The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications three years ago reported promising news about work at AgScience under the heading NZ’s Environmentally Sustainable Ryegrass for Livestock Makes Steady Progress in the Field.
This advised that scientists from AgResearch had developed a genetically modified (GM) ryegrass known as the High Metabolisable Energy (HME) Ryegrass, which aims to strike a balance among reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, better drought tolerance, and farm productivity.
Ryegrass is used as a high-quality pasture grass for livestock, the article explained.
Today’s market has dairy farmers becoming more conscious about the environment and are searching for ways to reduce their carbon footprint while improving their produce at the same time.
In December of 2018, AgResearch reported that HME ryegrass grew up to 50% faster than conventional ryegrass and produced 23% less methane under laboratory conditions. And last week, Dr. Greg Bryan, AgResearch Principal Scientist, announced that the HME ryegrass performed well in controlled growing conditions.
The article then noted that field trials of the GM grass were being conducted in the United States, because New Zealand regulations restrict them from growing it outside of the laboratory.
The same regulations, of course, prohibit feeding the grass to livestock in this country, regardless of any benefits it might offer.
At the time the ISAAA published its article, AgResearch’s models showed the ME grass could boost farm revenues by as much as NZ$900 per hectare while managing nitrogen run-off for good measure.
AgResearch’s principal scientist, Greg Bryan, said the Crown Research Institute was focused on the breeding process, which involved choosing the best performing plants that would be used for future seed production.
A report from RNZ a few weeks earlier quoted Dr Bryan as saying the ultimate goal of the United States phase of the research was to conduct realistic, rather than simulated, animal nutrition studies.
This would allow AgResearch to evaluate whether the grass might have the potential environmental benefits such as reduced methane emissions and reduced nitrogen excretion that modelling suggested it would, he said.
“It’s important to stress that the forecast environmental benefits associated with the grass need to be supported by rigorous research.”
Point of Order was minded of this work – and so was the ACT Party’s agriculture spokesman, Mark Cameron – when Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor said the government is committed to reducing agricultural emissions in the battle against climate change, and for this farmers need new tools and technology.
As part of NZ’s effort, around $172 million may be invested through a joint venture to develop these new tools.
The government has committed to a net-zero target for 2050 and reducing biogenic methane emissions by 10% by 2030 relative to 2017 levels and 24 to 47% lower by 2050.
But the ACT party says with the way emissions are currently being measured, agriculture is being blamed for a far bigger share of NZ’s warming than it is actually responsible for.
Current estimates hugely over-estimate the impact of methane and “will lead to unnecessary and crippling costs on farmers that are completely unfair”.
Mark Cameron quotes a climate change expert Dave Frame, Director of the NZ Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University, as saying methane emissions are being measured incorrectly, and the Climate Change Commission and Ministry for the Environment have “turned way too much of a blind eye to this.”
So is O’Connor whistling in the wind when he says NZ can be, and should be, a leader in developing innovative new tools and technologies to reduce emissions on-farm, and be the one other countries can look to?.
He may get little thanks for doing the hard yards with a “memorandum of understanding” by government with agribusiness leaders, in a joint venture as part of the new Centre for Climate Action on Agricultural Emissions.
The Ministry for Primary Industries signed the agreement alongside representatives from ANZCO Foods, Fonterra, Ngāi Tahu Holdings, Ravensdown, Silver Fern Farms and Synlait.
Point of Order reported on this in our previous post.
The joint venture is a key component of the Centre for Climate Action on Agricultural Emissions.
The Centre was announced as part of the $338.7m in funding allocated over the next four years to strengthen the role of research and development for new tools and technologies to reduce on-farm emissions which was announced in Budget 2022.
This includes the government’s funding component of the joint venture.
O’Connor’s press statement asserts the agriculture sector contributes 50% of NZ’s gross greenhouse gas emissions, and around 91% of its biogenic methane emissions.
The ACT party does think it is “promising” the Government is finally softening on the use of methane inhibitors such as Bovaer.
But Cameron says the out-of-date genetic engineering laws mean that innovations like AgResearch’s High Metabolisable Energy ryegrass, which has the potential to reduce livestock methane emissions and ensure less nitrogen is excreted into the environment, are illegal here.
“We’re an export nation which has been kept afloat by the primary sector and relies on it during turbulent economic times. It’s time for the government to acknowledge the facts before it starts to tax.”
Point of Order reckons ACT has presented a strong case here but admires O’Connor’s tenacity in getting Cabinet approval for his ministry’s initiative.
The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, which published the report referenced in our opening paragraph, is a non-profit international organisation that shares agricultural biotechnology, focusing on genetic engineering.