Genetically modified pine trees uprooted by activists were one of a dwindling number of GM field trials, and researchers are concerned that fear-based misinformation and attacks could undermine New Zealand's agricultural edge.
An unidentified group cut through a perimeter fence and dug under an electrical barrier at Crown research institute Scion's Rotorua facility, before cutting and uprooting much of a field of 375 trees.
Scion chief executive Warren Parker said the damage was valued at $400,000, and was a "soul-destroying" setback to expensive and complex research.
The trial had been going on for two years, and was testing
herbicide resistance and methods of growing denser woods under "one of the the strictest regulatory regimes in the world".
The incident was one of several obstacles which have slowed GM agriculture in New Zealand.
Environmental Protection Agency figures showed that approved GM field trials had fallen since their peak in the late 1990s.
At their peak, 15 approvals were made a year. Only nine have been approved in the past 10 years.
Lincoln University associate professor John Hickford said safe, robust agricultural research was taking place overseas, and New Zealand risked being left behind.
"GM is a major area of research internationally, but one that New Zealand is apparently not allowed to be involved in," he said.
"While we might think we can bury our heads in the sand and not be involved in GM research, this is unlikely to convince anyone outside of New Zealand."
Dr Parker believed GM trials had slowed because the laws covering trials were strict and made them expensive. He pointed to the faster progress in Australia, where some farmers had boosted productivity by 4 per cent a year by using sorghum, a GM product.
A Sustainability Council study released this week challenged the idea that New Zealand's strict laws stifled agricultural innovation.
It said resistance from food producers and consumers was responsible for the reduction in GM trials.
Dr Parker said medicine and molecular biology in New Zealand had made huge leaps because of investment in genetic engineering (GE) technology.
Activist group GE Free New Zealand said it was not involved in the vandalism at Scion, but expressed concern that the disturbance of the plants might have caused cross-contamination outside the site.
Scientists said this was highly unlikely, as pines did not reproduce until eight or nine years old and the trees uprooted by activists were two to three years old.
One of the controls on the trial was that it would stop before reproductive cones appeared.