In an ongoing series of profiles of science leaders from Plant&Food, Vincent Heeringa talks to Dr Revel Drummond
If scientist Revel Drummond was in a television commercial, he’d probably reprise the role of Madge, the Palmolive lady: “GMOs? You know you’re soaking in it?”
I’m paraphrasing, but essentially the Plant and Food Research scientist says we consume far more genetically modified foods than we realise: The common GMO-derived canola and soy oils do not require GM labelling nor does the standard emulsifier soy lecithin. Almost all cheese is made with GMO-derived rennet, but as the rennet isn’t an ingredient of the final product cheese is exempt from GM regulation and labelling. The Impossible Burger is labelled as GM and available from your local supermarket.
Some 17 million farmers are growing GM/biotech crops, feeding an estimated 65 million people since 2019, according to the ISAAA.
“Every time I give a talk on the subject, I have to check if there’s something else that I now need to mention. Because every week somebody’s released another product,” says Drummond.
Strictly speaking, there is no ban. What’s at stake is the freedom to research, produce and commercialise GM products. Farmers, growers, scientists and food producers complain the Act is overly restrictive, adding huge costs and disincentivising innovation.
“We need to make the regulation proportionate to risk,” says Drummond who specialises in indoor growing systems. “Transgenic plants have been in the ground since the 1980s. So we’re talking 30 years of use. I think we’ve [humans] fed more than a trillion meals to livestock of GMO products. They seem to have all grown healthily and turned into food for all of us to eat.”
The industry also says that tech has moved on, while the legislation hasn’t. Of note is so-called CRISPR-Cas9, a method of genetic modification discovered by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020 for their work. The science can be mind-boggling but at least one way of understanding it is that CRISPR allows scientists to modify the genetics without the need for foreign DNA – transgenic genetic modification.
In essence, CRISPR speeds up in the lab what happens in nature – think of the variety of apples, bred over generations, but now done in years or even months.
The technology is seen as an important tool for productivity gains and resource management such as water use. It’s also critical to meet the challenge of climate change. Drummond, for example, is exploring the potential of growing fruit and vegetables indoors – sometimes called controlled environment agriculture (CEA). As Earth heats and weather becomes more extreme, traditional growing methods are becoming less reliable. Currently, indoor growing works only for certain crops such as leafy greens, strawberries and mushrooms. Growing fruit trees or wheat or corn is more complicated.
“What if you wanted to grow something like apples or kiwifruit or tamarillos, all of which are big plants and need a lot of space? And rather annoyingly you sometimes need a boy and a girl plant and pollinators. None of which is sustainable in an indoor system. Plus you’ve got to have year-round productivity.”
At least part of the answer is to select for favourable traits via gene editing.
Drummond is working on two projects to seek ways to miniaturise apples, kiwifruit, tamarillos and blueberries suitable for a CEA facility and make them economically and environmentally viable.
Under the current rules, Drummond is able to conduct both CRISPR and transgenic experiments. And the new rules, as proposed by the Ministry for the Environment, will make it easier.
But research is only the beginning of the process. Without changes to the HSNO Act, the D of R&D is throttled.
“If I just wanted to be a scientist and hang out in my locked-up laboratory, that’d be great. But if I wanted to have an impact, if I wanted to make a change for the New Zealand economy, the New Zealand public, then I’ve really got this huge roadblock where a lot of what we do, we can’t see a way for it to come out of the lab.
We don’t have enough money to fund the process. Frankly, the amount of time it takes even a lab to get a lab approval through the EPA is years. So the idea of trying to do a release through the EPA is unbearably slow, very expensive. How am I supposed to have a public good?”
Drummond believes New Zealand needs to be prepared for increasing demand. “Singapore has decided they would like to be 80% self-sufficient in food production, but they have no outdoor space to be able to achieve that. So if we could take kiwifruit to Singapore and grow it in the basement of some of their high-rise buildings and everybody in the building gets a kiwifruit every day, that’s a win.”