Opponents of genetic modification are asking how changing New Zealand law to make it like that in Australia would help genetically-modified grasses get into the field here, given their developer has withdrawn its application for a high-profile trial across the Tasman.

Last month, former National leader Judith Collins, the party’s science spokesperson, announced its intention to overhaul restrictions on genetic modification (GM), making it easier for scientists to conduct out-of-lab research in New Zealand.

The policy’s poster-child was a GM ryegrass trial by AgResearch, a Crown research institute, developed in New Zealand labs but “forced to go to the United States to conduct field trials”, National said.

Genetically modified food could help fight against climate change
Agriculture and fairness: why climate chief is optimistic

In 2016, the project gained grant money from the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment’s Endeavour Fund, part of a $25 million investment by AgResearch “and other stakeholders”, over five years to research genetically modified forages.

National’s proposed overhaul would include the creation of a new, dedicated biotech regulator, based on an Australian model.

However, earlier this year, Grasslanz Technology Australia – whose ultimate parent company is AgResearch – withdrew an application for the “limited and controlled release” of its GM ryegrass, Lolium perenne L, in Australia.

Opponents to National’s proposed loosening of laws and regulation have seized on the news.

“They have not been able to meet the standards required for a field trial in Australia,” GE Free NZ president Claire Bleakley says.

Sustainability Council projects director Stephanie Howard says: “AgResearch hasn’t been able to get trials off the ground on either side of the Tasman – so it can’t be just New Zealand law that’s the problem.”

Jack Heinemann, a professor of genetics at University of Canterbury, questions the idea the research institute was “forced” to conduct trials in the US, saying it appears to have been a commercial decision. “It might be that AgResearch would have had to spend more money to go through our process of getting a field trial approved.”

The report of the Royal Commission into genetic modification, released in 2001, cleared the way for field trials – and there have been many – but recommended a cautious approach.

In 2019, AgResearch signalled it wanted to move its field and animal nutrition trials to New Zealand within two years. The Climate Change Commission noted GM rules might be a barrier to developing lower emissions technologies.

Newsroom asked AgResearch if it had applied to undertake field trials in New Zealand.

Science team leader Richard Scott says no application has been made to the Environmental Protection Authority “given the high bar and evidence base required for such an application”.

“The regulatory pathway for GM field trials in the US has been a highly effective pathway in the early development phase with this technology.”

Scott says Grasslanz’ field trial application to Australia’s Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) required further detailed analysis of an issue related to an allergen known as sesame oleosin that could be released through the pollen of its ryegrass, which has been genetically modified for high metabolisable energy (HME).

“While AgResearch testing done previously had demonstrated that sesame oleosin is not expressed in the pollen of HME ryegrass, a more rigorous standard of testing is required by OGTR.

“Given the timeframe and complexity associated with this more detailed analysis, AgResearch and its partners withdrew the application to the OGTR.

The research institute is confident the issue can be addressed.

“In due course, the programme will revisit the application to the regulator.”

Despite tens of millions being spent on the project over many years, Scott couldn’t say when the ryegrass might be commercially available.

“It is not unusual for regulated technologies like these to require substantial investment over periods of years or decades, to prove their safety and value.”

Scott says neither AgResearch nor Grasslanz has lobbied politicians, or engaged external parties to do so.

He then makes this interesting distinction: “The organisations and individuals involved in GM/GE research have shared their research and participated in discussions on the science, including with politicians in different forums.

“What any other commercial investor does, in the form of lobbying, is a matter for them.”

The ryegrass project’s other partners are PGG Wrightson Seeds, DairyNZ, and Netherlands-based Barenbrug, the world’s largest privately owned seed company.

Public consultation opened yesterday on the Government’s proposed changes to legislation and regulations for genetically modified organisms used in laboratories and for biomedical therapies.

Grasslanz wanted to evaluate up to 12 GM trial “events” in Australia for up to five years, using up to 2.5ha a year. Photo: AgResearch

The terms genetic modification and genetic engineering are often used interchangeably.

So-called transgenic techniques allow a foreign gene to be inserted into a cell of the host organism.

Using biotechnology, DNA sequences can be deleted or swapped, or new material introduced to silence particular genes.

The idea behind genetically engineering plants could be to increase crop yields, or make them resistant to pesticides and diseases.

Huge anti-GM sentiment in New Zealand coalesced into public protests in the 1990s, and a 92,000-signature petition prompted Helen Clark’s government to establish the Royal Commission.

(In 2002, investigative journalist Nicky Hager’s book Seeds of Distrust exposed a government cover-up of contaminated sweet corn seeds, planted in three regions, during the Royal Commission hearings.)

The commission’s report, released in 2001, recommended a cautious, tightly regulated approach, which has remained relatively intact.

Field trials have been allowed but often ended in failure and controversy. A 10-year trial of genetically-modified brassicas near Lincoln, south of Christchurch, was scrapped in 2009, its first year, after an environmental group found a modified kale plant in flower.

In recent years the clamour for a review of New Zealand’s GM policy has been growing louder, from the Royal Society Te Apārangi in 2019 to, more recently, the Productivity and Climate Change Commissions.

A bid for greater energy and nutrition

AgResearch says its work on HME ryegrass started in earnest in 2010 – although a 2009 story by RNZ refers to the research.

In a 2016 press statement celebrating the MBIE funding, forage science group leader Dr Tony Conner said ryegrass was being enhanced so there’s more energy and nutrition stored in the grass, leading to healthier animals that become “better producers”. There might also be environmental benefits from reduced methane emissions and nitrogen loss from livestock.

Three years later, AgResearch spruiked modelling which found Lolium perenne L could grow up to 50 percent faster than conventional ryegrass, and be more resistant to drought. A “realistic” reduction in livestock methane emissions is estimated to be up to 15 percent – less than the 23 percent potential mentioned by the National Party.

Bleakley, of GE Free NZ, says the US ryegrass trials showed “very, very poor results; the yields were down”.

Newsroom asked National’s Judith Collins whether the AgResearch project was a good case study for its policy.

She says: “The information you have been told seems out of kilter with what AgResearch has provided so it’s probably best if you direct your enquiry to AgResearch.”

Scott, AgResearch’s science team leader, says the US trials in “challenging climatic conditions” demonstrated the ryegrass “can be successfully grown to offer more energy to animals”.

(The statement leaves room for some of the results to be disappointing.)

Last year, an article in the journal Field Crops Research traversed the findings of the US trial, in Missouri.

“From an agronomic perspective, variation between small field studies is large, so these results require validation in trials at multiple sites in temperate latitudes,” the article said.

Animal feeding trials would be required to accurately quantify the metabolisable energy, and to validate modelling work “such as reduced methane emissions”.

The paper was also mentioned in the Grasslanz application to Australia’s OGTR. HME seedlings, in “spaced pots indoors”, produced 13 percent more dry weight than control plants, the article said.

“This plant biomass advantage translated into 6–10 percent greater HME herbage production (yield) in mini swards arranged in spaced rows but did not reliably translate into greater herbage production in dense swards indoors or in field swards,” the application said.

“These results highlight the complex transition from the lab to the field when testing novel secondary physiological traits and justify the need to undertake further field evaluation.”

A submission by anti-GM group Gene Ethics warned OGTR: “Once deliberately or inadvertently released into open environments, a genetically manipulated (GM) variety of perennial ryegrass would be impossible to retrieve, and may pose even more trenchant and unmanageable environmental and weed management challenges than its non-GM counterparts.”

In 2019, AgResearch’s principal scientist Greg Bryan – also the co-founder and chief technology officer of California-based agri-tech company ZeaKal – said the ultimate goal of the US research was to conduct realistic animal nutrition studies, and to measure potential benefits of reduced methane emissions and reduced nitrogen excretion. For that it needed about a hectare of grass.

As yet, however, none has been fed to livestock, Scott confirms.

“Planning is now underway for the next phases of the research, including animal feeding trials.”

Because the quantity of grass needed to feed a dairy cow can’t be produced in containment, the trials will start with lambs.

“Once we are legally able to grow HME ryegrass outdoors, either in Australia or New Zealand, a dairy cow trial will be a high priority.”

“This needs to be carefully assessed to see if it affects our market access.”
– Sirma Karapeeva, Meat Industry Association

Newsroom asked various groups for their views on National’s GM policy.

Beef + Lamb chief executive Sam McIvor welcomed a review of GM technology.

“Before we make any decisions in this space, we need to ensure there could be no damage to New Zealand’s reputation with consumers. We must take a calculated approach, but that does not mean we shouldn’t explore the opportunities.”

Sirma Karapeeva, chief executive of the Meat Industry Association, wanted a precautionary approach to reviewing the GM “ban”.

“Clearly there is a significant opportunity to use these technologies to address agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, but this needs to be carefully assessed to see if it affects our market access.”

DairyNZ’s strategy and investment leader Bruce Thorrold says its investment is aimed at exploring future potential.

“Science and information have advanced rapidly in recent years, with modern genetic technology showing promising options for the dairy sector to reduce its environmental footprint and stay internationally competitive,” he says.

“Any review would need to consider effects of technology on-farm and on the environment, while being considerate of the views of farmers, customers, and communities.”

Perhaps the most interesting response – and a potential shift in stance – came from Fonterra, New Zealand’s biggest company and one of the world’s biggest dairy companies.

Its website’s “cared for cows” page has a “non-GMO” section.

“Fonterra’s farmers are committed to healthy environments and farming naturally,” it says. “Grass-fed dairy naturally has a low footprint, harvesting rain and sunlight. Nothing we grow contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs), it’s not in our nature.”

In a statement, Fonterra’s chief science and technology officer Jeremy Hill says the company is keeping its options open.

“We are ready to work on the best way forward for New Zealand Inc in this area.

“Sophisticated approaches like gene editing and emerging technology could provide solutions for some of New Zealand’s sustainability and biodiversity challenges which will help us to maintain our world-leading position and competitive advantage.”

Organics Aotearoa’s chair is Chris Morrison, co-founder of drinks brand Phoenix Organics who went on to launch Karma Cola. He’s a director of Kokako Coffee.

Morrison says organic products deliver on climate action and consumer demand. He backs a precautionary approach with genetically modified organisms (GMO), saying the risks of National’s proposed changes outweigh the potential benefits.

“As a business owner who exports to high-end customers, we are finding our clients are willing to pay a premium for NZ products that are GMO-free. I strongly believe our premiums will be affected by any loosening of our laws.”

Stephanie Howard of the Sustainability Council asks whether AgResearch is investing in the right tools to help farmers with their greenhouse gas emissions.

Jack Heinemann, the University of Canterbury professor, says the GM ryegrass trial is nowhere near being commercialised. But even if it achieves what has been modelled it can’t be successful from a sustainability perspective.

“It’s not really a solution – it’s a way to make you feel better about the number of cows you have.”

Calls to deregulate GM because New Zealand is falling behind are nothing new and “evidence-less”, he says.

Meanwhile, Bleakley, of GE Free, describes the ryegrass trial as a “pie in the sky hope” that, so far, hasn’t performed consistently better than nature.

Of National’s policy, she says: “It’s irresponsible, it’s dangerous, and they are not considering the downsides of a failure of these trials.”

* This story has been updated with comment from DairyNZ’s Bruce Thorrold

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

Leave a comment