Debate on fraught issue of GMOs worth having

I note with interest the Government’s recent musings about having a re-look at the settings for genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

From the best I can tell it is more around the potential for medical research but this should be of acute interest to agriculture.

The whole GMO debate has been a third rail in politics going back to the royal commission finding in 2001.

Successive governments have not wanted to go there.

Subsequently New Zealand has enjoyed the title of GE-free and it has played an important role in developing our natural provenance branding in the food sector.

The question is: at what cost?

The science has moved on massively in the past 20 years and are we constraining ourselves to missing out on the opportunities from emerging technologies?

In the agricultural space it is gene-editing technology which is of the most interest. Basically, the speeding up of natural genetic selection as opposed to transgenic manipulation or slicing genes from different plants and species.

It doesn’t seem logical that we can talk of climate emergencies but not be willing to discuss the potential for the likes of the methane-suppressing GE ryegrass being developed by New Zealand scientists at AgResearch but ironically not able to be trialled here.

Of course the real difficulty is that you can’t be "half pregnant": once this stuff is out in the wild the genie is literally out of the bottle.

To be clear I am not advocating one way or the other here. My gut reaction is that I am a little uneasy about letting this stuff loose and I quite like the GE-free concept. Surveys conducted in our overseas markets by Beef + Lamb have suggested that there is consumer preference for GE-free. Would going down the ‘‘Me too’’ pathway of embracing GE merely consign us to the commodity play? But if there are premiums involved what are they and are they worth the trade-offs given we are now consigned to paying for the likes of greenhouse gas emissions? Are we potentially missing out on developing the IP and leveraging that for the greater good?

This will be a fraught issue and one that will elicit strong feelings on either side of the argument. While I don’t pretend to know the answers I do believe that it is high time we had the debate.