Finding GeMO

By Robert Hickson 07/09/2012

Some of the keynote speakers at the recent Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference brought to mind the scene in Finding Nemo of the three sharks grinning at Marlin and Dory. Not, I hasten to add, because I view Monsanto, Du Pont, et al., as sharks out to gobble us, or NZ’s agriculture up. Or that I view GMOs as dangerous beasts.

Rather because after over a decade of contentious argument here about the promise and perils of genetic modification in agriculture not much seems to have been changed in the approach. The messenger can be more important than the message. Rather than big corporations, its the little guys and gals that people often want to hear from. So a lost opportunity to present a point of view that doesn’t play to stereotypes.

The protests against GMO trials in the UK earlier this year didn’t gain traction because of how the scientists involved made efforts to explain their research to the public. NZ scientists are doing this here too, but it is a hard and thankless task.

I’m not going to discuss here the pros and cons of GMOs in food. It is still a dynamic situation internationally, with Europe seeming to become more receptive at the government level, while India is going the other way and citizen referenda in the US are pushing for labelling.

Genetic modification is progressing along other fields. The first drug produced from GM plants (or rather carrot cells) has been approved for use. It is being considered as a means to control malaria and is already being deployed to control west nile virus.

Gene therapy has had success in treating hemophilia in a trial and another  treatment for a rare disease is close to being approved in Europe. There is speculation about use of “gene doping” in sport now or in the future.

Synthetic biology is developing rapidly, moving on from just producing fuels to other more valuable chemicals. The US military is a big supporter of synthetic biology, funding programs to develop fuels, medicines and other things.  University teams are also increasingly sophisticated in using synthetic biology to create solutions to a range of challenges. Unsurprisingly, some groups are concerned about the use of synthetic biology and are calling for a moratorium.

So gene technologies are progressing on many fronts. Whether NZ will use it for food production in the short to medium term is uncertain. An important determinant will be the attitudes of the overseas markets our foods go to, and they remain cautious. Another critical factor will be the value proposition for genetic modification – will its use add substantial value (economic or otherwise) to what we produce? It seems more likely other types of genetic modification may be used here first. It will be interesting to see what the Minister for the Environment decides about the current regulatory system.  [Disclosure: I contributed to one of the reports MfE commissioned].