It was fairly predictable that Dr Nina Fedoroff’s comments about genetic modification during her visit to New Zealand this week would raise the hackles of anti-GM group GE Free NZ.

Nina Fedoroff - GM advocate

Nina Fedoroff - GM advocate

It was also ironic that Fedoroff, Hillary Clinton’s science and technology advisor, arrived just as GE Free New Zealand went back to court where Crown research institute AgResearch was seeking to overturn a decision that last year saw its applications to undertake GM research across a range of species withdrawn.

Fedoroff is an expert in plant genetics, author of a book on genetic modification and an unabashed advocate of the technology. This New York Times piece gives Federoff’s take on GM, which can be summed up with this quote from her:

“There’s almost no food that isn’t genetically modified. Genetic modification is the basis of all evolution.

“Things change because our planet is subjected to a lot of radiation, which causes DNA damage, which gets repaired, but results in mutations, which create a ready mixture of plants that people can choose from to improve agriculture.

“In the last century, as we learned more about genes, we were able to devise ways of accelerating evolution.

“So a lot of modern plant strains were created by applying chemicals or radiation to cause mutations that improved the crop. That’s how plant breeding was done in the 20th century. The paradox is that now that we’ve invented techniques that introduce just one gene without disturbing the rest, some people think that’s terrible.”

Fedoroff’s presentation Rethinking Agriculture in a Changing Climate (see  a version of it below – minus the video clips) formed the basis of her public lecture at the University of Auckland on Wednesday and also forms the bones of her pro-GM justifications, which focus on food security and the challenges faced by the world of feeding more people using less arable land.

It is the “accelerating evolution” using genetic modification that has been such a touchy subject in New Zealand, and while it wasn’t top of the agenda as Fedoroff met some of the country’s top scientists in a series of high-level discussions, her message will certainly be getting sympathetic nods from scientists she has met this week who are extremely limited in the GM research they can do and who have been unable to get a commercial release of a GMO of any kind in New Zealand, after decades of effort. AgResearch chief executive Andrew West went as far this week as to suggest scientists have a moral obligation to pursue GM technology.

“If genetic modification can create more food from fewer inputs, I think we have a moral obligation to use it. With our current product mix, New Zealand can feed 17 million people,” Dr West said.

Fedoroff is well aware of the antipathy to GM in New Zealand. But she believes public sentiment on GM may shift as rising demand puts pressure on food prices. She told the Herald:

“Stay tuned … dug-in positions can change quite rapidly.”