An extensive study by a royal commission has opened the door for New Zealand to cautiously embrace genetically modified (GM) agriculture for the first time.

The findings of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification in New Zealand were welcomed by many scientists. But they angered the country's Green Party, whose considerable political influence led to the commission being established.

Peter Gluckman, dean of medicine at the University of Auckland, says the report is “very sensible in that it rejected outright the concept of a genetic-engineering-free New Zealand as incompatible with the modern world and the nation's future”.

The commission's 1,200-page report, released on 30 July, says that transgenic agriculture should be introduced to New Zealand “selectively with appropriate care”. It recommends loosening existing controls on field trials of GM crops, and creating new mechanisms for controlling their commercial release. No GM crops have yet been released for commercial sale in New Zealand.

But the commission says that genetic modification should be banned in certain circumstances where its introduction might threaten growers' interests.

It also suggests that decisions on the first commercial release of GM crops should be shifted from the Environmental Risk Management Authority to the environment minister. A parliamentary commissioner on biotechnology would be given powers to investigate issues, independently of the government, to produce accessible reports for the public and to advise parliament on genetic-engineering policies.

The royal commission was established by the Labour–Alliance government 15 months ago (see Nature 404, 914; 2000). It is made up of four commissioners — a retired judge, a biomedical researcher, a medical practitioner of Maori heritage and an Anglican bishop.

The government is not bound by the commission's recommendations, but the prime minister, Helen Clark, and the environment minister, Marian Hobbs, welcomed the commission as “the most wide-ranging inquiry into genetic modification ever undertaken in any country”. They set a deadline of 31 October for announcing the government's plans to enact its recommendations.