Vandals revive GM debate

The destruction of 375 pine seedlings in Scion’s genetic modification (GM) field trial under containment at the end of the Easter break generated national interest. Little sympathy or support was expressed for those who put themselves above the law. The police are continuing their investigations, and Scion will be continuing the research.

Forest industry leaders unanimously condemned the vandalism and strongly reiterated their support for the research.

The anti-GM claim that the trial poses a risk to New Zealand’s biosecurity status is groundless. The trial was approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (formerly ERMA) following rigorous review of all aspects of the science (including submissions from opponents of GM) and an assessment of the benefits and risks. The trial is regularly monitored by MAF (now Ministry for Primary Industries). As one national newspaper commented, “The greatest environmental threat posed by the field trial of genetically modified pine trees at Rotorua was not the test itself, but the actions of those who risked the spread of GM material by breaking in and destroying the crop.” (The Dominion Post - 17 April 2012)

New Zealand has potential to gain more from GM technology than most countries because of its bio-based economy and environmental challenges with water, invasive pests and exotic diseases. For the same reason rigorous assessment of all risks is required before releasing GM livestock, crops and trees commercially. As Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, observed in his February 2010 report on “Climate Change and the scientific process;  “Science is a process based on questions leading to partial answers, in turn leading to more questions and more partial answers, and so forth. In complex systems, this rarely leads to absolute certainty, but much more often to a balance of probabilities. Science-based decisions that society has to make will always rely on weighing up the risks of acting versus those of not acting.” And, so it is with genetic modification of radiata pine – building on our previous research on the environmental impacts of this technology, local research is needed now to increase our understanding of potential GM benefits for forest productivity.

It is important to be aware of the timeframes for this research. It may be up to a decade before any commercial release and we can anticipate that knowledge about GM technology will more than double over this period. At that stage, industry and regulators armed with new knowledge and the extensive results from Scion’s field trials will be very well equipped to make an informed decision on whether to commence plantings of GM trees in our plantation forests. With New Zealand’s major future markets – China, India, the ASEAN economies, Australia and the Americas – already growing GM crops, and the time needed to harvest these trees, barriers to wood and fibre products made from GM trees in 2040+ would seem highly unlikely.

If a ‘bigger picture’ is viewed, by 2050 the world will need 70% more food production per year than it does now to feed a projected 9 billion people and with less land and likely less water than today. And, it will also need more fibre from renewable sources such as trees, smarter ways to deal with waste, weeds and pests; and non-oil, low carbon sources of energy. Without action, it is abundantly clear that pressure on natural ecosystems and biodiversity will intensify enormously compared to today. GM technology offers one means to achieve some of the resource efficiency and quality gains that will be necessary. For the anti-GM protestors to deny credible alternative solutions to these global challenges to humankind is both morally and scientifically irresponsible.

As I noted to the media at the time of the vandalism, Scion will not be deterred by those who put themselves above the law, lack the decency to respect years of careful work by dedicated scientists, or protest by non-democratic means.

Hei kona ra

Warren Parker 

Warren Parker
Chief Executive