No Environmental Impact from Genetically Modified Research Trees

2 May 2008

New Zealand’s most comprehensive, independent scientific field trial of genetically modified trees has been completed, with results showing no environmental impact from the trial and no evidence of gene transfer to other organisms.

Scientists at the site of Crown Research Institute Scion’s genetic modification field trial were today celebrating the end of a successful scientific trial and the contribution the results will make to the ongoing discussion on genetic modification in New Zealand.

The research trial was installed in Rotorua in 2003 with the express purpose of assessing the impacts, if any, of transgenic trees on the environment. The trees had been modified with genes known as “reporter and selection genes” and genes related to reproductive development. These genes have distinct qualities that allowed their behaviour to be traced by scientists, as the trees grew.

Results to date show:
  • No evidence of the modified genes having transferred to other organisms.
  • No evidence of detrimental impact on insect diversity by the genetically modified pine.
  • No evidence of impacts on the microorganism populations that live in close association with the pine roots.
  • The expression of introduced genes is stable over several years.

Scion chief executive Dr Tom Richardson says that despite attempts by some groups to derail the science, the trial has been a success.

“The most important outcome from this is that New Zealanders have access to unbiased, comprehensive scientific information that can be used to inform the discussion on genetic modification,” he says.

“We are now able to provide scientific, valid information on the risks associated with the introduction of transgenic trees that is specific to New Zealand.

“The results from this research trial support the argument that genetically modified trees are low-risk and can be safely introduced into the environment, without having a negative effect on other organisms.

“What’s more, genetic modification can be used safely and effectively to add value to the forestry industry by strengthening specific traits in trees, which in turn could lead to environmental benefits such as increased carbon sequestration, increased feedstock options for the sustainable production of biofuels and by making a positive contribution to the mitigation of climate change.”

In 2000, the New Zealand government established a Royal Commission on Genetic Modification of Organisms (GMO). A key finding of the Commission was that there is nothing inherently unsafe about genetic engineering and that New Zealand should maintain its opportunities to develop plant and medical biotechnology based on GMOs.

The Commission concluded that New Zealand should proceed to explore genetic modification carefully, minimising and managing risks. It specifically identified a need for research into the environmental impacts of GM.

The trial specifically addressed this area in response to many of the concerns raised about genetic modification – concerns that modified genes could be inadvertently transferred from transgenic plants, into the wider environment.

Dr Richardson says: “In the case of this trial, our results show that this did not occur. The trial has been monitored for nearly five years and there is no evidence of gene transfer into other organisms, or negative impact in the soil environment or insect population in and around the trial site.

Despite the end of the trial, monitoring at the site will continue for another two years even after the trees have been removed, aimed at detecting any potential gene transfer. The site will continue to be monitored by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF), whose role it is to ensure the trial complies with the standards set out by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA).