AgResearch a few days ago enthused about an important milestone being reached in its development of a new generation grass “that could prove a game-changer for agriculture”.
The genetically modified High Metabolisable Energy ryegrass had been shown in AgResearch’s laboratories to grow up to 50 per cent faster than conventional ryegrass, to be able to store more energy for better animal growth, to be more resistant to drought, and to produce up to 23 per cent less methane (the largest single contributor to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions) from livestock.
Modelling also predicts less nitrogen excreted into the environment by animals feeding on the ryegrass, and consequently less nitrate leaching and lower emissions of another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.
Development of the HME ryegrass is progressing in the mid-west of the United States, where genetically modified organisms can be field tested outside the lab.
GE Free NZ is unimpressed.
Today it has said the GE ryegrass “is still at the starting line, after unimpressive results from US field trials”.
Approval was given in April 2017 for a one-year trial in the US State of Missouri, GE Free NZ said, “but AgResearch’s costly GE ryegrass field trial has not been able to measure any significant outcomes”.
The statement said:
AgResearch’s GM rye grass has been ‘in development’ since 2001 and was intended to be commercially available in 2004. More recently trials were undertaken in Australia in 2012, the outcome is confidential. After 17 years of promises for GE Rye grass, the benefits remain just supposition, with no proper safety evaluation of impacts on the environment, or animal health.
US farmers are fearful that pollen from the unregulated GE grass trials might contaminate their farms, in the same way the escape from field trials of unapproved Roundup resistant GM grass is afflicting farmers as it spreads uncontrolled across Oregon. 
GE ryegrass cannot address the need for smarter farm practices. The pursuit of a GE ‘magic bullet’ is diverting vital funding for development of alternative forage crops with proven benefits. 
The New Zealand pastoral industry is funding the GM ryegrass trials to the sum of $25 million. This is a slap in the face for farmers who are facing the dire situation of culling their animals due to the Mycoplasma bovis outbreak. It is disappointing that funders – Ministry of Business, Innovation and Enterprise (MBIE) and Dairy NZ – have deliberately sidelined and ignored the proven qualities of NZ own valuable research. 
“There is an opportunity cost in pouring money into GE that deprives farmers of real needed help,” said Claire Bleakley, president of GE-Free NZ (in food and environment).
“Since the idea of GE ryegrass was first conceived advantages provided by quality mixed forages and non-GM High metabolic energy rye grasses with proven safety and performance have been disregarded,” said Claire Bleakley.
“AgResearch must be called to account. The GM ryegrass project is a costly miscalculation and has not improved the quality and resilience of the agricultural system for farmers.”
A systems approach based on mixed forage plants and sustainable practices is the best way to add value and resilience that lives up to the reputation of Brand New Zealand that benefits farmers.
GE Free NZ’s references were:
 Pembleton KG, Hills JL, Freeman MJ, McLaren DK, French M, Rawnsley RP (2016) More milk from forage: Milk production, blood metabolites, and forage intake of dairy cows grazing pasture mixtures and spatially adjacent monocultures. J Dairy Sci, 99(5):3512-3528. doi: 10.3168/jds.2015-10542. Epub 2016 Feb 28.
The AgResearch announcement quoted the CRI’s principal scientist.
After a successful preliminary growing trial last year confirmed the conditions were suitable, AgResearch principal scientist Dr Greg Bryan says the full growing trial began in the United States last month and will continue for five months.
“The preliminary trial was only two months, so it’s not over a timeframe that has any statistical merit, however we did see the increased photosynthesis that we saw with the plants in the greenhouses in New Zealand,” Dr Bryan says.
“In this full trial now underway, we will be measuring the photosynthesis, plant growth and the markers that lead to increased growth rates. While the growth has previously been studied in glasshouses in pots and as plants spaced out in the field, this will be the first opportunity to assess the growth in a pasture-like situation where plants compete with each other.”
“The five-month timeframe will allow us to determine if increased growth is consistent across the summer and autumn, and we will simulate grazing by cutting plants back every 3-4 weeks.”
“Animal feeding trials are planned to take place in two years, which we will need regulatory approvals for, and the information we get over the next two years will help us with our application for those feeding trials.”
DairyNZ strategy and investment leader for new systems and competitiveness, Dr Bruce Thorrold, says the HME ryegrass is a science breakthrough and holds great potential for New Zealand farmers.
“HME ryegrass could help us achieve less nitrogen leaching and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as improving pasture quality and productivity,” says Dr Thorrold. “This research could be transformational in future and so it is important we explore all promising avenues which could help dairy farmers respond to the challenges we face.”
While New Zealand has not yet approved the release of genetically modified crops, AgResearch’s Dr Bryan agreed with the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification that it would be unwise to turn our backs on the potential advantages on offer.
Sources: AgResearch, GE Free NZ