GM Forages – out today from the Royal Society of New Zealand

This is the beast that’s stolen a fair chunk of the last five months of my life. It turns out that I’m pretty proud of it, after all.

News release – Royal Society of New Zealand paper highlights the potential benefits and possible risks of genetically modified forages
The paper itself – Emerging Issues – Genetically Modified Forages

So the paper in summary:

  • There is bugger all evidence that feeding cattle on GM forage is harmful to humans that eat those cattle.
  • The ecological effects of switching from non-GM grass to GM grass are trivial, compared with the ecological switching from grass to trees or other plants.
  • GM crops may reduce greenhouse gas emissions per cow, per pint of milk, or per burger, but that doesn’t mean our overall emissions will go down, coz our total production of milk and/or burgers may rise.
  • Growing some GM crops in NZ doesn’t stop NZ from growing non-GM food in NZ, at least in the eyes of some of the people we export to.
  • Yes, there’s lots of questions about IP, but that’s not RSNZ’s business to dig into.

Despite all that evidence, I’m personally still not convinced that it’s a good idea. The key question is who benefits? If GM crops deliver health benefits and environmental benfits, then go to it. However, most of the research is about increasing productivity. Better productivity doesn’t increase farm profits, as it drives the market price down. Better productivity doesn’t necessarily reduce environmental impacts, as it pushes production upwards. So there’s no guarantee of any wins here.

Anyway. Press coverage so far:
GE plants promoted as ‘cisgenic’ – NZ Herald
GE pastures on the cards for NZ farmers – TV3 News
Greener pastures? GM forage crops in New Zealand – Science Media Centre
And we got a item on Midday Report, but no audio up yet.

18 thoughts on “GM Forages – out today from the Royal Society of New Zealand

  1. The key question is who benefits?

    I seem to recall that one of the characteristics of GM corn is that it is sterile, and the farmers who are supposed to get the benefit of the greater robustness and productivity have to sacrifice much of that benefit to buying more seed for the next year. Which leads to the impression that the gain is mostly for the providers of the GM product, rather than for the users.

    Not having read your paper (yet) I can’t comment on your conclusions…

    1. Many commercial (non-GM) crops are from hybrid seed, and the seeds of these hybrid plants don’t produce true copies. So buying new seed every year is pretty common practice in agriculture already.

  2. Having only read the summary in this post I can see that you are going to be very popular amongst a particular brand of hippy come Friday…

    I’ll defend you though! If Jez sez it – it must be true!

    1. Err… is that the really hot kind of hippy with loose sexual morals and regular washing habits?

      I only write these heavily-footnoted and thoroughly researched papers to get chicks.

  3. Remind me again – why would you* want them to reproduce?

    Where “you” means a company that’s spending billions on researching this stuff and would like to a return on that investment.

  4. 1) Riiight.
    2) OMG hippies! Run for the hills, coz … oh no, wait. Ah it’s only silly hippies. Fuckem.
    3) And the share-holder value of this “conscience” thing is?

  5. You’ve convinced me. But can you convince Waitrose’s customers?

    NZ agriculture has, I think, the impediment of relatively high labour and freight costs. For this reason, it probably makes sense to target quality conscious customers willing to pay a premium for a (perceived) “better” product. At the moment, GM products are seen as a consumer negative.

    The other side to this is that if GM strains can intersperse themselves into non-GM crops and be detected as such, that will reduce the value of the crop. Would the cultivation of GM crops be viable if farmers are required to pay compensation if this occurs and insure against that risk?

    1. Depends. Some nations accept a certain level of GM presence in non-GM crops, EU accepts none. So one grain of GM corn in a tanker can get that tanker sent back to Brazil. Is that a sensible response to the risk?

      1. Maybe not. But the EU is the world’s largest economy, and its leaders are to some extent reacting to the views of its people.

        It seems to me that any policy needs to be informed by the predelictions of our customers. If produce is devalued in the market by having GM content, then that needs to be considered.

          1. I guess my point, and this may not apply to forage crops, is this example:

            Farmer Bill grows GM corn.

            Next door, Farmer Giles grows “organic” corn, which he sells at a premium to rich European hippies.

            If the GM corn sneaks into the hippy corn, does Farmer Bill have to pay Farmer Giles for the loss (the difference between the premium and commodity prices). And should he be required to insure against this risk?

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