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Intruders have dug under electrified security fencing to destroy genetically modified pine trees in a field trial being carried out by Crown Research Institute Scion in Rotorua.
Scion chief executive Dr Warren Parker said the blatant act of vandalism during the Easter break was designed to end the company's genetic modification research programme.
The field trial site contained 375 radiata pines trees planted last year following approval from ERMA (now the Environmental Protection Authority).
Set inside Scion's perimeter fence, the 1-hectare field trial site was secured by a double fence, one of which was electrified and monitored.
The offenders cut through the perimeter fence elsewhere on the campus, then dug under the security fencing and attacked the trees by cutting them at root level and pulling them out of the ground.
Most of the trees were less than a metre high, and were part of two experiments due to run for two to three years.
One was testing herbicide resistance and the other was looking at reproductive development.
Not all the trees were genetically modified as the experiments included some control trees. The direct value of the destroyed material was around $400,000.
"The field trial was approved under one of the strictest regulatory regimes in the world, and our team has fully complied with the containment controls," Parker said.
"Despite this, our research opponents were determined to stop us and used criminal means to do so."
All risk management safety protocols were immediately implemented when the attack was discovered. The site had been inspected by police and all fences had been repaired. Scion was confident no heritable material left the site.
"As a Crown Research Institute, Scion has a responsibility to pursue areas of science and technology that offer opportunities for the forestry sector in New Zealand, including gene technologies. While this is a big blow to us and has set back our work some 12 months, we will not be deterred in carrying out our lawful research," Parker said.
Genetic modification was one of many biotechnology tools Scion was developing to add value to forestry. Scion began its genetic modification research in 1992.
Gene technologies were developing trees that grew faster, had higher value products, required lower inputs such as herbicides and insecticides and could mitigate climate change, the company said.
DROP IN GM TRIALS
Research group the Sustainability Council released a report yesterday in which it claimed a drop in the number of GM field trials in this country was mainly due to such factors as loss of funding and technical difficulties, rather than to tough regulation.
By 2001 48 field trials of 15 species had been underway, but the only trials now involved GM pine tree and GM livestock projects.
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 fields and tables.
Since the 1980s, tens of millions of dollars of public science funding had gone into developing GM organisms, mostly to CRIs.
Despite that, no GM crop variety had reached the market or was likely to do so within the next decade, he said.
New Zealand Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Sciences president Associate Professor John Hickford, of Lincoln University, said elsewhere in the world GM research was being carried out at a heightened pace.
"GM is a major area of research internationally, but one that NZ is apparently not allowed to be involved in," he said.
The Rotorua incident would further damage the morale of scientists who, as a professional group, were poorly paid and had poor job security.
He questioned whether the vandals were "swimming against an overpowering tide of support for GM".
Associate Professor Euan Mason, from the School of Forestry at Canterbury University, said the destruction of the experiment was unfortunate.
"If people disagree with genetic engineering research under strictly controlled conditions then the proper course is to present their arguments in a rational way and seek to change the law."
Delaying research until widespread use of genetic engineering was allowed would place New Zealand at a disadvantage compared to countries that allowed research into it.