A kiwifruit industry crippled by Psa disease is ripe for introducing genetic modification, says a visiting American biotechnology advocate.
It's estimated Psa disease will damage the kiwifruit industry to the tune of $310-$410 million over the next five years.
So a genetically-engineered solution to the disease could have significant economic benefits, said Robert Reiter, vice-president of American agrochemical giant Monsanto.
“New Zealand's not a large market for any given crop. But kiwifruit might be something because there's a market in multiple places beyond New Zealand," Robert Reiter told the Star-Times.
Monsanto is regarded by detractors as a global peddler of destruction, creating foods that threaten the health of both people and the planet. Its supporters see its innovation as the world's best hope of tackling a global food crisis.
With the world's population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, and with about 40 per cent of the earth's land used for agriculture, corporations like Monsanto tout biotechnology as the best way to develop crops that are resistant to pests, drought and weeds.
Reiter said although New Zealand didn't yet need GM crops like soy and wheat, it could use the technology.
''It's giving growers a choice of different chemistries."
Genetic modification has long been a polarising topic in New Zealand, where it remains strictly regulated, but those in the field are optimistic that public opinion is changing.
Reiter was among biotechnology heavyweights who touched down in staunchly GE-free New Zealand last week for the Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference in Rotorua.
Safer forms of biotechnology have been used in New Zealand since early 2000 to create livestock feed, which continues to be an important area of research.
Around $20 million a year is spent by non-government organisations in New Zealand on plant breeding and development, Grasslandz Technology chief executive Dr John Caradus said.
The identification of desirable DNA traits for breeding have been used to develop ryegrass and clover. Genetically-modified ryegrass trials have also been carried out by New Zealand scientists overseas, most recently by Pastoral Genomics research consortium.
The Florida-based trial was to find a drought-tolerant, nutrient-rich feed for livestock using cisgenics - rearranging the DNA within the ryegrass.
However, the moratorium on genetic modification in New Zealand is preventing further valuable research, advocates argue.
US Department of state senior adviser for biotechnology, Jack Bobo, said conventional methods of plant production are arguably just as dangerous.
Thousands of radiation-mutated fruit are listed for breeding by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Food and Agriculture Organisation in the US.
Conventional methods of mutation through use of chemicals and radiation have been carried out for decades.
For watermelon, seeds are exposed to the chemical colchicine to produce seedless fruit. Mutated grapes with seeds that "abort" inside the fruit have been produced for more than a century, Bobo said.
“You're changing the nutritional profile, you're changing all sorts of characteristics. It probably tastes different.”
But it's public perception that counts. Horticulture NZ represents its members in its stance against genetic engineering.
"We're endeavouring to market produce internationally for which discerning consumers are willing to pay a premium. The industry is pushing for clean and green," chief executive Peter Silcock said.
"We're happy for scientists to access the latest technology. But science has to deliver what consumers want."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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