ERMA’s summary of its decision to approve the field trialling of GM brassica crops makes clear just how few benefits are expected to result from the exercise.

ERMA confirms in this written decision that the only benefits that can be expected are a “minimal” contribution to scientific knowledge and “minimal at most” upgrading of the skills of individual scientists.

ERMA’s advisors had classified these benefits into categories with a total maximum value of around $500,000 and made clear that their risk-weighted value would be a fraction of this. Such prospective benefits compare very poorly with the undisclosed budget for the ten-year trial that will likely cost several million dollars, based on similar past studies.

Funding of this magnitude for a GMO development will inevitably crowd out research into alternative means of enhancing productivity for the same brassica plants (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale). However, ERMA’s decision does not factor in the value of such lost research. Commenting on this stance, ERMA states that “it is not [ERMA’s] role to influence funding allocation decisions either by the applicant or by external funding sources through decisions on applications”.

Yet it is ERMA’s role to make an independent assessment. When the last GM field trial application came before it three years ago, ERMA narrowly approved the GM onion trial but noted that: “The uncertainty about the long term environmental benefits of herbicide-tolerance technology invites the conclusion that this is not a soundly based use of research funding”.

This time ERMA pulled its punches but the implication is the same. Government funds are being ploughed into trials of GM varieties that have scant potential benefit beyond the scientists undertaking the work and the applicant – the parties ERMA identifies as the prime beneficiaries of any additional scientific knowledge. ERMA further acknowledges that these particular scientists are not guaranteed to remain in the country to provide a return on the investment.

Given that the benefits are so slight in comparison to the funds committed, it is regrettable ERMA’s decision provided no quantification of the benefits, or estimates of the value lost as a result of alternative research not proceeding, so that at least those numbers could speak if ERMA will not.

The ERMA decision is available here.