Are the potential gains from trials of genetically modified plants worth the risks?
Despite a risk to the economy and an undisclosed cost to taxpayers, field trials of genetically engineered plants and trials on animals have resulted in next to no commercial gains by Crown institutes.
There have been 20 field trials approved by the Environmental Risk Management Authority since it began in 1998. Plant and Food paid Erma $197,598 in applications for its trials, which ran between 1998 and 2009. AgResearch paid $400,463 for trials running from 1999 up to now.
These figures do not include the cost of processing the applications by Erma – now the Environmental Protection Authority – or the actual cost of the trials, which both institutes say they are unable to calculate.
The Plant and Food trials involved onions, potatoes, brassica, petunia and allium. In response to an Official Information Act request by The Dominion Post, institute spokesman Roger Bourne said much of the field trial research had not intended to produce intellectual property or products for commercialisation.
During the lifetime of the trials, New Zealand had "moved from cautious approval of GM in the environment to a far more cautious approach", Mr Bourne said. "This meant that IP and potential products generated through the trials remained in the lab."
There were no plans for further field trials, he said.
There had been just one field trial that could be directly linked to a commercial outcome.
That was an onion trial that resulted in IP being licensed for evaluation to a commercial entity and a royalty being paid to the institute.
The IP has yet to be used commercially. The client and the nature of the IP were commercially sensitive and could not be disclosed, he said.
While that was the only case in which commercial exchange had occurred the IP and products associated with trials had been of interest to external parties and may be commercialised in future, he said.
Plant and Food was unable to say how much it had spent on field trials because it had been so long since the earliest trial, many staff involved had since left, specific costs were not recorded and the accounting software that might include any data was out of use and could be restarted only at substantial cost and resources.
The field trials represented a small fraction of the institute's work, Mr Bourne said.
AgResearch has one trial under way at its Ruakura site involving fewer than 20 goats genetically modified to produce human therapeutic proteins.
The five-year trial, in its third year, was funded with $8 million from the Foundation for Research Science and Technology and an undisclosed sum from American firm GTC-Biotherapeutics Inc.
The trial was being undertaken to improve scientific knowledge. Any commercial benefits would be gained by GTC.
AgResearch spokesman Warren McNabb said GTC was a co-supporter.
"The value to AgResearch is it's a partner that gives us that commercial focus and helps drive that technology forward. If you're going to secure government funding you need that commercial pipeline."
The level of GTC funding was commercially sensitive and would not be disclosed, he said.
Mr McNab said there were no further similar trials planned at this stage.
GE Free New Zealand spokeswoman Claire Bleakley said New Zealanders were being asked to bear the risk and potential cost for private overseas companies.
"The CRIs are in essence renting out our valuable research space, using our expertise and taxpayer money for the commercial gain of their partners Monsanto, Genzyme, ArborGen. Whilst NZ taxpayer takes all the risks of pollution, GE failures, horrific animal suffering and cleanup costs."
Millions had been spent on trials with huge risks and no commercial gain to the economy, Ms Bleakley said.
"The withdrawal of funding into conventional research in areas of disease and sustainable land management has led to the creeping loss of our disease-free status."
- The Dominion Post
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