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GM breakthrough could have huge climate benefits

Tuesday 15 Jun 2010 5:45 p.m.

By Samantha Hayes

New Zealand scientists have made a breakthrough in the fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

By genetically modifying clover, they have found a way to make cows belch less, as well as cutting back on their flatulence.

“We’ve taken a single gene from rabbits foot clover and put it into white clover,” says AgResearch science manager Chris Jones.

It’s genetic modification which activates tannins, like those found in red wine and which gives tea its brown colour.

Most importantly, nutrients that were once found only in the clover flower become available in the stem and leaf.

No cow has chewed it yet, but scientists are excited.

“They’ll be more productive - more meat and milk,” says AgResearch spokesman Jimmy Suttie.

“There will be less bloat, which addresses the animal health and welfare issue, and finally there will be less greenhouse gasses.”

This breakthrough is internationally significant – half of all greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture.

AgResearch has been working on the project for years, but hasn’t been confident enough to talk about it until now.

“I think there is two or three groups in the world where this could have been done,” says Mr Suttie.
“Several groups in the world who have been trying to do this. Basically, our guys got it first. It’s great.”

The world’s food production needs to grow by 50 percent in the next 20 years, but with that comes twice the agricultural emissions.

AgResearch estimates its clover could reduce methane emissions by 10-15 percent and have huge benefits for the climate.

“I regard it as the Holy Grail and basically what we’ve got here is some technology that has exerted some DNA in the plant, that gives these benefits,” says John McKenzie of GM PGG Wrightson Seeds.

“These benefits are really big for agriculture and the environment.”

But these benefits can only be achieved through genetic modification – something the Green Party opposes.

“Why should we let them not only pollute them, pollute our rivers which they’re already doing, but every pasture across the country,” says Green Party co-leader Russel Norman.

“What’s in it for New Zealand, to let them do that?”

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.”

AgResearch say they make no apologies for it being a GE crop and want to see it benefitting New Zealand farmers.

“Out there in the grass, in the New Zealand environment, I want to get it out there,” says Mr Jones.

Realistically that release is still 15 years off.

This research is so sensitive that one of the scientists doesn’t want to be identified.

A few years ago, an AgResearch scientist was effectively chased out of the country by anti-GE protestors who attacked his house and car.

He felt so threatened he abandoned his work.

But this project my be different – it doesn’t involve any radical modification, taking genes from one organism and placing them in another, rather they have just switched on genes that were already present.

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