The acronym "GMO" set fear into the hearts of New Zealanders back in the 1980s and 90s, as worldwide research and debate around genetically modified organisms threw up all sorts of perceived risks and possibilities.

But a couple of decades on, those fears have been largely unfounded, and now is the time for New Zealand to seize the opportunities provided by the genetic revolution. There is really no other way to go if New Zealand's agricultural sector is to meet the environmental, climate change and economic challenges it is facing.

Using the genetic technologies and knowledge at our disposal would allow the sector to add value to its food production and decrease its environmental footprint. We already use genetic technologies in research on pastures, crops and livestock, but we have yet to approve a genetically modified organism for release in New Zealand. We are looking but not playing.

Most of us already use the products of the genetic revolution on a regular basis, including cotton clothes, some processed foods and medicines such as insulin and the hepatitis B vaccine.


Elsewhere in the world farmers quickly adopt genetically modified or engineered crop species. More than 70 genetically modified crop varieties are used worldwide, including maize, canola, soybean, cotton and papaya. Many of these products are fed to livestock or processed before human use. Some are directly consumed by humans.

So how safe are these genetically modified crops? No human health problems have been proven after decades of use and well-known research by University of California, Davis scientists on the effects of a trillion meals of genetically modified crops consumed by livestock over 18 years also found no ill effects.

Instead of ignoring a highly successful and proven technology we should be seeking ways that make it work for us. A starting point might be to release genetically modified pasture, forage and tree varieties so their safety is well-recognised before we ask New Zealanders to directly consume food products from genetically modified organisms. It's an ultra-conservative approach, but step one must be to increase consumer confidence.

New Zealand should embrace genetic technologies where we can most benefit - the development and release of drought-tolerant ryegrass, kiwifruit resistant to bacterial canker (Psa) and sheep and cattle that produce less methane. The result would be less water needed for irrigation, lower pesticide use and less greenhouse gas emissions. Genetically modified plants and livestock will help us be clean and green.

Peter Kemp, Professor from Massey University's Institute of Agriculture & Environment