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Science must trump ideology in the GE debate


A New Zealand-developed super-grass that appears to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions might be blocked in this country by the Green Party.

When it comes to protecting the planet, science should always trump ideology.

When it comes to genetic engineering, however, ideology has a lot of noisy mates. GE opponents cite “Brand New Zealand”, our burgeoning organics industry, consumer resistance and the sheer fear of the unknown to support their argument. All this is arrayed against science, even if it’s science that could materially benefit the environment.

New Zealand has developed a potentially world-leading curb on greenhouse-gas emissions: a genetically selected rye grass that drastically reduces stock methane emissions.

But our strict controls on GE have meant we’ve had to trial the grass in the US. Because it is gene-edited, a form of selective breeding, rather than being a full genetic modification, the grass didn’t meet our legal requirements for even heavily controlled propagation. This is an inconvenience and expense, but not the end of the world.

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However, a ridiculous perversity looms. Now that the trial has shown the grass appears as effective as its developers hoped, we’re in the bizarre position of being potentially unable to benefit from it ourselves.

The Green Party, which vehemently opposes any GE propagation or experimentation in this country, shows signs of wanting to block the super-grass’ use here – and that of any similar technologies, however beneficial.

The Government’s former chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, has urged that we open up to such technology, saying it’s doubtful sustainable farming can continue without the use of genetic editing.

However, Greens co-leader James Shaw gave unhelpfully curt answers in Parliament recently when asked about the rye grass’ future. One was a “No” when asked if he agreed with Gluckman about a GE-free future being unsustainable.

His responses were widely read as a refusal even to discuss our shut-out of GE organisms. GE products are not banned as such, but our Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act has near-insurmountable barriers to their propagation or seed and tissue import.

As Gluckman says, it’s time we debated that 23-year-old legislation afresh. New Zealanders have overwhelmingly opposed GE in the past, but there could now be support for discrete exceptions for breakthroughs, such as the super-grass. Few would welcome commonplace GE here, given we’ve always managed highly efficient agriculture without it. It rankles that GE food is routinely sold here without disclosure, because of lax labelling laws, but this, too, may have softened attitudes.

Unhelpfully, Shaw’s response portends an ugly fight within the Government to even get the issue on the agenda. He lacks the numbers to win should push come to shove. But he risks the impression of denying planet-saving technology, just because it also benefits the dairy industry.

As yet, the Greens face no discernible threat from the much-mythologised “blue-green” movement, but this sort of issue could change that. It’s not a stretch to see this intransigence as putting the planet’s urgent needs a distant second to anti-farming and anti-science ideology.

In an interview on TVNZ talk show Q+A earlier this year, Shaw rightly said many consumers disapprove of GE, and have demonstrated they will pay more to avoid it. He also fairly envisioned New Zealand’s optimal trading future as “moving up the value chain” to produce high-quality consumer foods, including organic produce.

But surely “high-value” should now include food that does not severely damage the environment in the process of being produced. There is no evidence the rye grass would “escape” and interfere with other types of plant. The only “damage” from it would be less methane, with the corollary of less need for a drastic reduction of livestock.

It’s the latter that appears to be the Greens’ overriding concern. Methane is not the only reason we need to reassess the scale and deployment of our livestock farming. But the Greens’ refusal to engage in debate about even this potentially game-changing rye grass suggests they have, perhaps inadvertently, let their mission to eliminate animal-based food from people’s lives overtake even the need to curtail climate change.

Add in their refusal to entertain GE as a pest-eradication tool – potentially less polluting and cruel, and more effective than mass-poisoning – and the party strays further towards incoherence. Most New Zealanders would surely back science to protect their environment ahead of what is still a fringe ideology.

This editorial was first published in the April 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.