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Emerging Issues – GM Forages

2010: An information paper discussing the benefits and risks of genetically modified forages. The use of genetically modified forage could increase farm productivity, drought resistance, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions intensity. However, the release of genetically modified organisms is at variance with identities and values that many New Zealanders hold dear.

A possible role for genetically modified forages will need to be considered as part of the broader debate about how to achieve more sustainable agriculture, according to a paper released by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Dr Stephen Goldson, the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Vice President of Biological and Life Sciences, who contributed to the paper says that “while the need for more productivity in the pastoral sector and protection of the associated ecosystem goes without saying, the jury is still out when it comes to decision about the use of transgenic forage plants”.

The Royal Society of New Zealand paper says that New Zealand is a world leader in pasture research, and genetic modification has delivered plants that, when grown in confinement, have been shown to deliver improved performance. The new traits in these forages have the potential to lead to better farm profitability and possibly reduced greenhouse gas emissions per cow. However it should be noted that they have yet to be tested on a large scale under field conditions.

New traits, whether introduced by genetic modification or traditional breeding, can substantially alter the properties of forages. Many of the researchers who contributed to the paper believe that, as both risks and benefits depend upon the traits, then risk assessment of new traits should focus on the qualities of the traits, rather than entirely on the techniques used to introduce them.

The Royal Society of New Zealand’s paper reviews studies into the earlier rejection of genetically modified food by many consumers in New Zealand. Genetic modification is at variance with values that many New Zealanders hold dear, such as the county’s clean, green image and Māori concepts of whakapapa and mauri. While the first generation of GM crops offered benefits to farmers, the risks were seen as falling on consumers and this contributed to widespread rejection of the technology. Research since then has led to genetically modified forages that offer benefits to both farmers and to the environment, but it is not clear yet whether such benefits to the environment will make these forages any more socially acceptable.

The use of GM animal feed is more widely accepted than human consumption of GM food. However, consumer acceptance of products from non-GM animals fed on GM forage has been the subject of only limited research, especially outside of the EU market.

Consumer concern about GM technology often appears to be linked to the products themselves, rather than to the use of GM technology in the nations that products come from. This suggests that the use of GM forages in New Zealand may well have little effect upon the overseas acceptance of New Zealand’s non-GM products.

“This paper has been produced by the Royal Society of New Zealand as one of a series that seeks to inform the public on emerging and/or sometimes contentious issues around science and technology. In this case, the aim has been very much to enable any debate on the merits or otherwise of transgenic forages such that the process of making a decision around the use of transgenic forage plants is better informed. The paper does not seek to present a view in either direction,” says Dr Goldson.

Download the full paper here

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