Pure profit... even if pure science says it's safe

As the rest of the world moves towards more GE food, New Zealand stands apart. And while that may make little scientific sense, it could be very good for our bank balance

An article published a month ago in the Daily Mail prompted GE Free New Zealand to call for a halt to GE-feed products. The watchdog urged the pork and poultry industries to urgently survey producers. It's concern: That GE crops and associated pesticides were linked to "a growing incidence of animal deformities". The source: A study by Dr Medaro Vazquez, a paediatrician who appears to have drawn a link between GE crops and reported deformities.

The Ministry for Primary Industries, the regulatory body for import approval, is, happily, concentrating more on the science than the media does. A meta-analysis of research by the US-based National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) was published at the same time as the GE link to deformities was being promulgated. NASEM’s report analysed the costs and benefits of genetically modified crops, drawing on almost 30 years of research. The key findings included that there was no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercial GE crops and conventional crops. Nor could any conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from GE crops be identified.

The NASEM research supported earlier conclusions by the EU. The report on a ‘decade of EU-funded GMO Research: 2000-2010’ suggested that ‘biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies’.

The report examined more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups. At the launch of the report, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said "The aim of this book is to contribute to a fully transparent debate on GMOs, based on balanced, science–based information”.

The conclusions of the research were that GMOs potentially provide opportunities to reduce malnutrition, especially in less developed countries. Further benefits were identified as increased yields and adaptation of agriculture to climate change. The Commissioner added that “we clearly need strong safeguards to control any potential risks”.

The weight of the evidence is with the scientists, not the Daily Mail.

This is important for New Zealand as the country grapples with what genetic engineering involves. The NASEM report noted that new genetic technologies are blurring the line between conventional and GE crops. It suggested that the US regulatory system needs to assess crop varieties based on their individual characteristics, not the way they are produced.

The Arctic Fresh apple, for example, has had a gene sequence originally from a potato inserted into the apple’s DNA. The sequence silences the polyphenol oxidase gene that causes browning in cut apples. It is a precise, targeted gene editing that does not change any other aspect of the cultivar, but because DNA has been added, it is subject to regulation.

In April this year a non-browning button mushroom was developed with a gene editing tool termed CRISPR/Cas9. The enzyme that causes browning has been ‘switched off’. However, in this case no gene insertion was required, and the non-browning mushroom is not subject to regulation by the USDA.

Recently, the Plant Biotechnology Team at Agresearch developed High Metabolisable Energy grass (high lipids) which could reduce methane by approximately 30%, and reduce nitrous oxides by approximately 20%, without compromising either plant growth or milk yield. In addition, there is an indication that omega-3s in the milk produced will be higher. The potential additional value to GDP based on modelling done by Agresearch scientists is in the range of $2 billion to $5b a year depending on the adoption rate by farmers. However, New Zealand’s regulations mean HME field trials will have to be done overseas then repeated here. The HME ryegrass has some inserted DNA.

Genetically engineered crops were approved for commercial use in the US in 1994, and first planted in fields in 1996. Since then their production has increased dramatically, and more than 90% of all soybean, cotton and corn (maize) is GE. Sugar beet, alfalfa, canola, papaya and squash have also been approved.

Recently the Arctic Fresh apple and bruise-free potatoes have joined the list.

The big four – soybean, corn, cotton and canola – are not crops common in New Zealand, which maintains a zero tolerance approach to GE. The US, Brazil, Argentina, India and Canada are the big players in GE crops. Herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, product quality and agronomic properties continue to dominate the GE research and associated approved releases.

Of note is that approvals of GE products for direct human consumption are increasing, as the potential benefits are realised. These include not having to convert forest and pasture to crop land to compensate for yield losses due to insects and weeds on existing cropped area. Purdue University research estimates that without GE, yield losses in soybean would be 5.2%, corn would be 11.2% and cotton would be 18.6%. The impact of these losses would be not only on the soil but also in increased greenhouse gas production.

For New Zealand, however, the focus must be on consumers and what they are prepared to pay for. Research in Denmark puts human health before animal welfare and the environment. Nielsen research suggests that 18% of people are ‘very willing’ to pay a premium for ‘all natural’ and ‘GMO-free’. Nielsen also reports that the trend towards organic foods is because 76% of respondents believe they are healthier, whereas only 37% of respondents purchase organic food because they are GM free.

In America, marketing of organic milk includes statements about ‘health’ based on the fact that cows grazing grass have higher concentrations of omega-3s in their milk than cows on mixed rations.

As techniques associated with understanding gene operations are developed, health practitioners, farmers and growers are identifying aspects that allow improvements in outcomes for consumers. These vary from increased vitamin content (e.g. golden rice) to decreased use of pesticides (e.g. organic cotton). The Arctic Fresh apple has been developed in response to consumers wanting a non-browning apple – 62% of respondents said they would be likely to buy it (16% were neutral, 11% didn’t know).

More than 18 million farmers now grow genetically engineered crops over approximately 180 million hectares in 28 countries. New Zealand is not one of them. Adoption of new technologies after careful evaluation, as urged by the European Commissioner, could result in considerable benefits for consumers, the environment and producers.

Research on consumer acceptance of food crops developed by gene editing was published this year by Hokkaido University in Japan. The researchers concluded that education, a supportive regulatory framework and communication of the risks and benefits in using the new technologies were all vital in order to achieve understanding.

The key is scientific evaluation of the facts, evidence and data as presented by the EU and NASEM.

An emphasis on health is likely to be the route to consumer adoption and result in New Zealand having the most highly valued food in the world – a credible vision to which we can all aspire.