GM Grasses: Alternatives Can Match in Economic Performance

GM grass developers have a vision of converting half New Zealand’s pasture land to their new varieties – but our research highlights how little financial gain there would be from this and that non-GM grasses could deliver the same benefits that are envisaged without the huge market risks.

The Pastoral Genomics Consortium predicts a big economic payoff from GM grasses should it be able to deliver a commercial product a decade from now, as it plans.  Yet documents released to the Sustainability Council under the OIA show that even if the grasses can be delivered, the benefits to the nation are surprisingly thin – after something close to $50 million of taxpayer dollars have been invested in three separate research groups (see NZ GM Pasture Grass R+D).

And depending on what European supermarket chains consider qualifies as GM Free, New Zealand could in any case forgo hundreds of millions of dollars a year in lost sales revenue if it switched to GM grasses (see Betting the Farm).

How consumers in sensitive markets would regard a new type of GM that Pastoral Genomics is working with is a further consideration.  The consortium is using what it calls ‘cisgenics’ where they claim not to cross the species barrier.  Yet the process is still GM, and air-brushed descriptions of it have been used that seek to differentiate the product from GMOs (see Semantically Engineered Grasses).

Were cisgenic grasses to go into the field, another issue they raise is whether they would be detectable.  Being able to identify a particular GMO is the foundation of traceability, enabling safety monitoring and allowing producers to ensure supply chain integrity.  Would the EPA make the ability to detect a minimum condition of release? (See Hide and Seek).

Ultimately, New Zealand pastoral farming does not need to expose itself to the risks that accompany GM grasses – an alternative technique called marker assisted selection (MAS) could deliver equal economic benefits without triggering the type of consumer resistance that GM food has provoked.

MAS involves the same techniques that conventional breeders have long relied on, but takes some of the guess work out of traditional breeding by using gene sequencing to more quickly identify useful traits.  Pastoral Genomics has devoted a little over half its research budget to MAS and the balance to GM, so it could readily chose to focus on only grass varieties produced using MAS.


Key documents