all use of genetic engineering in-the-field at a stroke.

There is a very wide range of applications for genetic engineering. Just within plants, there’s resistance to disease, drought, frost, making supplements (vitamin A, calcium), onions that don’t make you cry (developed in NZ), preventing browning in fruits, and a whole raft of others.

A key thing is that they’re all very different! You can’t really talk about them in a general, sweeping way.

Any ‘possible’ risks are with the new plant or animal variety, not the techniques used to make the variety and that particular application. (GMOs are not completely ‘new organisms’, but are new varieties of existing organisms; they’re almost entirely the same as the ‘parent’ organism with one or two of the tens of thousands of genes in them altered, added, or removed.)

If anything, calls for blanket bans are getting distracted away from risks. They’re ideological objections when you strip away the science facade often placed on the objections.

Rather than throw all the good applications out for the sake of hypothetical worries, why not consider what applications are acceptable?

It’s not helped by a few irresponsible groups (that seem to like attention) encouraging ‘banning’ all of them, throwing out the many good applications. Ironically, they often end up at odds with their own aims of a more environmentally-friendly world. (Greenpeace, for example.)

Late last year Jacobs wrote a brief list of points about genetically-modified plants, as starters for discussion.

Now he notes that:

Impossible Foods is not the only company making meat substitutes. Another is Beyond Meat. They’re unlikely to be the only or last. It’s a market NZ could contribute to and benefit from if we weren’t hampered by unnecessarily restrictive GM laws.

Similarly, we could be getting on making and using with the many beneficial GM crops and animals if we could throw off this distracting focus on ‘what if’, ‘maybe one day’ concerns and look at each application. They’re all different. It’s a crying shame to be throwing all these good applications for no sound reason.

Jacobs agrees with Siouxsie Wiles that it’s time for a kōrero. It’s time to move forward, as he has been calling for for a while.

How some GM seasoning made possible the Impossible Burger

Air New Zealand’s readiness to dish up The Impossible Burger to a very few premium-paying passengers has prompted scientist Siouxsie Wiles to ask: so what is all the fuss about?

She concludes her article on the topic with a call to revisit genetic modification technologies and their applications – for example – to predator control and healthcare.

Her kickoff point is Air New Zealand’s announcement that Business Premier “foodies” on their Los Angeles to Auckland flights would be able to try out the “plant-based goodness” that is the Impossible Burger.

Lamb + Beef New Zealand, which represents sheep and beef farmers, is clearly peeved that our national carrier wouldn’t rather showcase some great Kiwi “grass-fed, free range, GMO free, naturally raised” beef and lamb instead.

Mark Patterson, New Zealand First’s spokesperson for Primary Industries, even went as far as to put out a press release calling the announcement an “existential threat to New Zealand’s second-biggest export earner”.

Meanwhile, vegetarians on social media are left a bit puzzled as to why Patterson is so against them having a special vegetarian option for dinner. My guess is it’s because the Impossible Burger is no ordinary veggie burger.

The Impossible Burger – Dr Wiles explains – is one company’s response to the challenge of feeding the world’s growing population using our current land-hungry, water-thirsty, pollution-heavy and extinction-inducing ways of producing food.

The Impossible Burger is the culmination of years of scientific research to create a vegetarian alternative to the humble minced beef burger patty that has the look, smell and taste of a delicious juicy burger but without the environmental impact that comes with farming cows. And that’s because the Impossible Burger isn’t aimed at vegetarians. It’s aimed at meat-eaters. And to make it appeal to the most committed carnivores amongst us it uses genetic modification technology.

The Impossible Burger is the first commercial offering from Impossible Foods, a Silicon Valley start-up founded by Pat Brown, an Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at Stanford University.

Dr Wiles has tapped into the company’s website to learn that the Impossible Burger is made of water, textured wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein, soy leghaemoglobin, yeast extract, salt, soy protein isolate, konjac gum, xanthan gum, zinc, niacin, and vitamins B1, B2, B6, B12 and C.

The burger sizzles like a beef burger patty while cooking thanks to the coconut oil, and chars and browns like a beef burger patty because of the potato protein. It has a chewy texture too, apparently, because Pat Brown and his team have figured out how to convert their mixture of plant and other ingredients into something that mimics the fibrous nature and tensile strength of animal connective tissue.

Dr Wiles then brings genetic modification into her considerations:

The ingredient that puts the Impossible Burger ahead of its competitors, and will no doubt have the anti-GM protesters up in arms, is the soy leghaemoglobin.

Haem (also known as heme) is an iron-containing molecule that binds oxygen. As haemoglobin, haem gives our blood it’s characteristic red colour and metallic taste, while as myoglobin it gives red meat its characteristic red or pink colour, as well as contributing to its smell and taste when cooked.

Leghaemoglobin is a form of haem found in the root nodules of leguminous plants like soybeans. Here it binds oxygen to protect a process crucial to the health of the plant: the harvesting of nitrogen from the air by symbiotic bacteria called rhizobia.

This nitrogen is then converted into compounds the plant needs to grow and compete with other plants. And just like haemoglobin and myoglobin, leghaemoglobin is also reddish-pink. If you cut into the root nodule of a soybean plant it looks like its bleeding.

Rather than digging up acres and acres of soy plants to harvest their leghaemoglobin, Brown and his team genetically engineered a strain of yeast to produce it instead. That way they can grow the yeast in big vats and sustainably harvest huge quantities of leghaemoglobin.

Although the yeast the leghaemoglobin comes from is genetically engineered, the leghaemoglobin itself is identical to that naturally found in the soy plants. And as the leghaemoglobin is separated away from the yeast after the fermentation process, the Impossible Burger doesn’t contain anything that is genetically modified.

Dr Wiles draws attention to something the outgoing Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, Sir Peter Gluckman, said a few days ago: we are long overdue a really serious chat about genetic modification.  And not just about the science behind the Impossible Burger.

Dr Wiles points out.

Genetic modification technologies might be the only way we can really achieve our goal of being predator free. The Royal Society Te Apārangi have produced some good resources to explain what the new genetic modification technologies are, as well as some discussion papers on how the technologies may apply to predator control and healthcare.

So, what do you say New Zealand? Let’s talk.

Her article first appeared on The Spinoff.

She has written about The Impossible Burger and the future of food in the book Kai and Culture: Food Stories from Aotearoa, edited by Emma Johnson, and published by Freerange Press.

Source: Science Media Centre

Now let’s get a gee-up for GM from Sir Peter, science writer urges

Science writer Bob Brockie today is calling for the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, to do for GE what he did for P.

Two weeks ago, he observes, Sir Peter debunked the idea that traces of methamphetamine are a health hazard.

He says there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the idea.

Rather surprisingly, the government has taken the scientist’s assertion on board and is keen to right the wrongs of previous policies. Usually, scientific evidence goes in one government ear and out the other, but this time it looks as though three hundred wrongly-evicted tenants might get some sort of compensation and thousands more relieved that they won’t be thrown out of their homes.

Dr Brockie then notes Sir Peter’s persistent urging of the the government and other public agencies

” … to pay more attention to scientific evidence instead of basing policy on gut feelings, fashionable beliefs, needless fear, gossip, conspiracy theories, noisy ill-informed fanatics, and shock/horror media headlines.”

And so….

“We now look forward to the day when the science adviser similarly debunks government and public attitudes towards genetic engineering.”

Dr Brockie references recent substantial reviews of GE by the British Royal Society, the British Medical Association and the American Academy of Science and Medicine which concluded that GE has never harmed anybody or any thing.

Indeed the societies claim that GE only does good. The world’s 28 million GE farmers have increased their crop yields by 22%, their incomes by 66%, and reduced their use of pesticides by 37%. And, for that matter, over 60 000 grateful New Zealand diabetics daily inject themselves with GE insulin with no complaints. Claims that GE is a health hazard to man and beast, or that it degrades the soil or the environment get no support from the top scientific societies

But this is not what we hear incessantly from ‘GE-Free New Zealand’ and Greenpeace. Based purely on gut instinct and misinformation, these paranoid luddites spread fear and loathing about genetic engineering. They suppose that they occupy the high moral ground on these issues but are really shouting in a benighted abyss of ignorance.

And so – Dr Brockie concludes – it is time to step up and debunk the claims of GE-Free-NZ and Greenpeace because “there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support these fear-mongers”.