Monday, February 26, 2024

GMOs a world food solution, not a problem

Neal Wallace
Ag Symposium taken through 40 years of GM developments.
National’s Judith Collins says New Zealand is a global leader in ag-tech, but will not remain so without changes to the rules around genetic engineering, modification and editing.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Genetically modified products will be part of but not the complete solution to solving many of the world’s current and looming food and environmental problems, a leading scientist says.

Professor Richard Macknight, from the University of Otago’s Department of Biochemistry, said 40 years after genetic modification (GMO) technology was first adopted, scientists and researchers can confidently say it is safe.

“The technology is safe and the crops produced are safe to eat.”

Macknight told an Agriculture Symposium at the University of Otago that the green revolution which began in 1968 successfully fed a growing global population with affordable, nutritious food through efficiency, innovation and new plant varieties.

But those systems are high input and rely on fertiliser, herbicides and pesticides, and now the hunt is on for more sustainable methods – where GMOs have a part to play. 

He said GMOs saved the Hawaiian papaya industry, which had faced decimation from ringspot virus.

Elsewhere in the world, vitamin A has been added to rice, called Golden Rice, to enhance the health of those in developing countries, and extra iron is being added to wheat to address iron deficiency, something affecting 2 billion consumers.

Scientists in the United States are using GMOs to improve the digestibility of alfalfa and others are looking for ways to reduce fertiliser reliance and improve drought resilience.

Globally, GMOs have been planted on 200 million hectares or 12% of arable land, an expansion that has led scientists to confidently conclude the technology is safe, something Macknight said they could not have said in the 1990s.

Most early GMO crops were developed by multinationals and focused on soybeans, cotton, maize and canola.

Macknight said understandably this created suspicion and uncertainty among the New Zealand public in the lead-up to the 2001 NZ Royal Commission on GMOs.

Technology has changed dramatically since then, but the commission’s conclusion – to proceed with caution – is too high a bar today, and leads research entities such as AgResearch and Scion to conduct trials offshore.

“We can’t do that in NZ, it is too complicated to go through the regulatory hurdles.”

That could change with the coalition government committed to reviewing the GMO rules.

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