Stuff - Adopt GE or risk falling behind competitors: Federated Farmers president

Written by Pat Deavoll

New Zealand could fall behind its agricultural competitors if it does not adopt genetic engineering (GE) of plants and livestock.

Federated Farmers national president Katie Milne said, although New Zealand had always been a leader in rural production, that didn't mean it would stay there. 

"If our competitors are going to be able to use GE and we are not, we risk falling behind everyone else," she said.

"Others have looked to what New Zealand is doing and what they can adopt to help their farmers. They are creeping up on us and a couple have superseded us due to low grain prices. We are not the lowest-cost producer we once were.

"GE is effectively selective breeding, which is an old technology we all use to improve the productivity of our cows, plants etc. Being able to speed this up would help keep us competitive. There are already countries that use this technology."

Milne said AgResearch had developed grasses using GE with higher metabolised energy, meaning they were more efficient for sheep or cattle to eat. These were being trialled overseas.

Animals could eat less for the same live weight gain; grasses contained a high metabolisable energy (HME) system giving them a 20 per cent increase in photosynthesis and in-vitro rumen investigations had measured a 15-23 per cent decrease in methane production.

"Which means less methane and nitrogen out the back which in turn means there is more efficiency with lowering greenhouse gases," Milne said.

"These plants are more efficient with water so they are more drought tolerant and use less water in their life cycle. That's an example of something that would have quite a production benefit to New Zealand.

"We are trying to do more with less with production these days and get into those higher value markets. If you have lower greenhouse gas emissions that helps you to extract more out of the market because you are meeting higher standards."

Federated Farmers was supportive of the discussion paper released by the Royal Society Te Aparangi which aimed to continue a national conversation about the use of gene editing in primary industry.

The paper said it believed now was a good time for New Zealanders to consider what these technologies could offer.

"Even though the paper talks a lot about enhancing different types of production, we think there is also plenty of scope for discussion about other potential benefits from gene editing,"  Milne said.

"And these benefits aren't all on-farm uses. These are benefits for the entire community."

Milne said Federated Farmers was particularly excited about the possibilities around using gene editing to control pests, especially wilding pines, possums and stoats.

"These pests have been costing us millions and millions for years."

But to be predator-free by 2050 will require some "pretty clever" science, she said.