At the end of Sir Peter Gluckman’s nine-year stint as the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor, he said science has now shown genetic modification to be safe. “The science is as settled as it will be,” he said. “That is, it’s safe, that there are no significant ecological or health concerns associated with the use of advanced genetic technologies.”
But he acknowledged this wouldn’t mean that New Zealand society would automatically accept the technologies: “we’re long overdue for a serious chat about genetic engineering. The issue needs re-addressing because there have been significant developments over the past 15 years.”
Professor Juliet Gerrard, who replaced Gluckman last year, says: “it is clear that our regulatory framework around genetically modified organisms is not coping well with the introduction of new technologies.”
Last week the Government’s Interim Climate Change Committee raised prohibitive New Zealand regulations around genetics as a potential obstruction to lowering emissions on farms.
“New Zealand’s rules on genetic modification could be a barrier to developing lower emissions technologies,” the report said.
Forestry Minister Shane Jones has also spoken in favour of gene editing technologies to help reduce agricultural emissions.
“If we don’t have focused research and technology investment in areas such as gene editing, it’s very difficult to see where the farming community, where the agribusiness community is going to find the solution,” he says.
Yet when Greens co-leader James Shaw was asked earlier this year by TVNZ’s Q+A whether he would support genetic modification if it were to reduce methane emissions in livestock, he said: “That’s a question for the public … but I’m also not certain that we’d need it.
“I want to see what the science says about that and what the science ethics committee say about that. I would be led by the science on that.”
But Shaw says Cabinet has accepted it has a responsibility to at least look at questions that have been raised about regulation, including around genetics. “If we are going make progress on this, if they are challenging us and saying that they think the regulatory environment we have essentially fails us in terms of producing the climate outcomes that we need, then we need to take a look at them,” he told NBR.
Federated Farmers spokesperson Andrew Hoggard has openly criticised the Green Party’s unwillingness to discuss the potential of genetic engineering to provide solutions to some of the country’s most pressing environmental issues, calling their response “extremely disappointing”.
The National Party released a discussion document on environmental issues this year, putting forward what it calls “blue-green” ideas on issues that “too important to be left to the fringe of politics”.
Inside the document, National’s spokesperson for research, science and innovation, Dr Parmjeet Parmar, says: “Science and innovation are so important to New Zealand’s primary industries and environmental challenges that we cannot let it be held back by the previous century’s restrictive rules on biotechnology.
“We need to update the law so protections are consistent with the latest science.”
The discussion document says National proposes to update New Zealand’s restrictions on the use of biotechnologies in consultation with New Zealanders to bring them into line with the latest science.
National Party leader Simon Bridges told RNZ’s Morning Report that modernising our biotechnology rules — such as work on ryegrasses — would have a dramatic effect on methane emissions.
“It is obviously fiendishly complex, and there are plenty of views that would need to be heard.
“But I take what Sir Peter Gluckman has said on this very seriously,” he says.
“His position is that if we want to continue with agriculture — and not just wipe it out of New Zealand’s footprint, which I think would be an economic and a social tragedy — then we need to move into this biotechnology space when it comes to ryegrasses and the like.”
Earlier this month on NewstalkZB’s The Country, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor said that in London recently he had talked to Fonterra and representatives of New Zealand’s meat and wine industries. They told him New Zealand’s GE-free status gave them an advantage in offshore markets.
“They wouldn’t want to have to sell GMO products into the marketplace from our country,” he says.
“We have an advantage at the moment, we have to be aware that might be traded off if we were to use [GMO]. We might end up with better grass — but if that means we get less for our product, we’re no better off.”
Environment Minister David Parker has also highlighted the trade benefits of keeping crops free from genetic engineering.
“Sometimes they might be overstated, but nonetheless they are real,” he says. “I’d have to be satisfied there was a need to change the law, and I’m not satisfied.”
Yet Andrew Allan, professor of plant biology at Auckland University says it is ignorance of the facts of gene editing that poses an economic risk to New Zealand.
“It’s hard to measure the cost of a lost opportunity. Around the world, transgenics are now 15 per cent of agricultural value. In New Zealand, such high-value plants may have to compete with cows for land use. These may have been good for the environment — we will never know. There hasn’t been a choice,” he says.
“Without the ability to use gene editing, New Zealand will be prevented from growing food that is better for the environment, and our industries will fall behind our trading partner and competitors.”
This year’s KPMG Agribusiness Agenda noted that biotechnology’s role in future-proofing the industry was also top of mind for industry leaders.
During roundtable discussions, some agreed that unless New Zealand is open to using existing and emerging technologies, it cannot be a low carbon leader, a sustainable food producer, and a contributor to feeding the world. Concerns were raised that while political leaders listened and acted on the advice of scientists in relation to climate change, they were unwilling to trust the same scientists on biotechnology.
The report says the message from industry leaders is clear: “now is the time for a comprehensive conversation on this issue. We cannot afford to keep kicking it for touch.”
“The ability to grow plants has always been our competitive advantage, however technology is transforming how plants are grown; and we stand to lose both expertise in plant science and our competitive advantage if we are not open to this discussion.”
David Parker has said if there are to be any changes in the use of GM, the Government would first look at pest control, rather than agriculture. Gene editing can be used to reduce the fertility of pests — such as possums — and stop them reproducing. Though this would require significant research to refine techniques, some say it is a more ethical approach to pest control over poison or traps.
But Green MP and Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage has forbidden the use of genetic modification or gene editing as part of the goal to wipe out predators by 2050, saying the field trials required would be a serious risk to New Zealand’s environmental reputation.
“Gene editing is an unproven technology for predator control. Gene technologies are problematic and untested and have significant risks,” she says.
“They have no social licence to operate.
“There is a lot at stake. There would be serious questions around the risks to New Zealand’s GE-free reputation from being associated with field trials of gene technology.”
AgResearch, NZ’s publicly funded agricultural Crown Research Institute has developed High Metabolisable Energy (HME) ryegrass, which has shown in AgResearch’s laboratories it could grow up to 50 per cent faster than conventional ryegrass, store more energy for better animal growth, be more resistant to drought, and produce up to 23 per cent less methane 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 green house gas nitrous oxide.
New Zealand’s rules around genetically modified organisms mean that trials cannot take place here. Instead, a five-month-long growing trial took place in the United States. Animal feeding trials, which need regulatory approval to carry out in the US, are planned to take place within two years.
While NZ has not approved the release of genetically modified crops, AgResearch principal scientist Dr Greg Bryan says it is important the science keeps our options open, and there is strong scientific evidence on any benefits or risks that policymakers can draw on. “As the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification found, ‘it would be unwise to turn our backs on the potential advantages on offer’. 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 ha, while providing a tool for farmers to manage nitrogen run-off and greenhouse gas emissions. The Commission also talked about the need to proceed with caution, minimising and managing risks — which is how we are approaching this work with the ryegrass.”