As the Government moves to change regulations around the use of genetic technologies in New Zealand, scientists working to enhance food production are eyeing up opportunities to test their research outside of the lab.

Technologies such as genetic modification and gene editing have been the subject of debate for decades, but more recently there have been calls for changes to regulation to allow greater use in New Zealand. The coalition Government has signalled that a process to liberalise laws around use of these technologies is likely to begin later this year, with the introduction of legislation to Parliament.

These technologies can be used to change the DNA of a living organism, such as a plant or animal, through either inserting, replacing, or deleting genetic material. In New Zealand, current regulations do not allow the release of gene edited or genetically modified organisms without approval through a rigorous process. As a result, the research is largely confined to specialised containment labs and outdoor plant trials have instead been run offshore.

Scientists at Crown Research Institute, AgResearch, will be showcasing opportunities in pasture with genetic technologies, while also gauging peoples’ feelings about their use, when they front up at the upcoming National Fieldays(external link). Current research is looking at how enhanced pasture could provide increased productivity, livestock health, and reduced environmental impacts.

“Food production is facing many challenges worldwide. There is a growing population to feed and at the same time pressure to reduce environmental impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change,” says senior scientist and head of AgResearch subsidiary Grasslanz Technology, John Caradus.

“Tools such as genetic modification and gene editing may offer some solutions to help farmers and food producers reduce their environmental footprint while remaining productive and profitable. This is why we are doing the research, to see what is possible and what the benefits and risks are. In a New Zealand context, we also need to know that these solutions will work for farmers and growers in our unique conditions.”

Senior scientist Marissa Roldan working with the High-Condensed Tannins White Clover

The work AgResearch is doing with commercial partners includes the modification of ryegrass and white clover by introducing genes from other plants. The High Metabolisable Energy (HME) ryegrass – with increased fat content – is seen as having potential to reduce methane emissions from livestock by more than 10 per cent; as does the High-Condensed Tannins White Clover, which is also expected to reduce the incidence of bloat in livestock, a condition that can result in serious harm or death.
“We know climate change and building climate resilience is front of mind for many people now, so if there are further tools science can deliver to farmers to help with this, then it’s important we keep working at it,” says AgResearch chief scientist Axel Heiser.

In another programme using these technologies, endophytes (fungi) that live inside ryegrass are being gene-edited to maximise their ability to deter insect pests, while also reducing the toxicity they can sometimes cause in animals feeding on the endophyte-containing ryegrass. Ryegrass containing these gene edited endophytes is now being grown in outdoor trials in Australia, as is the High-Condensed Tannins White Clover.

Visitors to the AgResearch Fieldays stand, which is being shared this year with Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, will allow people to learn more about this work on pasture.
“We see the National Fieldays as a great opportunity to talk directly to farmers and other visitors about the work that is going on, and what the opportunities and risks are,” Heiser says.
“We know that having acceptance from farmers who may use the modified pasture, and other affected communities in New Zealand, will be critical as the landscape changes for use of these technologies. We'll be doing an informal poll to gauge people's thoughts on the issues. Additionally, the personal conversations we have with visitors will be extremely valuable.”

**The above article originally appeared in The Country/New Zealand Herald**

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