GM trials' failure 'not law's fault'

Genetically modified (GM) crop trials have failed to take off in New Zealand for reasons other than the strict legal barriers blamed by developers, the Sustainability Council says.

The research group said it had been convenient for developers, including the Pastoral Genomics consortium and in the past Crown research institutes (CRIs) such as AgResearch and Plant & Food, to condemn the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act for their lack of GM trial success.

However, in its latest report, released this morning, the "think tank" found the drop in the number of GM field trials was mainly due to other factors, such as loss of funding and technical difficulties.

Sustainability Council executive director Simon Terry said state-funded research and development programmes had once promised to bring GM fruit, vegetables, pasture grasses and livestock to New Zealand fields and tables.

Since the 1980s, tens of millions of dollars of public science funding had gone into developing GM organisms, mostly to CRIs.

"Yet despite promises of major economic returns and imminent or certain commercialisation, not a single GM crop variety has reached the market or is likely to do so within the next decade," he said.

By 2001, there had been 48 field trials of 15 species, but now there were only GM pine tree and GM livestock projects under way.

Plant & Food has run trials of GM brassicas and onions in a secure location at Lincoln.

It has also been investigated after GM plants were allowed to flower and were found outside a containment laboratory.

Terry said GM food developers were now unwilling to pursue GM trials because of a lack of support from the agricultural sector.

The Ministry for the Environment had concluded there was no "substantive evidence" to support the claim that the act had "strangled" GM development.

Instead, there were other factors at play, including:

~ Technical challenges that had proven more difficult than expected.

~ Partial or full loss of public funding.

~ Public opinion in New Zealand about outdoor GM activities and GM food production.

~ Consumer resistance to GM foods in key export markets.

~ Low levels of support from New Zealand food producers for outdoor experimentation and commercial GM food production.

Despite that, a consultant for the ministry was expected to next month complete a report on possible benefits over the next 30 years from the increased release of new organisms.

The council believed there should be "a quite different sort of review - one that questions the value of continuing to invest in GM organisms instead of funding non-GM agricultural opportunities", Terry said.

"Developers may wish regulation were the cause of arrested development of GM agriculture in New Zealand, but if it has played any role it is a minor one," he said.

"Indeed, it would be much easier for developers were regulation the major obstacle."

The Press