Tony Conner is celebrating 20 years in genetic modification. The plant geneticist at Crop and Food Research remembers the first modified potatoes - with marker genes - planted at the crown research institute.
"At that point, we were at the forefront of this technology. I find it quite frustrating that while the rest of the world is growing these crops, we just cannot seem to move beyond field trials."
He says the early trials were vital for getting Crop and Food's systems right and ensuring that the plants it produced looked, grew and behaved like potatoes. Back then, a lot of them didn't. "The vast majority were very deformed plants, but that wasn't a result of GM, it was a result of the tissue culture process. It was telling us our systems in the lab were not working well and that we needed to improve efficiency of regeneration systems."
By the early 90s the systems worked well and after more field trials insect-resistant potatoes were produced. "We've got lines sitting there on the shelf that, if New Zealand was ready, we could go out to farmscale trials," says Conner.
But he doubts it will happen because the regulatory hurdles are too great. "When we see the information we have to provide for a contained field trial, to go to a farm scale trial would require an order of magnitude more documentation, which we just don't have the resources for."
What's worse is that the lines of potatoes produced have been sitting on the shelf for six or seven years and will probably never see the light of day because the cultivars used are now out of date. Conner is frustrated by the overly risk-averse nature of regulations. He points to the just approved onion trial which among other traits is investigating the possibility of a tearless onion. For the first time, the onions will be allowed to flower, but in order to do so,
they have to be grown in specially contained cages and pollinated using flies rather than bees.
"When we see the kind of things we have to go through to get the onions approved and the controls imposed upon it, it almost makes doing the work in the field a bit pointless - because you're not really mimicking the real farming situation."
Conner points out most other countries don't have these kinds of controls imposed for field trials and the risks are overstated - especially in the case of onions which would not survive in the wild without human cultivation.
He says 20 years experience with GM crops worldwide has shown very little evidence of environmental harm. Conner also believes it's possible to overcome concerns from organic growers through coexistence management schemes that keep GM and organic crops separate. He hopes, too, that pest-resistant crops, allowing them to grow without the use of agricultural sprays, can be seen as a benefit to organic growers.
As a former member of Greenpeace, he says that reducing pesticide sprays in the environment is what motivated him into GM research.
Conner's latest research is likely to put a new complexion on the GM debate. Instead of modifying potato genes using material from another species such as bacteria, he's now deriving all the genetic material - the genes and the carrier of the DNA - from the potato plant itself.
The process known as intragenics, as opposed to transgenics, finds disease resistant and nematode resistant genes that have been cloned from varieties of potato or its wild relatives.
Currently he's working on genes that affect the colour of the tuber - "a visual appeal thing that has potential health benefits as well".
The process enables him to put three or four fragments of potato DNA into a potato plant to create a new variety - in effect shuffling potato DNA around, a process that can happen naturally.
"It was really reacting to public concerns here in New Zealand," says Conner. "People were upset about foreign DNA - transgenics. Intragenics was seen as a potential way forward."
What intragenics does is blur the boundary between genetic modification and other types of non-regulated plant breeding techniques.
As Conner points out, if he produced an intragenic plant and released it into the environment it would be impossible to know whether it was genetically modified. "All the DNA is from the species so you lose the ability to do DNA testing for different species - there is no generic test to show it was GM."
Which begs the question. If you can't test for it, why should you regulate it?