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.

Comments (10)

by Murray Grimwood on July 01, 2016
Murray Grimwood

Yet again I challenge this writer.

And et again this writer will avoid engagement.

As do others hereabouts.

But genetic modification, or indeed any other approach, won't continue to feed continually-increasing multitudes. Umfortunately, the First and Second Laws of Physics apply. Not to mention the finite nature of our planet.

We are already in the past-peak phase, already we can't have our existing fiscal expectations met (the future can't supply in the quantities expected, ever) and already we are a species seriously overshot population-wise.

Yet a Professor, no less, suggests we should be keen to pile up digital '1's and '0's - that this should be our over-riding goal.

.GM or not, agricultures' biggest problem is that it turns fossil fuels into food. In calorific terms, it does this badly - we'd be better eating the oil. Which we're into the last half of.The Professor appears to avoid this uncomfortable fact, like the plague.

by Charlie on July 02, 2016

Nobel laureates urge Greenpeace to stop opposing GMOs



by Tim Watkin on July 02, 2016
Tim Watkin

Murray, do you think perhaps no-one engages, because you say the same thing over and over again, regardless of the topic of the post. We know what you think about the one topic. I understand you care deeply about it, but we've had all the conversations we're going to on that. Perhaps start commenting on other things? Broaden your range of opinions? Otherwise it just all feels a bit pointless.

by Murray Grimwood on July 03, 2016
Murray Grimwood

That, Tim, is because none of the comments make sense - hers or yours - if what I say is correct. It's not that I 'care deeply' about resource depletion, overpopulation and pollution. It's just that you can't avoid them and make sense of anything else by doing so.

I appreciate you have an ability to 'believe' and you must appreciate that I don't. I need to investigate facts, and if some are overriding ones, then I treat them as such. However unpleasant.

You don't seem to be able to understand that 'broadening a range of opinions' will do absolutely nothing to keep a growth-requiring, energy-requiring regime going. There were a range of opinions held on the Titanic, but all the opinion-holders were impacted by the reality - the fact - of the sinking. Given that 'all this will be at the bottom of the Atlantic in an hour, two at the most' there was little point in complaining about the lousy dishwaher service in your stateroom, for instance. 

In the Raworth case, she should have answered the basic questions - What is the point in converting a one-off source of energy into digital '1's and '0's? What will they be 'worth' sans energy? Why the need for artificial boosing of production? (because if it's because of a growing population, is that a valid approach, or is restraining the population a better? Will overshoot be worse following her course?) Your problem,Tim - and it's not mine - is the fact that none, repeat none, of what we do currently, will work very much longer. It's your problem, Tim, because you profess to be a media type - a truth-purveyor. If the truth is that our society - as currently set up, is unsustainable and getting more so by the minute, it is your duty (is it not?) to inform folk of this. To investigate. To tell. Not to avoid, then to attempt to carry on as if you've not heard/seen anything. All the posts put up here - and pretty much all the news anywhere, is affected by what I point out. I'd say the same about folk in high Tertiary Education positions. You could do your bit. Investigate the list of links I gave you. Address what they mean for growth, infrastructure, agriculture, 'poverty' etc. But you won't, will you?
by Chris Morris on July 03, 2016
Chris Morris


I agree with you. But Greenpeace (and their political arm, the Green party) don't want to talk the science unless it suits their narrative. You are trying to talk facts, which aren't even computer models but real hard data field trials, when all the other side  give is emotive rhetoric (and a request for more donations to keep the multi-national going in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed). The hysteria about glyphosate is another one which overlaps GE where it is a fact free zone.

And Tim, I agree with your comments but you are far too polite.

by Murray Grimwood on July 07, 2016
Murray Grimwood

He's not there to be polite.

He's there to be researched - dispassionately - and truth-dispensing.

Touts, on the other hand, are allowed to be touts. Nine times out of ten they're obvious.

Academics, like reporters, should be truth-dispensing. If they become touts, the base-line gets too skewed, Simply addresing the availability of fertilisers in a fossil-fuel constrained world would be a start - and I look to Rowarth as the obvious expert to produce such a report.

For anybody open-minded enough to be bothered:

But it's just emotive rhetoric.of course.


by Chris Morris on July 08, 2016
Chris Morris


Your polemic is high on rhetoric and low on facts (as usual)

Having sensible rules around GE food will allow a lot of food insecurity to be relieved. That and education for women will have a major impact on the birth rate in 3rd world countries as families don't need children as "slave" farm labourers. The food changes Jacqueline proposes can have a real positive impact. Your Malthusian rant does nothing other that marking you as another doomsday prophet - shouldn't you be walking around with "The End is Nigh" on a sandwich board.

And by the way, you can get fertilisers from a lot of sources other than fossil fuels - just making urea and the like from natural gas is the easiest/ cheapest way .


by Murray Grimwood on July 09, 2016
Murray Grimwood

Last time I checked, 'natural gas' was a fossil fuel.

And therefore available at such a slow rate that it must be treated as finite.

'Food insecurity' can be best relieved by having less mouths - yes, education can help but you have to be able to afford the condoms, and to be able to side-step the pulpit-bashers (who essentially peddle ignorance on behalf of a power-grab). 

Technology can never overcome depletion - so you and Raworth must be wrong. All technology can do is increase efficiency - and all that can do is buy time. The later it is applied, the less time it will buy (due to greater consumption. Jeavons Paradox applies.

by Andrew Hart on July 16, 2016
Andrew Hart

As a Kiwi Fruit grower I am advised that there is no marketing advantage in growing GM fruit, in fact it is a major marketing handicap for countries like Japan that have banned all GM imports !.

This article is pure gloss, I want longterm scientific  studies on the effects of eating GM food before I adopt these farming practises.

by Chris Morris on July 17, 2016
Chris Morris


I don't know where you get your information from but Japan imports a lot of GM produce

And there are long term scientific studies showing no harm from eating GM produce. That is why organisations like Greenpeace resort to emotive advertising. The facts don't support their arguments.

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