New Zealand authorities have granted permission to the country's leading agricultural research company to continue its work on genetically modified livestock.
The decision means the animals, which includes a herd of 100 genetically modified (GM) cows, can be returned to an active breeding program. Had the application failed, AgResearch would have had less than a year to have another application approved before having to euthanise the animals, which would ended more than a decade of work.
Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA), the government regulatory body responsible for monitoring imports and trials of GM organisms, announced their decision today following an extensive approval process.
"The application has been approved with strict controls and is limited to research and development through to proof-of-concept," says ERMA New Zealand New Organisms general manager Dr Libby Harrison.
ERMA's decision allows AgResearch to "develop in containment (indoor and outdoor) goats, sheep and cows genetically modified: to produce human therapeutic proteins, and to alter levels of gene activities and proteins for the study of gene function, milk composition and disease resistance".
The controls include keeping the animals contained in approved facilities, placing a 20-year time limit on the research (with a review after 10 years), limiting the sources of DNA and restricting the types of genes that may be used.
Genes approved include blood clotting factors, antibodies and milk proteins.
AgResearch have welcomed the decision, saying they are happy to continue to abide by any restrictions and guidelines that ERMA place on their work.
"We will be continuing the rigorous containment we have used for over ten years, and in our science explore the safe application of transgenic technologies for human benefit," says Dr Jimmy Suttie of AgResearch's Applied Biotechnologies Group.
"Our research has been monitored and progress reported. We will continue to carry out the ongoing requirements."
Of the current GM herd, most produce extra casein in their milk, which is particularly important in cheese production.
Some of the other animals secrete lactoferrin, a protein that is essential for a functioning immune system, or human myelin basic protein, which may one day be used to treat people with multiple sclerosis.
But not everyone is happy with ERMA's decision.
"We are appalled," says Claire Bleakley of GE Free NZ. "They now have carte blanche to produce any number of GM animals with no way to properly assess the potential danger to health and the environment, and the controls are no stricter than those for previous decisions."
The application that was approved today was submitted as part of a contingency plan to save the GM cows, whose existence had been threatened by legal delays that prevented ERMA processing four other applications made in 2008.
Legal action, instigated by GE Free NZ against those four applications, has recently been quashed by the High Court of Appeal and are now under consideration by ERMA.
Despite today's decision there are some who believe the opposition to GM in ew Zealand is damaging the country's expertise in the field.
Dr Phil L'Huillier, an executive director at Cancer Research Technology, UK, was one of the key AgResearch scientists involved in producing the company's first transgenic cattle.
He says he was personally targeted by anti-GE protestors and says a combination of frustration with the pace of the research and "red tape" led to his decision to leave New Zealand in 2000.
"It was becoming very difficult to do this type of research and I couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel", says L'Huillier.
In Australia, GM animals are regulated under the Gene Technology Act 2000 and licenses are granted by the Gene Technology Regulator, which sits within the federal Department of Health and Ageing.
Current licensed research into large GM animals, which includes improvement of wool fibres and wool growth in sheep, and milk production in cows, is conducted in contained facilities.