Yesterday Wharf42 published an Agriculture Impact Summary of the just released Climate Change Commission Draft Advice for Consultation. Today, we look at the Draft Advice more deeply with specific reference to the approach taken to the impact of future agri-technology deployment.

Whilst stating that agriculture has a large role to play in reducing emissions, the Draft Advice document also states; ‘In setting our path and emissions budget levels, we have conservatively assumed that no new technologies to reduce methane emissions from agriculture are available before 2035’.

Without the deployment of new technologies, the Draft Advice document believes that our agriculture sector can still meet most of the targets set to address the volume of emissions produced on the farm. ‘There are changes that farmers can make now to reduce emissions on their farms, if given sufficient support. These can improve animal performance while reducing stock numbers, reducing the number of breeding animals required, and moving to lower input farm systems. The Biological Emissions Reference Group found that, when successfully implemented, these changes could be made while not significantly reducing production and while maintaining or even improving profitability’.

The general tone of the Commission’s Draft Advice around the implementation of agri-technologies is in my view, conservative. It reflects in some ways, the current playing field that New Zealand researchers have to play in. They, and many agritech companies, are operating without access to the full tool-set.

This was partly addressed on Page 119 of the document, under a ‘Time Critical Necessary Actions’ header. Under the sub-heading, ‘Reduce biogenic agricultural emissions through on-farm efficiency and technologies’ appeared the recommendation;  ‘Review current arrangements and develop a long-term plan for targeted research and development of technologies (including evaluating the role of emerging technologies such as genetic engineering) and practices to reduce biogenic emissions from agriculture’.

In New Zealand, evaluating the role of emerging technologies such as genetic engineering is long overdue. Period. In short, it’s time to start talking about the ‘C’word, CRISPR.

CRISPR/Cas9 technology provides a great opportunity for biotechnologists to develop a sustainable and productive agricultural system by working on the improvement of crop yield, abiotic stress tolerance, increasing resistance to diseases and pests and improvement of the plant product by modifying the plants. A great example in New Zealand is the work of AgResearch and the development of a high lipid ryegrass which improves the healthy fats in milk and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Except for the fact that CRISPR/Cas9 technology is deemed to be genetic engineering-based and therefore not allowed for use in New Zealand. Even though the evidence shows that the ryegrass reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Go figure.

The issue here is not the science or the technology. It’s the politics and the historic perception of GM. Think Monsanto. Think 1970s. The world however has moved on and there is undeniably strong evidence that CRISPR technology can deliver solutions well within the Climate Change Commission’s 2035 time-frame. It’s just that in New Zealand’s current political landscape, nobody dares say it.

I discussed the possibilities of embracing CRISPR R&D with a senior New Zealand Government Minister last year. In 2019, the discussion was brief and to the point. In 2020, the position had changed. It was now time for a ‘robust discussion’. In past discussions with Biotech NZ’s Executive Director, Zahra Champion, this is a conversation that is well overdue. For New Zealand farmers and growers alike, it’s a conversation that cannot start soon enough.

Over the past 12 months, New Zealanders have been regaled with the message that we ‘listen’ to and ‘act on’ science. The Climate Change Commission has recommended we formally evaluate the role of emerging technologies such as genetic engineering.

As someone well above my pay grade once said, ‘Let’s do it”.