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Top UK Scientist Urges NZ to Keep Open Mind on GM

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 Speaking as New Zealand authorities decide whether to allow GM goats, sheep and cows at a Hamilton research facility, Professor John Beddington, who is science adviser to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, said that classifying GM as either 'good' or 'bad' was "profoundly silly".

The New Zealand Court of Appeal this week overturned a High Court decision to block four other applications by AgResearch to the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) to use animals to make a range of medical and health products. Anti-GM group GE-free is considering an appeal to the Supreme Court.

In an interview with the Herald before the decision was released, Professor Beddington said biotechnology, including GM, had a role to play in food production. "We've got to think of these things on a case-by-case basis." If, for example, a particular problem - whether it was of a plant disease or a particularly harsh environment - could be solved with GM technology, it should be considered, he said.

Advocates of GM plants say they could be used to help solve looming crises of water shortages and climate change. New Zealand researchers hope to develop GM animals that could provide milk proteins to treat rare human diseases. But critics say the benefits of GM plants and animals have either not been proven or could be gained equally well by traditional selective breeding and laboratory trials.

Professor Beddington, who is a population biologist by training and an influential figure in the UK, has been quoted in British media as supporting a "GM revolution" in food crops. But he told the Herald his comments were misrepresented. His view was that the benefits should be carefully weighed, as with all new biotechnology.

Otago University genetics researcher Jack Heinemann said research on the safety of GM pasture crops should be beefed up before scientists "rushed" to commercialise it. He said safety testing was almost always carried out by companies hoping to profit from GM crops, because they alone owned the rights to the genetically modified material.

New Zealand's acceptance of GM is expected to be put to the test in coming years when companies apply to release GM pasture grasses. At least two major research consortiums in New Zealand are preparing to seek their release: PGG Wrightson has been working with Australian scientists on GE ryegrass, and Fonterra and AgResearch have worked with other partners on both clover and ryegrass, and Fonterra has funded its own research into ryegrass.

Any release of pasture crops would be seen as a turning point because it would be difficult to contain the genetically modified pollen, which can travel for kilometres. Erma is considering an application by Agresearch to carry out contained trials on milk-producing cows, goats and sheep.

A recent Royal Society report noted that GM clover and ryegrass were being promoted in some quarters as "cisgenic" - engineered without using genes from other species - which the biotechnology sector hopes may be more acceptable to some consumers.

One of the paper's co-authors told journalists that consumers in the United States and the European Union - the high end of the market for many New Zealand food exports - were resistant to even GM traits perceived as beneficial.