Hard News by Russell Brown


Clover It

Back when the debate over genetic modification was at its most furiously political, I ventured that at some point the Green Party would be confronted by a GM technology whose environmental benefits were so compelling that its blanket opposition to the use of such technologies would be seriously challenged.

We could now be looking at such a technology. Yesterday, AgResearch announced a method for developing a white clover whose leaves contain a much higher level of "condensed tannins" than the varieties currently used for grazing.

These tannins bind to and prevent early breakdown of proteins in the gut of ruminant animals. The upshot is a direct reduction in the production of methane in those animals' digestive process. That single greenhouse gas is reckoned to be responsible for 90% of the emissions from out agricultural sector, which itself accounts for 43% of our national emissions. That's massive.

The Greens' response, via co-leader Russel Norman, has been remarkably weak. His media release, headed 'GE clover doesn’t have four leaves', mirthfully informs us that "GE clover isn’t going to be the lucky shamrock for New Zealand’s climate change woes," but is weak on substance.

Other means of curbing emissions proposed by Norman, will help but they will also come with costs. Remarkably, Norman proposes "bought-in feeds" – trucked to the farm gate, presumably – as an alternative to pasture.

Norman closes not with an argument, but a slogan: "GE needs to stay in the lab, and should not be released into our fields."

Nandor Tanczos, in his blog on TV3's website, is more thoughtful, and notes that the new clover would offer animal welfare benefits (it would not produce the painful and sometimes deadly bloat that can afflict cows that feed on clover) and would increase yields of milk and beef. He also says the emergent method is "intragenic" (the useful gene comes from another pastoral legume) rather than transgenic.

But then he serves up this confused paragraph:

This approach only makes sense, however, if all concerns about genetic engineering are irrational by which term I do not mean spurious. If the concern is solely about inappropriate boundary crossing then intragenic genetic engineering must be acceptable. However the genetic engineering debate was never just about emotion versus science.

Er, what? No GM method is acceptable unless "all concerns about genetic engineering are irrational"? What does that even mean?

Is it not more rational to continue to develop and study this new method for the 10-15 years it will take to come to market? To consider the evidence and thus make a decision? Especially given that the problem this technology seeks to address is almost unfathomably serious?

I do actually value the advocacy of those who are cautious about GM technologies. It has helped establish a precautionary principle in this field that some early adopters of GM plants might envy.

But when Norman insists on using words like "contaminate" and, on 3 News, "pollute", he's mounting every bit as much of an emotional argument as the right-wingers who demand social and justice policies unsupported by evidence.

Remarkably, the 3 News story also contains this passage:

Although AgResearch is talking genetic modification, the process doesn’t involve another species – just two types of clover.

Greenpeace is relatively relaxed about it.

"It looks like it’s not our version of genetic modification,” says Greenpeace GE campaigner Carmen Gravatt.

“So in terms of all the scale of options you could have in addressing climate change, this is certainly not the Frankenstein version.

“If it is genetically engineered, we shouldn’t go near it."

Scientists in the field will doubtless harrumph at that still.

But I think we can already say that this isn't an argument about science – it's an argument about Green Party policy. And they need to do a bit more than shout slogans this time.

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