Grass - it's what we grow best and is a cornerstone of the clean and green image that underpins New Zealand's dairy and meat exports. Whether those exports would find as much consumer favour if raised on genetically modified pasture is the alarm sounded by the Sustainability Council after it investigated Government funding for GM pasture research.
The lobby group estimates up to $50 million in taxpayer funding has gone into research on GM grasses in the past decade and millions more will be needed before any new strains are commercially released.
Once the new ryegrass and clover varieties are out there they will be impossible to contain - the 50 per cent of New Zealand swathed in green pasture will be vulnerable to contamination by GM grasses, the council argues.
Crown agency AgResearch and Pastoral Genomics (a farmer-funded consortium also attracting state funds) are leading the charge on efforts to commercialise new grass cultivars, touting gains they say will make farming more productive and sustainable.
The research involves both GM and non-GM plant breeding techniques to develop new cultivars with the desired traits. It's work that is shrouded in confidentiality and confined to the lab. The agencies are accused of further masking their GM work by fudging the language: using new terms such as "cisgenic" to lull us into thinking it is not GM as we know it (see sidebar).
The Sustainability Council has used the Official Information Act to obtain consultants' estimates of the net benefits if some or all of the GM grass strains being investigated were to succeed.
Its analysis, released exclusively to the Weekend Herald, challenges the estimated gains and argues that the risks of an international consumer backlash make taxpayer investment in high-tech - but non-GM - plant breeding methods a far better bet.
Council executive director Simon Terry says that over the 15 years since the contentious research began, consumer resistance to foods with GM input has only grown, particularly in high-value European markets. Supermarkets are sourcing non-GM-fed produce for their store brands and actively discouraging GM goods. Terry says the research is well behind schedule and the most promising cultivar, for drought resistance, is at least seven years away, meaning considerably more
funding will be needed.
Pastoral Genomics has come closest to seeking conditional release for research on new ryegrass varieties promising increased productivity, drought resistance, nitrogen efficiency or the three traits combined.
The consortium says the research uses cisgenic technology - manipulating the existing genome to more usefully express the desired trait rather than introducing new genetic material.
The council has obtained a November 2009 report by Harris Consulting for Pastoral Genomics' projects. It predicts a net national benefit over 50 years ranging from $0 to $600 million (depending on which cultivars succeed) with flow-on impacts of up to $1.5 billion in GDP and between $25 million and $500 million in household income. An additional 8000 full-time jobs could be generated.
These are handy numbers in the tooth-and-claw scrap for research funding.
But the estimates depend on many variables including the success of the cultivar, the take-up rate by farmers, whether use is confined to New Zealand or overseas, public perception and trade in products with no cisgenic qualities.
Terry says even the report's median estimate - a net value of $379 million if the three desired traits were successfully combined in one grass - is over-optimistic, relying on assumptions including a 50 per cent take-up rate and 50-year benefit flow.
In its alternative analysis, the council uses a take-up rate of 20 per cent and other more conservative assumptions to estimate a maximum net benefit of $107 million over 25 years.
It then considers the likely cost of consumer resistance overseas - the scenario that these products will fetch less in the marketplace than GM-free equivalents. If the price differential was 10 per cent, this alone would outweigh the estimated gains of GM grasses, reducing the value of meat exports to Europe alone by $180 million a year.
"In other words, if the science for the best new grass fully met expectations and adoption rates were high, it could still produce a loss for the country."
The council also cites a consultants' report for the Ministry of Agriculture, on the potential impacts of GM grasses spreading to non-GM farms. The report said the impact of contamination was difficult to determine but could range from hundreds of millions to more than $1 billion. The council says Government officials describe grass pollen as notoriously difficult to contain and consider that even small-scale field tests that allowed flowering could not be reversed.
"Making GM pasture varieties commercially available to New Zealand farmers is effectively a bid for the mass conversion, over time, of New Zealand pastures to GM - an estimated 10 million hectares covering almost half the country.
"... However, it would not take anything like a complete physical takeover in order to deliver a market image makeover."
On the other hand, researchers could achieve the same breakthroughs using non-GM techniques and avoid the market risks, says Terry. Chief among the new technologies is marker-assisted breeding (MAS), using recurring codes in DNA to select desirable traits. While every bit as high-tech, MAS techniques are the same as conventional plant breeders have long relied on, he says.
Pastoral Genomics consortium manager Dr Zac Hanley says its research is not at the point where choices should be made. While MAS is highly promising, it cannot deliver everything, Hanley says.
Researchers want to maintain the roughly even funding split between the two approaches to find out what they can offer before looking at market acceptability.
"There's a really big productivity and sustainability benefit to be had from a GM approach. We need to get it to a point where we can say what it would look like and then ask the questions. It has to be something that farmers would want to use and that the public accepts."
Hanley says he is keen to examine the council's lower economic benefit analysis.
"It could be two economists arguing over their spreadsheets - it's still [too] far away."
New spin on GM
Kiwi developers of GM grasses are using spin to get around regulatory and public resistance to genetic modification, says the Sustainability Council.
Pastoral Genomics trademarked the term "cisgenic" to describe genetic modification which manipulates genes within the original plant rather than crossing the species barrier.
The council's Simon Terry says the consortium presents cisgenics as "natural" and not detectable as GM in an attempt to "weave a different narrative" to reduce consumer aversion to GM products. He says the consortium has also lobbied cabinet ministers to have cisgenic organisms excluded from regulatory hurdles. Crown agency Plant and Food has also been vocal in seeking "regulatory escape".
But consortium manager Zac Hanley says there is no attempt to be secretive - "cisgenic organisms go through the same approvals process as transgenic organisms".
The term was an attempt to distinguish gene modification that does not introduce unrelated species.
The Sustainability Council
Promotes GM-free food production, greenhouse gas emission reductions and environmental protection.
The board includes Professor Garth Cooper, Auckland University; Prof David Williams, University of California; Dame Susan Devoy; Annabel Langbein; and Sam Neill.
* For more information, visit www.sustainabilitynz.org/By Geoff Cumming Email Geoff