The Royal Society’s dispassionate summary of the potential benefits and risks of planting crops of GM forage for farm animals to feed on makes for interesting reading, thought its lack of recommendations on a way forward for GM in New Zealand may leave you wondering what the message from science actually is.

At the Science Media Centre we held a briefing today for journalists, featuring three of the co-authors of the paper. You can listen back to their presentations and the Q&A with journalists at the end here. Bottom line is that the scientists believe that after 10 years of intensive farming of GM crops around the world – 143 million hectares of GM crops were planted last year alone – the overwhelming scientific evidence suggests that genetically modified crops are safe to grow and consume. But that hasn’t really seen industry and public perception of genetically modified organisms shift dramatically in favour of the technology being used.

Source: Pastoral Genomics

Source: Pastoral Genomics

As Lincoln University’s Caroline Saunders pointed out in her presentation, opposition to GM at an industry level is on the increase in the US and the European Union where the high-value premium sectors of the market are anti-GM, because animal meat reared on GM crops often sells for less. As an example given by Professor Saunders, she points to GM corn-fed beef going for eight per cent less than its non-GM equivalent.

Research also suggests that what consumers are willing to accept when it comes to GM is complex – if GM traits make food healthier or reduce the impact on the environment they are more accepting of it than if GM traits reduce prices. Some New Zealand research referenced by Professor Saunders suggests a fairly high level of rejection (40 – 45 per cent of those surveyed) of products with beneficial GM traits, say butter with less cholesterol or insect resistant sweetcorn. As such, whatever justifications scientists can put forward for genetically modified crops, in this case, GM forage crops, won’t necessarily hugely influence whether consumers are accepting of it.

There was much discussion in the briefing of the difference between cisgenic and transgenic modification, which guest blogger Jack Heinneman recently examined in a series on Sciblogs. Pastoral Genomics’ Dr Michael Dunbier outlined the reasons for pursuing research into GM forage crops (see his presentation below). One striking image he put up on his slide shows GM ryegrass engineered to be drought resistant. The plants are visibly much better off that those unmodified plants. But if many scientists are keen to get moving here on GM crops most are realistic that due to the issues mentioned above, a commercial release of a GM forage crop which could become the basis of feed for millions of cows and sheep, is still some way off. In Dr Dunbier’s estimation, the earliest commercialisation could be in 2017 – 2018.

An NZPA report on the briefing.