Genetic engineering of food crops appears to have largely disappeared from public concern since the Environmental Risk Management Authority was set up a decade ago.

It is hard to know whether the disappearance of the issue is because the ERMA has prevented much experimentation in this country, or because crops engineered elsewhere have been in the food chain for just as long and the world's general health does not seem to have suffered.

Both explanations are true, according to American experts here for a biotechnology conference this week. One of them, a vice-president of Dupont Agricultural Biotechnology and an adviser to the State Department, warned that New Zealand was slipping behind advances in food production and risked being left with outdated crops.

It is always possible to scoff at warnings from those with commercial interests in any field, but it is also possible they are right. Dupont's warning was echoed by a New Zealand AgResearch scientist, Tony Connor, who said that land planted with genetically modified crops worldwide last year amounted to six times the area of New Zealand. "In another decade we could be dealing with yesterday's crops," he said.


The regulations governing biotechnology trials in this country appear to have stifled field experiments almost entirely for the past 10 years. The Treasury has expressed concern that agricultural innovation is inhibited and the Environment Minister, Amy Adams, is taking a closer look at the rules. It is high time they were reviewed.

A decade ago, the ERMA regime made economic sense. Genetic engineering was receiving international criticism and this country listened to warnings that its reputation as a "clean green" food producer could suffer unless it adopted a restrictive regime. Now GE has faded from most of the world's consciousness, "clean green" does not face the same risk. It is time to assess whether the country's agricultural science is suffering.

It seems ridiculous that New Zealand's scientists have to conduct field experiments overseas in the development of genetically improved grasses. The state-funded research body Pastoral Genomics is trialling modified ryegrass in the United States in preparation for the day it might be permitted to do the science at home. AgResearch thinks permission here is another 10 years away.

The placards outside the conference at Rotorua this week indicate that vociferous opposition could still be expected to any relaxation of the rules, but public opinion might not be as easily swayed. A poll conducted by Pastoral Genomics found only 23 per cent believed the clean green image would be adversely affected by its "cisgenic" grasses.

People are often susceptible to exaggerated fears of a new technology. Cellphone towers were widely feared. Older people will remember warnings about television when it first arrived. When we travel we probably eat modified rice and wheat products without giving it a thought.

The gene modification industry does its case no favours with apocalyptic predictions of population growth and food shortages. It is enough that genetics can increase crop yields, reduce the need for insecticides and make farming more profitable. A nation that depends crucially on farm exports and needs to keep up with all advances in the field, cannot close its mind on this subject forever. It is time for a rethink.