Expert view

GM grass is a risk to NZ farming’s competitive advantage

New Zealand is in danger of shooting itself in the foot. One of its Crown Research Institutes, AgResearch, has developed a ryegrass that promises a leap in productivity that makes even Norman Borlaug’s semi-dwarf wheat breakthrough look modest.

The catch is, it’s genetically modified and competitors in the Americas look likely to get their hands on it first.

The grass contains a high metabolisable energy (HME) system. In glasshouse and laboratory comparisons with standard cultivars it had 20% higher photosynthesis, was 40-50% more productive, and contained 10% more metabolisable energy.

In vitro, assays of rumen digestion indicated it would cut methane emissions 15-23%, a climate change benefit, and it appeared more heat tolerant.

GDP boost

Such is the importance of ryegrass to the New Zealand economy, AgResearch estimates the new grass could raise GDP by up to NZ$5bn (US$3.7bn) – that’s about a 2% increase. But that’s unlikely to happen any day soon because of public, industry, and political division over GM.

New Zealand’s official policy on GM is to proceed with caution, judging each case on its own merits. That was the conclusion of a Royal Commission report in July 2001. By then, 48 field trials of GM traits in 15 species had been conducted. But only a handful of applications for field trials have been approved since, the last in 2010, with only two trials remaining in progress.

Photo by Tim Graham

Photo by Tim Graham

GM grass

One is with herbicide-tolerant and sterile pine trees at New Zealand’s forestry research institute, Scion, and the other is with cattle and goats modified to produce therapeutic milk proteins at another AgResearch site. Commercially, New Zealand agriculture remains GM-free.

Rather than attempt to get field trial approval policy changed locally, AgResearch sent the HME grass to the US for open-air testing earlier this year. If the trials are successful, one suspects it won’t be long before it is commercialised in the US, and probably the other three big users of GM too: Canada, Brazil and Argentina.

That would hand some of New Zealand’s major rivals in global meat and milk commodity markets a substantial competitive advantage. The big question is: could GM-free marketing generate sufficient premiums to compensate? I doubt it.