The super-grass the politicians don't want to talk about
By Richard Harman (author)
Groundbreaking New Zealand research shows that methane production from livestock could be dramatically reduced with a new so-called pasture super-grass.
Such is the potential of the grass it could be the magic bullet the farming industry is looking for to prevent them having to cut cattle numbers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But because the strain has been developed using genetic modification, it cannot even be tested in New Zealand.
Yesterday, the outgoing Prime Minister's Chief Scientist, Sir Peter Gluckman, suggested it was time for a public debate on the use of GMOs because of the potential of the grass to combat greenhouse gas emissions.
However judging by their reactions yesterday, politicians are reluctant to have such a debate take place.
Climate Change Minister, James Shaw, despite a specific request from POLITIK for comment and his staff having undertaken to provide it, returned with a broad general statement on the whole report which did not mention GMOs.
Environment Minister David Parker provided a more nuanced statement which made the point that it was possible for an application for the grasses to be made under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act
The National Opposition, despite having a strong farmer base, offered no fiormal comment on the Gluckman report.
Gluckman argues that there are a range of future technologies which may help reduce methane emissions and thus offer an alternative to either reducing stock numbers or planting existing farmland in trees.
He says that it is noteworthy that many ruminants in Europe now routinely consume GM feeds.
But in New Zealand, even research on methane inhibiting grasses would need broad social license before any work was possible.
“Clearly social license for these technologies does not exist in New Zealand.
“However, given the progression of science on the one hand, and a broader understanding of the crisis of climate change on the other, not having a further discussion of these technologies at some point may limit our options.”
The Government agency, AgResearch is engaged in research on genetically modified pasture grasses and believes it may have made a significant breakthrough.
However, because of New Zealand's Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act it must conduct all of the field trials for its research in the United States where it says the regulatory environment is easier.
They have already found that genetically modified High Metabolisable Energy (HME) ryegrass has been shown in AgResearch’s laboratories to grow up to 50 per cent faster than conventional ryegrass, to be able to store more energy for better animal growth, to be more resistant to drought, and to produce up to 23 per cent less methane.
Modelling also predicts less nitrogen excreted into the environment by animals feeding on the ryegrass, and consequently less nitrate leaching and lower emissions of another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.
The field trials will be a long process though.
Development of the HME ryegrass is now progressing in the mid-west of the United States, where genetically modified organisms can be field tested outside the lab.
AgResearch principal scientist Dr Greg Bryan says the full growing trial began in the United States in June and will end in November.
“Animal feeding trials are planned to take place in two years, which we will need regulatory approvals for, and the information we get over the next two years will help us with our application for those feeding trials.”
While New Zealand has not yet approved the release of genetically modified crops, Dr Bryan says it is important that the science keeps our options open, and there is strong scientific evidence on any benefits or risks that policymakers can draw on.
“As the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification found, `it would be unwise to turn our backs on the potential advantages on offer’. We think the advantages here could be very significant – with modelling to date showing the HME ryegrass could boost farm revenues by as much as $900 per hectare, while providing a tool for farmers to manage nitrogen run-off and greenhouse gas emissions.”
“The Royal Commission also talked about the need to proceed with caution, minimising and managing risks – which is how we are approaching this work with the ryegrass. “
Gluckman says that all uses or rejections of any technology requires acknowledgement of the trade-offs being made.
“While there are many other possible trade-offs to consider, the potential role of advanced biological technologies in reducing the burden of pastoral GHGs needs to be considered alongside other options.”
A spokesperson for AgResearch confirmed that there are no current applications to do field trials for the grass in New Zealand.
But sooner or later the Government will have to confront the issue given that it is funding much of the research into the grass.
Environment Minister, David Parker, offered a non-committal reaction to the Gluckman report.
“Genetic modification and genetically modified organisms (are not banned in New Zealand, “he said.
“Those wanting to pursue GM trials can put in an application under our current law.
“Our existing regime takes a precautionary approach, and there are no plans to change it.
“Internationally there are a lot of genetic technology developments.
“These developments are changing what is possible across a range of industries and sectors.
“Officials at the Ministry for the Environment are monitoring these developments and their potential impacts for New Zealand.”
Despite a request from POLITIK, Climate Change Minister, James Shaw, did not address Gluckman’s comments on GM and instead issued a statement congratulating him on the report.
“Sir Peter’s report is being considered along with the advice and recommendations Government has been receiving from other agencies and sector groups, including the 15,000 submissions received during public consultations on the Zero Carbon Bill earlier this year, “he said.
National did not offer any formal reaction but their Climate Change spokesperson, Todd Muller, did appear on the radio show "The Muster“ and was questioned about the GM grass.
However, he was equally non-committal.
Muller said that one of the problems farmers who wanted to see the new grass used was that Fonterra had a lot of reluctance to accept the grass.
Muller conceded that the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, was now 22 years old but explicitly asked by host, Andy Thompson if National would change it, he said: "These are the sorts of things that we are reflecting on. “
There is obviously an unwillingness by National or Labour to re-ignite the GM debate, but Gluckman's report may just be the first of a growing amount of pressure from the farming community to allow the grass to be used to mitigate methane emissions. And that will mean confronting the GM issue.