Farmer advantage lies in GM Free

Farmers Weekly: Food producers and Pure Hawke’s Bay board members Bruno Chambers and John Bostock say the choice between using genetically modified organism or not is a no-contest. They contend GM has produced few positive results and customers don’t want it anyway.

RECENT announcements by market heavyweights that they will eliminate genetically modified animal feed from their flagship products should ring loud and clear for New Zealand pastoral farmers.

Last month, the world’s largest yoghurt producer, Dannon, declared three product lines making up half of its total production will be GM-feed free by 2018.

Across the Atlantic, German supermarket Lidl delivered a similar message. By next month its own-brand milk products sold in 10,000 stores throughout Europe will be GM feed-free.

The company didn’t mince its words. It wants to send “a clear signal against the use of genetically modified feed in the production of dairy products”.

These moves are just the latest in a fast-moving global trend that will ultimately leave no place to hide for genetically modified organisms and benefit GM-free supply chains.

That is why many Hawke’s Bay producers want to protect the region’s GM-free food producer status. We see the economic opportunity and are well placed to meet this growing demand for GM-free food.

Let us be clear: science is critical to running successful agricultural businesses and we are keenly interested in innovations that make our production more efficient and sustainable.

Yet while we can’t afford to turn our backs on science, we can’t afford science the marketplace doesn’t want.

And whether Federated Farmers likes it or not, our consumers don’t want a bar of GM.

A recent report by the United States National Academies of Science does not change that picture.

The report did not tackle the issue that is front and centre stage for Hawke’s Bay food producers: market resistance to GMOs and the growing demand for verified GM-free products.

Nor is the report likely to change consumer attitudes any time soon.

It is not the first report to find that GM foods now on the market pose no or few health risks.

Over the years a number of reviews have issued similar findings but they have done little to quell consumer anxieties or stem market demand for GM-free food.

Importantly for farmers, the United States academy found no evidence that GM increases yields, though GM can in some cases protect against broadacre crop yield losses, and that conventional breeding, not GM, is the only viable way of delivering farmers cultivars with more biologically complex traits – like nutrient efficiency.

So, making the most of our GM-free status now will not leave Hawke’s Bay farmers high and dry – far from it.

To date, genetic modification has been a non-event for high-value food production. Instead, the technology has churned out herbicide and pest-resistant varieties for broadacre cropping systems and little else.

The most recent figures confirm that stark reality with 99% of all GM food cropping being soy, maize and canola grown in the Americas, most of which ends up in animal feed or in products that don’t need to be labelled.

And it will be years before efforts to develop GMOs for local conditions deliver. That includes pasture grasses.

AgResearch’s experiments are about $25 million away and some years off from the market while research consortium Pastoral Genomics’ GM grasses are in limbo.

Government funding for the GM work has evaporated and the consortium cannot get the all-clear from the pastoral industry to field trial GM grasses outdoors.

Importantly, Pastoral Genomics is now focused more on advanced conventional breeding that makes the most of modern genetic insights.

Recent calls for a national conversation about GM imply that NZ farmers and growers are missing out by not embracing GM food production.

That is well wide of the mark.

The bottom line is that for food exporters there is only one conversation that counts – and that is with the marketplace.

Plainly put, customers in key markets are adamant they don’t want GMOs in their food and Hawke’s Bay producers are listening.

It is of real concern that Federated Farmers national office refuses to acknowledge the opportunities that GM-free food production offers NZ exporters in competitive markets or the serious economic risks that GMOs pose for a food export-dependent country such as NZ or premium food producing regions like Hawke’s Bay.

Farmers need dispassionate market analysis from industry leadership because farm income and brand reputation are at stake.

Federated Farmers president Dr William Rolleston’s ideological crusade to have NZ food producers adopt GM is one that the country can ill afford, when market rejection of GM is so strong.

His views are not shared by some of the country’s leading food exporters, including Fonterra and Zespri, who are quite clear that GM food production is not consistent with our clean, green brand.

Horticulture NZ takes a similar view.

Given how vital food production is to the local economy, it is fitting that Hastings District is the first in NZ to secure its GM-free food producer status under the district plan.

It makes good economic sense to capture the benefits of our GM-free status and review the situation down the line.

That is why Pure Hawke’s Bay is backing the Hastings District Council for its leadership in creating this economic opportunity for the local economy.

What other regions do is their business but we believe GM-free is ours.

This opinion piece appeared in Farmers Weekly, June 8 2016.

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