PO Box 13402
Wellington, New Zealand

GE-Free New Zealand

in food and environment (RAGE Inc.)


AgResearch Moves to Develop Conventional Ryegrass Breeding Techniques.


pasture renewal buttercups

AgResearch is the key research partner in a consortium of Agribusinesses who have been funded $8.4 million dollars over seven years to select, identify and conventionally breed the best heat-tolerant ryegrass varieties growing in New Zealand.  The programme will use marker assisted selection (MAS), and will not include genetic engineering technologies. Dr Marty Faville from AgResearch, will be be leading the programme and Barenbrug NZ and PGG Wrightson Seeds will implement the research findings.

The consortium includes; the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund (SFF Futures); Barenbrug NZ, Grasslands Innovation Limited (a joint venture of which PGG Wrightson Seeds is a major shareholder). DairyNZ will contribute the balance in cash and in-kind.  

GE Free NZ contacted Dr Faville who confirmed that - 

“This project does not use genetic modification or gene editing at all, relying instead on the efficient identification and capture of genetic variation that occurs naturally within NZ-adapted ryegrass populations.”

“It is pleasing that AgResearch research into ryegrass varieties using marker assisted breeding for seed selection will not include any genetically engineered technologies.” said Claire Bleakley president of GE Free NZ. 

New Zealand currently has high performance climate smart pasture grasses and legumes on the market and non-GE biotech products that can be used for reducing the challenges of climate extremes that have shown optimal animal health and environmental benefits. [2], [3] Martin, G. et al (2020) metanalysis research reported that traditional mixed ley pastures have important agro ecological impacts and are climate resilient, store carbon, protect soil moisture loss, reduce phosphorous and nitrogen leaching, thereby increasing animal health.[4]

In 2018, AgResearch received over $25 million from Dairy NZ and the Ministry Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) for GE ryegrass field trials that were carried out in the US. These GE Rye grass field trials grew poorly, with no apparent benefits over conventionally-bred ryegrass varieties already grown successfully in New Zealand. In 2023, AgResearch applied to the Australian Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) to conduct further GE ryegrass trials, but then withdrew their application. [5] 

The move, however, away from the failed GE ryegrass does not mean AgResearch is looking for non GE solutions. AgResearch is still persisting with their GE programme and has received research funding to genetically engineer clover. [6]  

"The threatening short sighted lurch, that disregards GE ryegrass failures, to develop a “Claytons” GE clover is an irresponsible illusion that ignores the solutions and high performing pasture varieties suitable for all farming systems, conventional and organic, on the market today.” said Bleakley. 

“We fully support the decision to fund AgResearch's ryegrass conventional plant breeding programme that will not jeopardise farmers’ future earnings with the prospect of GE contamination. Put simply, it is a win-win for the environment and the economy.” 

We hope that this signals a realisation by AgResearch and the political parties (National, ACT and TOP) that a number of our leading scientists recognise the value of being developing GE Free solutions. Altering the law, to “lift the ban" as proposed by these parties, has shown that GE has failed to improve our prime pasture species and will threaten our export industry.

New Zealand’s GE Free status is crucial for our environment, health, export and local markets and we can continue to lead the way through traditional selective breeding. 

[1] RNZ Midday Rural News 31 August 2023 - https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/ruralnews/audio/2018904764/midday-rural-news-for-30-august-2023 (start at minute 5.25)
[2] https://germinal.co.nz/reducing-reliance-on-applied-nitrogen/
[3] https://www.zestbiotech.co.nz
[4] Martin, G., Durand, JL., Duru, M. et al. Role of ley pastures in tomorrow’s cropping systems. A review. Agron. Sustain. Dev. 40, 17 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13593-020-00620-9 
[5] https://www.gefree.org.nz/press-releases-2019-2023/20230602/
[6] https://www.farmersweekly.co.nz/technology/agresearch-expands-work-on-gm-grasses/

Claire Bleakley – 027 348 6731
Elvira Domissee - 021 057 5123