New Zealand researchers appear to be gearing up for a new bid to win the hearts and minds of consumers in preparation for the first applications for release of genetically engineered (GE) pasture species.

The GE clover and ryegrass are being promoted as "cisgenic" - engineered without using genes from other species - which the biotechnology sector hopes may make the meat and milk from animals grazed on them more acceptable in some markets.

Science academy, the Royal Society, today released an "emerging issues" discussion paper on GE forage plants, noting that it "has no intentions whatsoever of influencing ultimate decisions on use or not", according to Stephen Goldson, the society's vice-president of biological and life sciences.

Dr Goldson is AgResearch's chief science strategist and a science strategy adviser to Prime Minister John Key, but said - wearing his Royal Society hat - that the academy wanted to inform and update the debate.

At least two major research consortiums are preparing to seek the release of GE pasture plants: PGG Wrightson has been working with Australian scientists on GE ryegrass, while Fonterra and AgResearch have worked with other partners on clover, and Fonterra has funded its own research into ryegrass.

Dr Goldson said today that since the Royal Commission on GE organisms in 1999, the situation in pastures and their use had changed, with continuing intensification of livestock farming and a need to transform the sustainability of agriculture.

There was growing competition from low-cost producers overseas, and issues over greenhouse gas emissions form livestock farms, a need to adapt to climate change and increasing concerns about the welfare of pasture-fed animals.

"Irrespective of 'how', something has to be done if NZ is to maintain leadership in pastoral industries," he said in notes prepared for the release of the discussion paper.

The nation would be in "a bad way" if that competitive edge in livestock industries was lost.

Dr Goldson suggested attitudes may be changing resulting from climate change, security of food supply and other environmental problems, and that consumer purchasing patterns for GE products were "not particularly obvious".

Both traditional plant breeding and GE methods focused on acquiring and expressing genes that provided useful traits, such as herbicide tolerance, and insect resistance, and there was a view that the traits were more important than whether they had been genetically-engineered into the plants.

"Trait by trait evaluation has merit," he said, but strong attention was still paid to the GE component.

There might be less public resistance to cisgenics if that labelling was perceived as less risky.

Dr Goldson noted that "promiscuous" pollen meant containment of any field trial of GE pasture plants would be "problematic".

There were also potential issues over the nation's identity being linked to "clean, green" concepts and Maori values in nature, and there could be suspicion about food safety, and resistance to corporate ownership of food production systems.

- NZPA