GE ban jeopardises farm emissions reductions: Peter Gluckman

New Zealand's moratorium on genetic modification is a significant barrier to achieving reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the farming sector, says Peter Gluckman, New Zealand's outgoing chief science advisor. Gluckman, in his final report, has joined a growing pro-GE scientific lobby calling for the government to reconsider the country's anti-GE stance.

He says many of the most promising innovations to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions rely on genetic engineering or genetic modification methods, which face restrictions in New Zealand.

The July paper to the Prime Minister, Gluckman says farmers can take a number of immediate steps to start reducing agricultural emissions, but for New Zealand to make meaningful steps it will need to embrace technological innovations. 

Those technologies include transgenic forage plants which reduce livestock emissions, transgenic endophytes which inhibit nitrogen, and GE forestry to accelerate tree growth for afforestation.

"Clearly all social licence for these technologies does not exist in New Zealand," Gluckman's report says. "However, given the progression of science on one hand and a broader understanding of the crisis of climate change on the other, not having a further discussion of these technologies at some point may limit our options."

The Productivity Commission report into achieving a low carbon economy last week recommended special treatment for methane under an emissions trading scheme, saying it wasn't suitable for a single-cap system. The Labour-led government wants to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and is attempting to reach a bipartisan approach to climate change. National Party spokesman Todd Muller has said climate target revisions need to account for evolving science.

In his report, Gluckman also raises questions about the effectiveness of the widely-used web-based environmental modelling tool Overseer, to reduce emissions. Overseer estimates an individual farm’s nutrient movement and use, and greenhouse gas emissions. And as with the GE debate, Gluckman is not the only scientist to be questioning the efficacy of the government-funded tool.

Gluckman says a better option for early emissions reductions could be a farm plan approach, where a farmer relies on expert advice and science-based input to develop auditable mitigation strategies.

"I endorse consideration of this latter approach as being both practical and amenable to integrating multiple farm objectives for both environmental and economic sustainability."

To work, Gluckman says the plans would need to identify priority emissions sources, allow reporting of trends in emissions intensity as well as absolute emissions, allow for a wide range of mitigation actions to be captured, and link to other criteria farmers have to meet. The Biological Emissions Reference Group modelling suggests changes in farm management could cut biological emissions from individual farms by between 2 and 10 percent, possibly without eroding profit.


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