Grass is ‘green’ but . . .

April 13, 2016

New Zealand’s contributions to greenhouse gas emissions are small on a global scale and, unusually for a developed country, a high proportion come from animals.

Millions of dollars is going into research which is showing promise but there is a road block to circumvent:

AgResearch scientists have developed a genetically modified ryegrass that cuts greenhouse gas emissions by up to 30% but biotechnology experts warn regulations could delay its use.

Though it has several environmental benefits and could boost production it faces regulatory hurdles here because it has been genetically engineered.

The scientists have shown in the laboratory the ryegrass, called High Metabolisable Energy (HME), can reduce methane emissions from animals by 15% to 30% while modelling suggests a reduction in nitrous oxide of up to 20%.

It has also shown resilience to dry weather and can increase milk production by up to 12%.

Environmentalists have berated agriculture for not reducing greenhouse gas emissions but if laboratory results are replicated in the field, HME could reignite the GM debate.

This reminds me of the question – what would an enviromentalists do if they saw an endangered bird eating an endangered plant? – but this isn’t a joke.

Research has produced grass which could reduce emissions and boost production but many of the people who are demanding urgent action on climate change are also likely to be opposed to this because it’s genetically modified.

AgResearch Grasslands principal plant biotechnology scientist Greg Bryan said HME could transform NZ farming by reducing its environmental footprint and improving animal productivity.

“The potential value to GDP based on modelling we have done is in the range of $2 billion to $5b a year in additional revenue depending on the adoption rate by farmers.”

But New Zealand’s regulations mean HME field trials would have to be done overseas then repeated here.

Earlier last week scientists and science leaders attending a NZ BIO symposium at Massey University warned NZ’s GM laws had not kept pace with technology such as gene editing.

Much of the developed world was embracing GM and while NZ scientists were leaders in this science, regulations might prevent its use.

New Zealand leads the world in many areas of agriculture but the blind opposition to GM is handicapping our scientists.

Approval for field trials was technically possible but realistically difficult, with restrictions that no reproductive material left the site, thus preventing plant breeding studies. 

In an interview after the symposium, Bryan said international science companies were not interested in a small, temperate, pastoral farming system, making HME a NZ solution to a NZ farming system problem.

The 15-year HME project cost AgResearch $24 million with another $24m expected to be spent before it was ready for commercialisation. . . 

Seed multiplication in containment glasshouses was under way ahead of field trials planned for 2018-19 and animal nutrition trials in 2020. Depending on those results approval would be sought for NZ trials.

Bryan said GM organisms had been used for over 20 years in agriculture and the growing number of products on the market had not caused health issues for humans or animals eating them. . . 

On the contrary, developments like golden rice have proven health benefits.

This grass is “green” but what’s the bet the people who consider themselves greenest will oppose further trials the most.

Caution with new technology is sensible, blind opposition is not.

 


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