Opinion piece by AgResearch principal scientist Nick Roberts: The use of genetic technologies is a well-traversed issue and working in research with these technologies, we are used to hearing from people with strong views.

The difficulty is that not all of those views expressed about genetic modification or gene editing are based on evidence, or the reality of how these technologies are being used.

Having worked at AgResearch since the inception of the High Metabolisable Energy (HME) ryegrass programme, I’ve seen plenty of takes that seem informed more by belief than fact.

For those unfamiliar with the HME ryegrass, it is a grass that has been modified by inserting two genes from other plants to increase and stabilise the fat content in the leaves.

This increase in fats, which cannot realistically be achieved in the same way through traditional plant breeding, adds significantly to the nutrition and energy available to the livestock feeding on the grass.

Modelling tells us that this increase in fat content is also likely to lead to reductions in methane emissions from those animals that feed on the ryegrass. So far, our estimates are based on work in the lab, but we are looking forward to testing this by feeding ensiled ryegrass to lambs later this year.

Much of the work to date on the HME ryegrass has been in the lab or outdoors in the United States, due to the nature of the current regulation of genetically modified organisms in New Zealand.

AgResearch principal scientist Nick Roberts

Recently, in an opinion piece published in the Farmers Weekly(external link), president of GE Free New Zealand, Claire Bleakley made several inaccurate or misleading claims about the HME ryegrass programme, as part of a broader pushback against use of genetic technologies in New Zealand.

One central claim was that growing trials for the HME ryegrass in the United States “were so poor they failed to yield enough dry matter for the animal feeding trial they aimed to conduct”.

Despite significant climatic differences being the US and New Zealand, the yields achieved in the US were actually in line with expectation. Most importantly, the outdoor growing trials in the US proved to us that the mechanism that increases the fats in the ryegrass does work in conditions outside the lab.

Animal feeding was never the purpose of the trials in the US. Yet even growing the ryegrass indoors in New Zealand we will have enough to do a limited animal feeding trial later this year.
Claire goes on to call any GM field trials by AgResearch or other crown research institutes, a “commercial failure” because the plants “were riddled with unknown diseases and failed to grow”.

I won’t speak for other institutes, but such claims about HME ryegrass are simply untrue. There is no “unknown disease”.  We are talking here about products that are still being researched and developed before we can get a true sense of what the commercial return may be.

The continued involvement of a major seed company, PGG Wrightson Seeds, in the research programme is further evidence that there is confidence that the HME ryegrass has no unknown disease or yield concerns.

It is true that a significant amount of time and money goes into research programmes like these, but that is because the work is highly complex, and costs are many times greater when working within the current regulations in New Zealand. Equally, the payoff when products like these are commercialised can be game-changing, both for productivity and the environment we live in.

In an ideal world, as scientists we would keep our heads down focused on the research to prove what a product like HME ryegrass can offer us.

But when taxpayer money is being invested in the research, alongside funding from commercial partners, it is important that people know that not every claim they read or hear is based in fact.

**The above article was originally published in the Farmers Weekly**

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