Feds should support Pure Hawke’s Bay Initiative

Farmers Weekly, October 19 2015

Last month Hawke’s Bay farmers and food producers celebrated a significant victory with the Hastings District Council’s decision to protect the district’s GM Free food producer status in the local plan.

The council was responding to a request by some of the region’s leading food producers, along with Ngati Kahungunu to help secure the economic opportunity that regional GM-free status offers.

That is because for Hawke’s Bay GM-free status is a no brainer.

The region is not a low-cost producer but is home to some of the world’s best and most expensive horticultural land.

Our producers – pastoral farmers, wineries, fruit growers and niche producers – have production integrity and need to sell to high-value markets to command the best price possible.

And those markets are very clear they have zero tolerance to GM food, whether in conventionally produced or organic products.

Recent developments underscore just how important the Hastings council’s decision is to our mission to position Hawke’s Bay as a premium, food -producing region.

Take Europe, in the last few weeks 17 European Union countries and four administrations – including agricultural heavyweights Germany, Netherlands and France – have announced policies prohibiting the release of GMOs.

Altogether, this means more than two-thirds of Europe’s arable land will be GM-free, making the region, as one biotech company gloomily observed, a graveyard for GM crops.

Scotland, like many others, is making the move for strategic economic reasons. It wants to protect its food exports and brand reputation and sees no upside to GM cropping.

European events coupled with the exponential growth in demand for GM-free produce in Asia and even the United States – the home of GM broadacre crops – largely confines GM food crop production to the Americas where it has remained since the 1990s. Asian GM cropping is almost overwhelmingly dedicated to cotton.

Still, food producers supporting the Pure Hawke’s Bay initiative are pragmatic about GM.

We are a predominantly conventional farming group which is pro-science and innovation.

We accept that markets might become more accepting of GM or that techniques might improve.

For now, however, we believe there are huge economic advantages from keeping our fields free of GMOs.

That is why we asked the Hastings council to back us with a policy that reflects where the marketplace draws the lines around GMO use. And the council agreed.

First, the rules keep our district’s productive land free of GM crops and animals for the life of the plan.

So in 10 years time, if market attitudes have changed or a GMO is at hand that Hawke’s Bay farmers and producers want to use, we can reconsider.

Second, the rules apply only to the cultivation GM crops or farming GM animals.

Crushed GM animal feed or food ingredients can be brought into the district.

The reason for this is simple. The contamination and reputational risks are acute when it comes to growing GMOs in the field – that is where one farmer’s desire to grow a GMO could affect us all. Importing dead GMOs is a different matter and the marketplace does make that distinction.

Finally, decisions on GM veterinary vaccines will be made nationally and not by the Hastings council.

This means that we keep our options open while not risking GM release at a time when the marketplace is increasingly sensitive to GM and market responses to GM contamination are punishing.

Given this, Dr William Rolleston’s signal that Federated Farmers’ national office intends to try to overturn the policy we have worked five years to secure is inexplicable and counterproductive.

The fact is that Rolleston is swimming against a rising tide of market resistance to GMOs and wants to drag Hawke’s Bay farmers with him.

He has not been able to name a GM crop that is ready for market, would benefit Hawke’s Bay farmers and is accepted in high-value markets.

The only contenders he was able to come up with in an earlier article in this paper were GM possum control and poll cattle – options that remain light years away as do GM pastures being developed locally, whose prospects look dim given Fonterra’s opposition to field trials anywhere in NZ.

If the national office pushes ahead with the legal appeal against the Hastings GM-free producer zone, it will hold Hawke’s Bay producers hostage to an ideological commitment to GM, when high-end markets reject it outright in food.

The Wellington office is wasting our time and resources with this crusade.

This year, the federation not only lost an Environment Court appeal on whether regional councils can regulate GMO releases under the local plans, it was ordered to pay costs of $10,000.

Undeterred, the federation is going back for more, by appealing against the Environment Court decision, reportedly to “seek clarification on a few points”.

Federated Farmers has an important role to play in advocating for farmers but on this issue, the national office is squandering our collective resources by opposing a farmer-led initiative to capture opportunities in the competitive international marketplace.

Bruno Chambers and Will MacFarlane

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