It hasn’t been a great year for New Zealand’s genetic modification research efforts, even if viewed from a purely “PR” point of view.

Last December, the anti-GM environmental group the Soil & Health Association of New Zealand had a poke around Crop & Food’s GM brassica trial going on at the company’s campus at Lincoln near Christchurch and found a flowering kale plant where it shouldn’t have been. As a result of the ensuing investigation, the 10 year trial of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and forage kale was abandoned in February, around 2 years into its consent period. A lot of investment that ultimately came from us the tax payers, came to nothing.

Soil & Health’s Steffan Browning later told me the discovery was a bit of a fluke, but it showed that an unofficial, self-appointed watchdog was studying GM trials in New Zealand like a hawk, and quite rightly pointing out where containment wasn’t 100 per cent airtight.

Still it was a set-back for the scientific community’s efforts to progress GM research here. The perception is that the New Zealand public is incredibly wary of GM and a determined group of activists including Browning and his comrade-in-arms, Claire Bleakley of GE Free NZ, are determined to prevent the commercial release of GM organisms.

It means that any minor transgression in GM research is amplified by these groups, adding to the perception that GM is something we need to keep a lid on. So a second probe by MAF Biosecurity into a GM plant breach at Lincoln is pretty worrying news for scientists working in the field.

What third party?

On the face of it, this breach looks less serious – scientists approached by the Science Media Centre said the risk of these self-pollinating plants spreading quickly over large distances is low. But seedlings discovered by Plant & Food staff and tested by MAF were indeed found to have genetically modified “constructs”. That means they shouldn’t have been there.

Plant & Food’s chief executive Peter Landon-Lane told The Press:

“It is unclear how these seedlings came to be outside the facility as they do not match to any work Plant & Food Research has done. There is evidence suggesting they have come from a third party.”

So where did they come from? The arabidopsis plants analysed by MAF are very commonly used in genetic studies – a colleague at the SMC was working with them at university while completing her microbiology degree, so perhaps they originated from studies undertaken by researchers at Lincoln University, which shares a campus with Plant & Food.

There are other research campuses in the area, but its unlikely they are involved in GM research involving these types of plants.

Close the glasshouse door!

If the plants definitely do contain GM constructs, as subsequent testing will confirm, it will be important,  for the integrity of containment programmes underway at research institutions based at Lincoln and the rest of the country, to find out exactly where they came from and how they came to be growing outside of a containment facility.

A lot of containment facilities used in GM trials here and abroad are no more than glasshouses – the photo below is of a glasshouse at the John Innes Centre in the UK I visited earlier in the year where scientists are splicing genes from the snapdragon flower into tomatoes. Taking a tomato or some tomato seeds out of the glasshouse, we were told, would have constituted a breach of the rules and caused all sorts of hassle for the researchers, but overall, the approach to containment was fairly common sense. We could have carried material out on our shoes but the risk from that was obviously deemed low.

New Zealand faces stricter containment rules than other countries when it comes to GM trials. Given the intense scrutiny of the current trials underway here by environmental groups its paramount that the organisations involved uphold these high standards. If they don’t they face more serious knockbacks on the road to commercialising their research.

john innes glasshouse