The New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic Modification has recommended that research on genetically modified (GM) crops and animals "proceed with caution," elating the nation's biotechnology interests while dismaying opponents of the technology. The commission's report rejects the idea of a nation free of GM crops and animals, saying it would not be in New Zealand's social, environmental or economic interests. However it calls for a number of additional restrictions on genetic modifications, and says that the technology can be used "in a way that does not threaten New Zealand's 'clean green' image." The recommendations issued late last month are not binding. However, if accepted by the government, they would ease restrictions on low-risk research done in laboratories and would tighten the regulatory regime around activities like the general release of GMOs. In particular, the commissioners called for a rule change that would enable the authorities to impose follow-up safety monitoring or to limit the scale of any release of GMOs. They also called for more research on the potential for any release to affect soil and ecological systems. The report looked at the technology's implications for health, environmental, legal, economic and cultural issues. It is the first of its kind from an developed country. It is expected to attract interest from other countries grappling with the controversies arising from biotechnology. New Zealand's Prime Minister Helen Clark, who set up the panel in May 2000, said opponents must accept the fact that the commission "has not embraced their view on field trials and on crops." She said her government would study the report and make a decision in about three months. Genetic engineering is controversial in New Zealand. No genetically modified crops have yet been approved for release, and even experimental field trials have been delayed since the commission first met. Critics of the technology predict that it will lead to widespread environmental damage and health problems. Some oppose it on ethical or spiritual grounds. Others believe that New Zealand farmers can capitalise on the growing world market for organic produce, but only if the nation rejects genetic modifications. Opponents have won wide support. A commission survey showed that most New Zealanders were comfortable with genetic modification for medical purposes but saw "more disadvantages than advantages" in its use on animals or crops. On the other side of the debate are the biotechnology industry, science organisations and farm groups that view transgenics as an important tool for improving the value and efficiency of New Zealand's agriculture and forestry industries. The four commissioners, a doctor, a scientist, a bishop and a retired chief justice, held several public meetings, heard expert witnesses from New Zealand and abroad, and worked through more than 10,000 submissions from the public. More than 100 individuals or groups presented evidence in formal hearings. Representatives of industry said they would not object to the additional scrutiny recommended. "Field trials were going to be expensive anyway," said Dr. Ian Warrington, chief executive of HortResearch, a state-owned company that is using gene technology to improve fruit production. The report also calls for a new advisory body on ethical, social and cultural matters in biotechnology. The commissioners said they recognised that greater use of genetically modified crops would create some problems. For instance, the report calls for a strategy that will allow both genetically modified crops and the continued production of organic honey, which requires no contact with pollen from genetically modified plants. But Pete Hodgson, minister of research, science and technology, conceded that it would be extremely difficult to keep the bees from those plants.