Forbidden Fruit: Genetically Engineered crops in New Zealand

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I walked into the gleaming ‘Orchard in a box”, a closed greenhouse where no pollen can flow outside. The apple was red, red, red inside and out and I wanted it. But because I was in New Zealand, where experimenting with genetically engineered food is highly regulated, tasting was banned.

How was this forbidden fruit created? By overexpression of an apple transcription factor in the white-fleshed, tasty Royal Gala variety. The transcription factor was isolated from an apple that has both red flesh and red skin, that occurs in Central Asia. However, these apples are normally quite bitter tasting so some genetic manipulation was needed to create a new variety that was red but had good flavor.

The GE apple carries at least 5000x more anthocyanins than the Royal Gala. The work was led by Andrew Allan at Plant & Food Research, a non-profit research institute in New Zealand. Richard Espley, a molecular biologist at Plant & Food Research, was named one of the MacDiarmid Young Scientists of the Year for his work in apple genetics. The Plant and Food scientists are also trying to develop a red-fruited Royal Gala using marker assisted breeding but do not yet have a commercially viable product.

Take a look at this great video describing their work:

By the way, if I had not been able to resist temptation, and had bit into the apple (without approval from ERMA, the Regulatory Authority) then I would have faced prison and/or a personal fine of $500,000 and the Institute would have been fined $10 million. The researchers did attempt to get permission but after two years of waiting and application costs of around $18,000, they gave up and flew to California (known widely for our permissive culture) for a taste-testing instead. The result? The apples were delicious and the researchers survived to tell the tale.

While in New Zealand, I also gave a public lecture at the Royal Society in Wellington. I spoke about the science behind seed development (GE, marker assisted breeding, mutageneis, hybridization etc) and made the point, which every farmer knows well, that seed is only part of the story. Farming practices are equally important, especially when it comes to caring for the land and reducing loss to insects and disease. I included examples from the US where GE has enhanced goals of sustainable agriculture (BT cotton, GE papayas, etc). I received many good questions including:

Can insect evolve resistance to BT? (answer: yes they can evolve resistance to both sprayed BT and genetically engineered BT. In both cases integrated pest management approaches are critical to delay resistance).

Does GE interfere with a farmer’s ability to manage a complex farm ecosystem? (Answer: yes if he/she relies only on the seed and ignores farming practices).

Do the high regulatory costs prevent growers in NZ from accessing the technology? (answer: yes. Regulatory costs are so high that it is difficult for breeders working in the public domain on small acreage crops to commercialize new varieties).

Is Bt cotton safe for the environment (answer: yes. Scientific reviews over 50 years of use have concluded that Bt is safe for the environment and human health. Organic growers have been using it for 50 years with no ill-effects).

How can you be sure that GE cotton reduces insecticide use? (answer: Because growers use fewer synthetic insecticides. This has been extensively documented in the scientific literature).

A few audience members were not pleased with my presentation and said so very often and very loudly until the moderator intervened and asked them to sit down so others could ask questions. More on this below the fold.

You can hear more about genetics and sustainable agriculture by tuning into my interview with Kim Hill of Radio New Zealand. This was one of the most fun interviews I have ever done- Kim has tremendous energy, fantastic facial expressions and asks good questions.

If you cannot get enough of this debate. you can also check out my interview with the US Ambassador, read articles published in the New Zealand Herald and in the Dominion Post. There were a few letters to the editor, too.

And for a more amusing take on the subject check out this article, which suggests Raoul and I are as odd a couple as Felix Unger and Oscar Madison.

On the visit, I learned a lot about how talented NZ scientists are innovating to advance the sustainability of their own farming systems. Pastoral genomics, a New Zealand research consortium for forage genetics, has developed drought tolerant rye grass (85% of the pasture land is NZ is seeded with a mixture of ryegrass and clover). Planting of this GE grass is predicted to extend the grazing season a few more weeks. This would reduce the use of supplemental palm kernel feed. (Full disclosure my trip was sponsored by Pastoral genomics).

It seems enhanced nitrogen use efficiency would also be quite useful for sheep farmers. Now, many New Zealanders use quite a bit of synthetic fertilizer which runs off into streams. Any reduction would enhance the sustainability of the grazing system, an important component of NZ agriculture.

There are also insects and diseases infecting potatoes (psyllid), clover (clover root weevil, grass grub and clover mosaic virus) and kiwi fruits (Pseudomonas) that are currently difficult to control that are subject of scientific investigation.

My talk in Wellington included the idea that GE crops could be useful for enhancing agricultural sustainability for some farmers in some countries in some instances (eg. my examples included GE papaya and GE cotton). This fairly benign statement led to a press release suggesting that I was a stealth agent of the US government and had been “internationally discredited”. For proof, you need only look at Wikileaks.

Who knew?

In response to their strangely jumbled press release, they received several comments on their blog:

“I too was at Professor Ronald’s presentation yesterday and thought her message was clear – that the focus should be on the outcome we are trying to achieve in terms of sustainability and that, once we have defined that, THEN lets look at the tools at our disposal to achieve this. These ‘tools’ could be from organics, conventional or from new technologies such as GE – or a combination.

Her other message (which she made repeatedly) was that when debating the use of technologies you have to be very specific about what plant or growing system you’re talking about. To say ‘GE is bad’ or ‘organics won’t produce enough to feed the world’ is all too easy – and wrong. GE cotton has allowed for the halving of pesticide use for that crop – and some organic crops are highly productive.

What was clear is that those purporting to represent the organic industries in the room found this fairly balanced suggestion difficult to accept. I felt their philosophical blinkers were well and truly in place. This was a pity as one of Prof Ronald’s other messages was that to create truly sustainable agriculture all parties have to come to the table and talk.

And lastly Professor Ronald is married to Raoul Adamchak – a long time organic farmer and teacher of organic production at Davis University in California – who co-authored the book ‘Tomorrow’s Table’. It’s worth a read as it sets out far more clearly than this comment or Mr Brownings comments above, what Prof Ronald and Raoul Adamchak are trying to say… “

And here is another Anonymous comment:

“It seems strange to me that Mr Browning above, speaking for Soil & Health – Organic NZ and it seems for everyone in New Zealand with an interest in organics could be so closed minded.

These seem to be reasonable and rational points to discuss – i.e. what is the best approach and maybe it is not simply one or the other – at least discussing it rather than sticking our heads in the sand might achieve some common understanding. It was good to see that the Royal Society was open minded enough to invite all sides of the spectrum for the discussion.

Born a few thousand years ago Mr Browning probably would have also spoken out against traditional hybrids and cross pollination of plants too and possibly the advances of medical science and the notion that the world was round and not flat!”

Thank you, anonymous commenters, for setting the record straight.

Follow Pamela Ronald:

Pamela Ronald is Professor of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis, where she studies the role that genes play in a plant’s response to its environment. Her research focuses on the genetics of rice. With her husband, she co-wrote Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. She writes a blog of the same name.