In the groundhog country of GM research
Scientists now know more about the role natural genetic modification plays in evolution, writes agro-ecologist Alfred Harris.
OPINION: Despite what scientists might like to think, research is just one of the many factors farmers have to juggle. Farmers take the simplification of uncertainty that is science and combine it with their own innovations and new technologies to make the small incremental changes in farming practises that constantly improve farm productivity and sustainability. To do this, farmers need plain English access to research, and to talk with scientists.
Nowhere is such communication more urgently needed than in the groundhog country of genetic modification research. When I read that Dr William Rolleston is once again lobbying for GM crops and pastures, or that GE-Free NZ is saying that GMOs cannot be part of a sustainable future I suspect that I , like many farmers, wonder whether anything has really changed since the Royal Commission on GM 15 years ago.
On some fronts not a lot has changed. Consumer perceptions continue to shape market considerations. I still remember Zespri politely informing the Royal Commission that any field trials on GM products could ruin the emerging trade in the then relatively new gold kiwifruit. Zespri's view was the public could easily come to believe that what is a different species might be a genetically modified green kiwifruit.
The politics of GM has seen the Green Party move on from the misguided belief that they could "prove" that a moratorium on GM was absolutely necessary. After quietly dropped anti-GM as a major policy platform the Greens have moved further to the right with multiple policy personalities ranging from anti-fracking to climate change. What has not changed is the firm view by the Greens that they know what is best for everyone, including farmers.
What has changed most is the science.
Fifty years of molecular biology has produced results requiring a deep rethinking of basic evolutionary concepts. Instead of proving the hard genetic wiring of living things by an all-determining genome, molecular biologists now understand much more about how microbes and organisms regulate the expression, reproduction, transmission, and restructuring of their DNA molecules.
Since the Royal Commission on GM, molecular biologists have established that natural genetic modification (NGM) plays a substantial role in evolution. These processes are significantly different from what GM-Free NZ opposes and Dr Rolleston proposes.
NGM does not proceed by selection of random mutations in DNA. Things thought to be impossible less than 20 years ago, such as gene transfer between different species, are now known to be the norm in microbes, and to play a key role in evolution. NGM most commonly occurs by the rearrangement of existing DNA sequences, and in a surprising large number of cases the rearrangement of whole genomes.
The really good thing for plant or animal breeders is that GM in the old-fashioned sense of shifting genes from one organism into another or around in the same organism is not the only option and probably not the best. Better technical methods such as CRISPR for more precisely introducing or shifting around genes may have reduced but do not eliminate concerns among researchers about the risks of non-target effects.
The other tsunami of change overtaking the scientific world and just beginning to register in the public consciousness is the importance of the vast number of bugs that live on and in us. Farmers, students and the wider public need to hear more in plain English about this exciting new research.
A better understanding of NGM and microbial interactions with plants, animals and humans has the potential to revolutionise plant and animal selection and human medicine, and reduce antibiotic and fertiliser use. It will also improve food productivity and food quality.
Some of the best and most exciting research in these fields is being done by New Zealanders working both here and abroad.
Scientists at AgResearch in Palmerston North showed that the white clover that for many years underpinned pastoral agriculture in New Zealand has a relatively recent evolutionary origin, probably from a natural hybrid between two other clover species. Hybridisation as a way of better meeting more exacting environmental requirements such as nitrogen leaking from high input dairy farms is a cheaper and less risky option that the rather more random methods of GM.
Perhaps one of the most exciting areas pioneered in New Zealand by Dr Robert Hill from Lincoln University is the use of selected beneficial root-associated fungi to improve plant growth and disease resistance. He has won multiple awards for this work.
Put simply, Hill reaps the results of millions of years of evolution by selecting beneficial root fungi from healthy plants. He then carefully isolates different species of a group of symbiotic fungi known as Trichoderma, and then laboriously tests them in various combinations to address specific problems in forestry, horticultural, pastoral, and arable farming.
The bonus is not only improved plant health but also improved plant growth. Hill's research has already been used to address specific plant disease problems such as PSA-V in kiwifruit. He says there are still enormous gains to be made in improving growth and reducing fertiliser requirements, eg in kiwifruit and pastoral farming.
Changes in agricultural practices can help the world reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve food security. New hybrid clovers with lower leaf N could see a return to biological N fixation in dairy farming. Management of beneficial root fungi can improve plant health and productivity while reducing antibiotic and fertiliser requirements.
New Zealand can once again become world leaders in pastoral farming without the need for expensive and risky GM technology. What is urgently needed is for the word to get out there and for farmers and scientist to begin to work together again.
Alfred Harris has a first class honours degree in cytogenetics and spent much of his research life using electron microscopes and X-ray analysers to study soils, composts and biocarbons. He is now the research manager of Pacific Biocarbon.