Researchers win approval for GE crops

01:43, Jan 31 2009

Lincoln scientists have been given approval to continue their controversial experiments on genetically engineered (GE) crops.

Crop and Food Research's application to grow GE onions, spring onions, leeks and garlic at a 2.5ha secret site near Lincoln has been approved by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma).

But the Crown research institute will be allowed to let only a small number of GE onions flower and produce seed, and those plants will have to be contained in double-layered cages to ensure pollinating insects and pollen cannot escape.

Only laboratory-bred fly pupae and no bees will be allowed inside the cages, and all flies will have to be killed before the cages are opened.

Pollination cages will have to checked daily by Crop and Food staff to ensure they are intact and no insects can escape, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry will also inspect the site.

The 10-year programme, led by Colin Eady, aims to test the plants' tolerance to herbicide and resistance to fungi, bacteria, viruses and insect pests, and also to test efforts to alter their smell, flavour, sweetness and colour.

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Erma received 124 submissions on the proposal.

Eady said yesterday he would comply with the conditions to ensure no "unintentional release" of GE material into the environment.

Planting would not begin until September next year, he said.

Christchurch biotechnologist Elvira Dommisse, a former Crop and Food scientist who worked on early GE onion experiments, said keeping the flowering plants in cages gave little comfort.

"Even with those cages, accidents can happen," she said.

"They can get knocked over by high winds, flooding or whatever, or people doing pranks."

She was not surprised by the decision, given previous approvals by Erma for GE experiments.

"With all due respect to Erma people, they sit there and say a lot of the same sorts of things, which indicates they haven't read all the literature, only that which paints GE in a positive light," she said.

"I'm really disappointed at the lack of scientific integrity. They are a pack of industry-based scientists."

GE Free New Zealand spokeswoman Claire Bleakley said there was little difference between the final decision and the authority's initial evaluation report.

"We are extremely concerned that with this application they have spent three months trying to tick all the boxes and have given them almost carte blanche to go ahead and disregard the public's concerns," she said.

"There's a whole lot of stuff which shows a gung-ho attitude towards GE. Erma is not being risk-averse; they are being industry proactive.

"To a certain extent we believe they don't listen to the public at all. We are extremely disappointed they didn't look at doing environmental testing in a laboratory first."

Crop and Food science group manager Stephen Lorimer said it was important Kiwi scientists kept exploring the "benefits" of GE technology.

"This application falls within the Government's recommendation to proceed with caution. What we learn from this study will be essential to robust assessment of GE technology," he said.

The Press