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Seeds of Unease

While genetic modification was not much of an issue in our last election, the controversy isn’t about to disappear. As recently as the first week of June 2009, opponents won a significant court battle that will further delay AgResearch’s attempts to produce human pharmaceuticals from the milk of farm animals. GE Free New Zealand’s press release speaks of Mad Cow Disease, extreme animal cruelty and an amazing win for the public that protects our farmers and exporters, but is this the reality of genetic modification? What’s really happening with this technology overseas and where might it go in New Zealand?

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So proclaimed Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) in his seminal An Essay on the Principle of Population. He became Britain’s first professor of history and political economy in 1805 and a most influential thinker. In his view, vice and misery explained population oscillations. Provide humans with any excess of food and they would copulate unrestrainedly—vice—until their numbers exceeded the food supply. Many would then starve—misery—restoring the equilibrium. He saw that population had the capacity to grow exponentially, but contended that the food supply only increased lineally. If living standards deviated from bare subsistence, vice or misery would set in.

Malthus witnessed the dawn of the industrial revolution that triggered the burgeoning human population growth that continues to this day. The world’s population was estimated at 200 million at the time of Christ, one billion in 1804, reached two billion in 1927, three in 1959, four in 1974, five in 1987 and six in 1999.

But Malthus was not right on the mark. Population increases in recent times have arisen “not because human beings suddenly started breeding like rabbits but rather because they stopped dying like flies”, as one sage put it. Improvements in public health—clean water, sewage disposal, vaccinations and so forth—have lowered infant mortality and prolonged life for the elderly. Once women were educated and gained access to birth control, they opted for small families and more prosperity. And as education and affluence increase around the globe, population growth is projected to decline and stabilise, probably at 9–10 billion in another 40–50 years, according to United Nations estimates.

But the problem of balancing food and population that Malthus recognised remains with us. Famines and wars are still rampant, which modern media make more apparent and poignant than ever before.

While opponents and the media tend to sensationalise GM plants, most of the techniques used to produce them are very similar to those that have been utilised in plant tissue culture for several decades.
While opponents and the media tend to sensationalise GM plants, most of the techniques used to produce them are very similar to those that have been utilised in plant tissue culture for several decades.

Yet surprisingly, despite the unparalleled growth in the abundance of humans over the past 150 years and the pessimism of people such as Paul Ehrlich and of the Club of Rome in the 1960s and 70s, the global food supply has more than kept pace with population. In 1959, world grain production was 818 million tonnes, in 1974 it was 1.2 billion tonnes, in 1987 it was 1.6 billion and in 1999 it was 1.87 billion. Grains, including those fed to livestock, constitute more than half of the calories in the human diet. At present, enough calories are produced to comfortably feed everyone in the world, but a large proportion of grain is diverted into feeding animals for meat production, and now into biofuels.

Food distribution is also a major problem, and likely to remain so. Some 25 per cent of people are undernourished. How will we fare in a world with a population of 10 billion?

There are other issues. As people become more affluent, they want more meat, eggs and milk products, higher-quality food and more of it. Taking account of this trend, food demand is projected to increase 56–120 per cent by 2050 compared with the output in 2000. But food producers will have to contend with increasing climate instability, lower rainfall, salinisation of many irrigated soils and increasing loss of arable land by erosion. And of course, there is virtually no more unused land with potential for agriculture.

Indeed, agriculture is already seen by some as the largest threat to biodiversity and the environment. It occupies more land than any other human activity and uses much of the world’s diminishing supplies of fresh water.

The Green Revolution, which introduced high-yielding crop cultivars, chemical fertiliser, herbicides, pesticides, irrigation and large-scale farming in the latter half of the 20th century, has been largely responsible for the increase in food production. Could genetically modified organisms (GMOs) hold the key to getting us out of the next food fix? Others say more sustainable farming is the only way to go and that that means organic. Between these poles lies conventional farming—and New Zealand agriculture.

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Monsanto, arguably the world’s most hated company since it introduced GM crops into American fields in 1996, believes that GMOs will help. A year ago its CEO, Hugh Grant, promised that the company would double yields from its three key crops (corn, soybeans and cotton) by 2030 and also develop seeds that will reduce water, energy and land requirements by a third per unit of output. The GM industry proclaims that drought resistance, salt tolerance and many other attributes will become available in crops between 2012 and 2020.

Many governments are also keen on GM. For instance, in late March this year, China announced a new green super rice project that aims to develop at least 15 high-yielding varieties that can withstand droughts, floods, cold and salt for distribution to farmers in eight Asian and seven African countries. Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, are chipping in US$18 million from their charitable foundation. China is spending US$3.5 billion on crop improvement over 12 years with an emphasis on big science, biotechnology and GM. Rice cultivars recently developed there should earn 440 million Chinese farmers an extra US$100 per hectare.

GM could also make some existing non-food plants edible. One such plant is cotton, which contains glossypol, a toxin that deters insect pests but also makes the seed toxic to animals that don’t have multi-chambered stomachs. Forty-four million tonnes of these seeds are generated annually as a byproduct of cotton production. Last year, a group of scientists discovered that they could very precisely turn off glossypol production in seeds while leaving it intact elsewhere in the plant, making the nutritious seeds fit for human consumption.

The same approach could likely be used to detoxify cassava, fava beans and Lathyrus sativus—a high-protein seed also known as grass pea which is grown in arid areas where other crops fail.

Producing new varieties of GM crops—as seen here at a Monsanto nursery—involves introducing a new gene into a whole lot of plant cells and then regenerating intact plants from each of those cells.

Such changes would increase the food supply. But organisms can also be engineered for easier growing (such as reduced inputs of insecticides), disease resistance, increased or altered nutrient content (such as golden rice, which contains pro-vitamin A), or for novel properties that appeal to consumers (a red-fleshed apple, or onions that don’t cause your eyes to water).

Some of the numbers pitched by GM supporters can make you giddy. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a pro-GM organisation, 13.3 million farmers in 25 countries planted GM crops on 125 million hectares (New Zealand covers just 27 million hectares) in 2008 alone. The area in GM crops is increasing by about 10 per cent each year, and 90 per cent of farmers adopting it are poor.

ISAAA claims that benefits from GM between 1996 and 2007 total US$44 billion, 44 per cent of that due to both substantial yield gains and reduced production costs. It claims this 128 million tonnes of increased yield would have required another 43 million additional hectares had biotech crops not been used, and an extra 359,000 tonnes of pesticides have been made unnecessary. It also claims that in 2007, growing GM crops meant that 14.2 million tonnes of extra carbon dioxide was not produced. While maize cotton and soybeans are the main crops with GM varieties, others include canola, carnations, squash, papaya, alfalfa, sugarbeet and, in China, tomato, poplar, sweet pepper and even petunia. ISAAA expects that between 2006 and 2015, the number of countries adopting GM crops, the area planted in GM crops and the number of farmers growing them will double. In the US, 90 per cent of soybeans and 63 per cent of corn is GM, and numerous pro-GM websites all display ebullient success statistics.

But some caution is in order. The biotech industry has made extravagant promises about GM crops for 15 years, but has not delivered as much as promised. In fact, it’s impossible to get independent confirmation of its figures.


And, of course, GMOs have not met with universal acclaim. Greens and other activists have stoked the fires of public fear about a technology that few non-specialists understand well. That food from GMOs isn’t safe to eat. That GMO genes will escape into nature and wreak all sorts of environmental ills. That GM benefits only multinational agribusiness at the expense of small farmers and organic growers everywhere. That GMOs can be patented and intellectual property issues will mean that farmers will be forever locked into buying expensive seeds from rapacious multinational companies. That it’s agro-colonialism.

We have even had the spectacle of starving African countries refusing North American food aid because it was genetically modified and might endanger health and crop exports. Zambia refused the aid and arrested anyone who said there was a food shortage.

These African nations were following the lead of many European countries that have strongly opposed GM foods, and this reluctance has effects in New Zealand as well. Europe is a large and high-paying market for our produce and some ask why we should introduce GMOs here when we may have difficulty selling produce from them. Indeed, local Greens would like our agriculture to forsake much technology and to adopt organic production methods, arguing that world markets for organic produce are growing strongly and returns are higher than for conventional or GM produce. They are correct. However, going organic would mean giving up most modern fertilisers, herbicides, insecticides, drenches and antibiotics—something grassroots farmers may be unwilling to opt for without an easy alternative. GM, by building in resistance to pests and diseases, has real potential to dramatically reduce the need for sprays and maybe fertilisers as well. But these claims are yet to be fulfilled on New Zealand farms.

And can organic agriculture with its non-industrial, small-scale farms feed the world anyway?

MADGE (Mothers Against Genetic Engineering) ran a billboard campaign for the 2003 election featuring a woman modified with extra mammary glands, hooked up to a milking apparatus. Revulsion and fear are primary weapons in the anti-GM arsenal: campaigners label GM food as “Franken-food” and play on widely held fears of the unpredictable consequences of tampering with Nature.
MADGE (Mothers Against Genetic Engineering) ran a billboard campaign for the 2003 election featuring a woman modified with extra mammary glands, hooked up to a milking apparatus. Revulsion and fear are primary weapons in the anti-GM arsenal: campaigners label GM food as “Franken-food” and play on widely held fears of the unpredictable consequences of tampering with Nature.

Canterbury University professor of gene ecology Jack Heinemann has recently been involved in a huge international analysis of this question. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) was initiated in 2002 by the World Bank and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, involved 400 experts from all around the world and was finally completed a year ago.

“It lays out options rather than prescriptions, having reviewed every form of agriculture, and also takes account of health, social and economic issues,” says Heinemann. It concludes that GMOs have their place, but considers more effort needs to go into building successful small-scale, low-input agriculture—organic-like agriculture, in other words.

However, a 2007 report in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems that analyses crop yields from 293 trials around the globe is more direct, concluding that organics could feed a larger world population than we have at present and that legumes could generate all the nitrogen required to maintain soil fertility without the use of chemical fertilisers. A 2008 UN report on organics in Africa is also enthusiastic, pointing to better yields than conventional agriculture.

In complete opposition, Paul Collier, a professor of economics and director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford, says in a provocative and lucid essay in the journal Foreign Affairs that we must relinquish the romantic myth of the peasant farmer and allow wider adoption of large-scale commercial agriculture as in Brazil, where as little as 30 minutes elapses between harvest and replanting. Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, has claimed that organic agriculture cannot feed more than four billion people—see box “Adapt or Die”.


In many ways New Zealand agriculture is already close to what the major IAASTD report favours. Family farms raise sheep and cattle, grow trees and perhaps a winter feed crop and are not too large or overly mechanised. Superphosphate, rather than hydrocarbon-based nitrogenous fertilisers, is used on sheep and beef farms and clover provides the nitrogen. Our farming is unsubsidised and our animals feed on grass and live outdoors. As a country we are well regarded as reliable sellers of safe, high-quality food, which we produce at low cost.

In effect, GM crops don’t seem to have too much to offer Kiwi farmers in the foreseeable future, although you can never be sure. For instance, clover made resistant to clover-flea could be very useful. So might drought-resistant pastures, but with regular rain over most of the country we have less need for such a boost than most.

But whether GM is as effective as trumpeted by its advocates or even relevant in the context of New Zealand agriculture is beside the point, argue opponents. The problem, they say, is that it’s dangerous.

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One section of the debate surrounding genetic modification can be distilled down to just three letters: HGT, or horizontal gene transfer, which is a rather opaque title for an important natural process. Genetic information passed from parent to offspring in the normal way is known as vertical gene transfer. Horizontal gene transfer occurs when a gene is incorporated into another organism that is not the offspring of the donor. It’s not uncommon among bacteria, and comparisons of DNA between plants and animals suggest it may occur there also.

The artificial transfer of DNA from one organism to another—perhaps even between species—is the basis of genetic engineering and is a form of HGT. When it is achieved in the lab it is heralded as a success. But should that transferred DNA escape the lab, or get into some other species by HGT from a GM crop, opponents of genetic modification fear dire consequences. Once into a new host, it could be passed on and spread by normal vertical gene transfer and who knows what the consequences would be?

DNA from every kind of dead organism has entered the biosphere since life on Earth began and there’s no evidence that protein and DNA from dead organisms disturb nature—they’re broken down to become food for other organisms—and DNA from GMOs will be no different. They are only fractionally different from their unaltered forebears. In automotive terms, a GMO is a Chev with one Ford wheel nut. However, when genetically modified DNA escapes a trial and enters wild populations beyond the controls of a lab, we have suddenly escaped the limited certainties of science and are in new—and, some contend, frightening—territory.

Organisations undertaking genetic modification have strict guidelines and active monitoring for HGT. But in New Zealand’s short history of test crops, those checks and balances have already been breached several times.

Rice and wheat are the world’s most important crops. The International Rice Research Institute is attempting to improve the photosynthetic efficiency of rice using GM, and expects yields to improve by 50 per cent and water requirements to halve. Here, a researcher at Cornell University in the US examines regenerating GM rice plants in tissue culture.

In 2008, Scion Research was carrying out a contained field trial—approved by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA)—of GM pines in Rotorua when activists discovered the trees were flowering, introducing the risk of pollinating trees beyond the test group. They dug under the perimeter fence, felled 19 of the trees and left behind a spade with a sticker reading, “GE Free New Zealand”.

Scion was not meant to let these trees flower. On the issue of HGT, it comments that this has never been detected in the field between a GM plant and another plant or microbe. It also says it has not found any evidence of ecological disruption among GM trees compared with control trees.

However, Jack Heinemann, the gene ecologist from Canterbury, explains that this doesn’t mean HGT isn’t happening.

The problem is that there are so many bacteria—perhaps thousands of species and certainly trillions of individuals in just a few handfuls of soil—that it’s impossible for a negative finding to be meaningful since you can analyse the DNA of only a minute fraction of them.

With thousands of hectares under the same GM crop and with every one of a plant’s trillion cells expressing the new gene, “we are bombarding the environment with these genes in a new way,” he says.

“There aren’t many studies into the adverse effects of GMOs, because most research is funded by the companies that produce them,” Heinemann says. “There have been fewer than 20 published studies into possible adverse effects of GMOs on human health. Industry-funded studies tend to find no effects, whereas independent researchers are more likely to come up with adverse effects.” And, notes Heinemann, HGT doesn’t only happen on evolutionary time scales but can occur very rapidly. “The swine flu that has just emerged in Mexico is an example of HGT.”

The possibility of unwanted pollination resulted in the closure of trials of genetically modified cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale, which the state-owned Plant & Food Research institute was growing to resist caterpillar pests. The plants were found to be flowering earlier this year, in violation of ERMA conditions, and the crops were pulled out.

Steffan Browning, who discovered the breaches of the GM field trial conditions at both Scion and Plant & Food’s Brassica trial, is committed to keeping New Zealand “GE free” and thinks that the crown research institutes that do much of the GM research are just not careful enough. “There are real risks here, people stuff up“, says Browning, himself an organic grower of 20 years and more recently a would-be MP on the Green Party list. “For instance, there is permission for an onion field trial that isn’t being run yet. ERMA requires that structures be built over the plants to exclude bees, and pollination is going to be accomplished by flies contained within. Will those structures remain intact? Will the culture at Plant & Food change?”

The spectre of failed GM crops trailing environmental catastrophe and human illness throughout the world is the image projected by the ardent anti-GM lobby. Its websites proclaim nothing but dire tidings about GM: falling yields, the emergence of resistant pests, allergies and other health problems among growers, animals dying from eating crop residues, Indian farmers driven to suicide by the failures of GM crops, increased use of toxic sprays etc.

When Monsanto inserted the naturally occurring bacterial gene Bt (which produces an insecticidal toxin that is harmless to people) into crops, it meant that farmers could reduce their use of spray to control pests. Their “Roundup-Ready” crops could tolerate glyphosate, so only surrounding weeds are killed by the herbicide. The company has also developed what has been coined “terminator” technology, restricting the use of genetically modified plants by causing second-generation seeds to be sterile. If either of these later two transgenes crossed into other species by HGT, it’s been suggested we could end up with pesticide-resistant weeds or sterile crops respectively.

Perhaps the weightiest anti-GM document is a 2009 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, claiming that GM crops in the US have yielded little if any more than non-GM crops.


The second set of risks associated with GM crops concern consuming GM food. GM will put our food at risk, critics say. How so? When a gene is inserted into another organism’s DNA, there is no telling where it will end up. It could insert itself into the middle of an important gene and disrupt it, meaning that the organism might no longer make the protein coded by that gene and could die. If it’s dead, the gene will not be passed on, so that’s OK. But what if it disrupts a non-vital gene so that the organism makes an altered protein that is an allergen or toxin? This is known as insertional mutagenesis and is the stuff of GM nightmares that has the activists hot.

But though it’s possible, it’s extremely unlikely. Genomes are like a wrecker’s yard full of dead vehicles. One in 75 works, and in humans and most organisms less than five per cent of DNA codes for genes that encode protein. Much of the rest contains fragments of genes, non-functional copies of genes, myriad small repeated segments of DNA, transposable elements that seem to move about in the genome, relics of viruses and more. Some think that evolution uses this “junk DNA” to construct new genes.

Even if transgenes do insert themselves into non-coding DNA, they may cause gene disruption. They could still affect the level of expression of a protein, but once a GM organism has been made, potential problems can be identified and the organisms bearing them discarded. Detailed analyses of the proteins and metabolites produced by GM crop plants can also be made at this point. But like the promises of GM production, the risks threatened by anti-GM campaigners are also likely to be overstated. In Canada and the US, GM food has been widely consumed since 1996 and convincing evidence of any adverse health effects is hard to find.

Additionally, some of the claims of GM-induced disasters have been refuted. A report published by New Scientist late last year says that GM cotton has actually reduced suicides among Indian farmers. Another recent detailed review from Cornell University of a whole raft of bad-news reports about Bt cotton in India considers them all beat-ups.

Each side seems to dismiss opposition material as propaganda, leaving the reader with the impression that having decided which side they support, partisans then uncritically accept all its stories. What is the public to make of this? Or do we let the market decide?

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The Greens and organic growers are insistent that New Zealand’s GE-free status is essential for selling food to discerning buyers overseas. Organic produce fetches a premium of 20–100 per cent and demand for organics is rising rapidly. Globally, the market in organic food is valued at $40 billion, about three per cent of the value of world food, and locally it is also about three per cent of national food production. Green activists’ vision for an organic New Zealand could be valuable from a national marketing perspective. But what of their argument that releasing GMOs here would represent the end of organic production and the end of our ability to sell to high-end consumers?

Australia and Canada sell organic produce into the same markets we do and both have substantial areas planted in GM crops, as does the US. And while a number of European countries don’t grow GMOs, others, including Spain, Portugal and until very recently Germany, do.

John Knight, an associate professor in the marketing department of the University of Otago, has put overseas attitudes to GMOs to the test. In interviews with European “gatekeepers”—those who make the decisions for supermarket chains on what foods to stock and import—he and his team have found that our clean, green image counts for little in purchasing decisions.

Gatekeepers were not generally troubled by the presence of other GM crops (such as timber or cotton) in a food-producing country, but thought consumers would strongly resist buying meat from animals raised on GM pasture. (This is interesting because the European Union imports about 80 kg of GM soybeans for every person in Europe every year, plus European GM maize—all for animal feed—and consumers are apparently unaware that the meat they eat has been raised on GM tucker.)

“Commercial buyers are more interested in the quality of produce, the reliability of suppliers, the standard of packaging and presentation,” says Knight. “While they are not interested in purchasing GM food at present, they think it might be acceptable in the future if the price is lower and it could be said to be, say, spray-free because of the presence of built-in insecticides.”

To test the preferences of actual European consumers, Knight and his colleagues set up fruit stalls in various European countries, purporting to offer organic, normal and GM produce at the same price. Organic was preferred. But if the GM fruit was cheaper and touted as spray-free because of engineered resistance to insects, it was generally favoured.

And while gatekeepers in India and China were cautious about importing GM food, Knight’s team found that both countries had large GM crop improvement programmes under way and seemed likely to embrace GMOs in the near future. In these countries, unlike in the developed world, activists have little impact on public opinion and government policies and decrees largely determine public acceptance.

But if the introduction of GMOs will not spell the end of organics or of our ability to sell those products in Europe, do a majority of New Zealanders still object to GM in principle?

Such opposition is prompting Plant and Food Research to make a non-GM version of the red-fleshed Gala apple they have already created by GM methods.

Bruce Small is a social scientist employed by AgResearch. Like John Knight, he is also interested in public attitudes to GM, but has focused his research on New Zealanders. Surveys of public attitudes in 2001, 2003 and 2005 show that while 26 per cent of the population is steadfastly opposed to GM food and only 9 per cent favour it wholeheartedly, 60 per cent conditionally support it.

In broad terms, slightly more people consider that GM does not fit with their moral and spiritual beliefs than those that do, but over a third neither agree nor disagree with GM on those grounds, giving no great moral mandate either way. The most strongly held belief is that animals should not be genetically modified to benefit humans.

Although Small finds that scientists are generally more positive about GMOs than are the public, not all of them are.

Elvira Dommisse used to work as a scientist for Crop & Food. “I even set up their programme to genetically modify onions and garlic.” But she has since become a staunch opponent of GM. “I don’t think that GM crops have been shown to be safe as food. Overseas, there have been disturbing results from animal-feeding experiments. Things like higher mortality at birth, lower fertility, negative effects on the immune system and on blood composition.” Dommisse contends that ERMA should require scientists wanting to do field trials of crops to do animal-feeding trials first. “What’s the sense of spending 10 years on field trials and then find out the crop is toxic?”

She’s not alone with her concerns.

Garth Cooper is a highly regarded professor of biochemistry at the University of Auckland, and in 2005 was named as the inaugural Biotechnologist of the Year—perfect pedigree for a GM supporter. And he is. But he is also chairman and a founding member of the Sustainability Council, a group with deep-seated reservations about introducing GM to New Zealand farming. “The benefits we’d get from GM seem modest at best and when balanced against the possible damage to our agricultural exports, introducing GM crops and animals just doesn’t seem worth the economic risk,” he says. “Nothing has happened in the last few years to make me change these views.”

Cooper also has reservations about the safety of GM organisms. He notes that in metabolic diseases in humans, aberrations in one pathway often cause adverse changes in others, and wonders whether the same might happen in GMOs. “I think we saw this in the late 1980s, when the large Japanese chemical company Showa Denko switched production of the amino acid tryptophan from fermentation to bacteria, genetically modified to produce large amounts of tryptophan. Since the company was producing the product already, only basic testing of the GM amino acid was required. But within months of the release of the new product, it had caused 37 deaths and permanently disabled 1500 people.”

Cooper also harbours ecological concerns. Genetic variation within natural crops reduces vulnerability to environmental change and disease resistance. GM crops from a single stock have no such resilience, and rely entirely on built-in insecticides such as Bt genes. He even wonders whether the decline in bees in the US could be linked to these genes now expressed in several widely planted crops.

But he remains enthusiastic about GMOs in the lab. “Despite these reservations, I believe GMOs are very valuable, particularly the advances they have made possible in the health sector such as bacteria that produce human insulin, and ‘knockout’ mice for modelling human disease. It’s also possible that there could be valuable agricultural GMOs produced in the future—we just haven’t seen them yet.”

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While GM is a long way from affecting agricultural production in New Zealand, there has been plenty of tinkering behind closed doors. Ian Ferguson, the chief scientist for Plant & Food Research—one of biggest players on the GM scene in New Zealand—says that the organisation is looking ahead, and New Zealand needs to keep up with the technology. “A vast area of GM crops is grown around the world and it’s not going to get any less,” he says. “We need to keep our options open.”

More than 50 staff are working in functional plant genomics at the Mt Albert research centre in Auckland, analysing the DNA of apple, strawberry and kiwifruit to get information on plant characteristics, “why plants go to sleep in the winter and reawaken in spring, root stocks, traits that make things easier for growers and industry, and traits that are important for consumers,” says Roger Hellens, who heads the team. “Factors that affect storage life, texture and flavour, for instance.”

Their work on colour in fruit is the most advanced and they have produced apples with red flesh by inserting DNA from an apple discovered in Kazakhstan into a Gala apple. But while working with GM revealed the cause of the pigmentation, Plant & Food intends to produce a red-fleshed apple by conventional breeding to avoid difficulties associated with both public distaste for GM and the hurdles involved in applying for permission to use the technology.

And this is a salient point. Humanity has been selectively breeding desirable traits by breeding and back-crossing since time immemorial. GM enables us to do it with a map and light, rather than fumbling around in the dark. In fact, precision GM work within species may not even fall within some definitions of GM.

Tony Conner works at Plant & Food Research Lincoln and once gained some notoriety for considering inserting genes that coded for antibiotics in frogs into potatoes. But a few years ago, Conner discovered short DNA sequences in potatoes that could be used to transfer new genes. These were equivalent to DNA in the microbe Agrobacterium that has traditionally been used for gene insertion into plants. He’s also excited by the prospects new sequencing information from a range of major crop plants is promising in the next few years. “We are increasingly able to find all the characters we want for crop improvement within the range of potato varieties,” he says, “Combine that with the intragenic DNA transfer technique and we can produce GM potatoes that contain no non-potato DNA at all. Indeed, they could be made by conventional breeding and backcrossing.” However, backcrossing takes many years of work, and GM can accomplish more precise results in just months.

This new “intragenic” approach (using only genes from within the species) should be possible with many if not all plants and should make GM more palatable.

However, for some applications, it’s only transgenes that can yield benefits. For instance, producing certain human proteins for the treatment of human diseases can only be achieved by introducing human genes into cows or goats. AgResearch scientists Jimmy Suttie and Vish Vishwanath can insert a human gene into a cow and make it active only in the udder so that the human protein is secreted as an extra component with the scores of proteins naturally occurring in cow’s milk. They are currently interested in producing human lactoferrin (which occurs naturally in human milk and has antibiotic properties), myelin basic protein (MBP) to treat victims of multiple sclerosis, and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH, commonly used in infertility therapy to stimulate follicular development in the ovary)—all of which can be purified from the milk.

Another wing of AgResearch is using GM to produce better grasses, including a ryegrass high in unsaturated fatty acids to yield more energy to cows, generate a better fatty-acid profile in meat and dairy products and reduce emissions of methane (one of the most powerful greenhouse gases), all in one go.

Most of this work would be impossible without GM technologies, and there are numerous similar examples. All offer a reward in return for modest and manageable risk.

GM forestry and especially animals modified for production of pharmaceuticals in milk seem to pose negligible risks to either human health or the environment, and a GM cow is in no more discomfit than any other cow.

New Zealand is in a different position from most of the world’s agricultural producers. Much of our land is too hilly for crops so we harvest sunlight via roving animals that eat grass. We then eat the animals. This is much less efficient than harvesting crops for food but, given our terrain, it offers some return for farmers and valuable product for a world with an increasing appetite for meat. Most farms here are small family enterprises, with a mix of animals and crops. The fertiliser is overwhelmingly superphosphate to feed clover, which then fixes atmospheric nitrogen, and pesticides are limited to a few herbicides to control thistles, broom and gorse. It’s not organic, but neither does it require the high inputs and subsidies of much international agriculture.

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The Food Safety Authority regularly tests our food for pesticide residues and generally detects none, and certainly never anything unsafe, so organic production is not the only way to assure safe food.

And while organics constitute about three per cent of world food production, and will likely expand as a valid and valuable method of sustainable agriculture, GM food production is already more than twice as large and growing faster. India and China will soon embrace GM foods, and the rest of the world will slowly follow. Powerful industrial interests also support the technology. It may take a decade before genetically modified crops or animals offer anything attractive to New Zealand producers, but even when the yields aren’t much better, crops that save farmers time and money and allow a larger area to be cultivated are going to be hard to ignore.

Meanwhile, GM techniques will continue to improve so that the grounds for disquiet will be increasingly eroded, and it’s even possible that GMOs could assist in achieving pesticide-free organic goals.

The range of benefits offered by GM plants will also continue to increase. To date, most have benefited growers, but expect some in the next round that have consumer-oriented traits.

Nevertheless, the choice to go down the GM road remains ours. It would not be imprudent to continue sitting comfortably on the GM fence for another decade, keeping up with GM science in the lab, carrying out field trials as appropriate but releasing GM food plants only when there is a really compelling justification.

People will likely remain divided along ideological lines, but we should be clear about the source of our objection. Is our disquiet about the intersection of technology and food a yearning for a simpler, more earth-centred life or a distrust of complex technology? Either way, the genie is already out of the bottle.

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