GM stance deepens divisions

Straight Furrow, September 10 2013

Jamie Ball

Federated Farmers is “clearly out of touch with markets” in their opposition to councils’ plans to introduce tighter regulation for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), says Pure Hawke’s Bay (PHB) spokesman Bruno Chambers.

Chambers said the PHB coalition of regional food producers seeking to improve the region’s global reputation for safe, sustainable, high quality food production had proposed securing GM-free food producer status through local authority planning, for 10 years.

“We had a meeting with the president, Bruce Wills, who said that Federated Farmers would not stand in the way of the Pure Hawkes Bay initiative, so it surprises me that Federated Farmers are taking the position they have.

“They are basically out of touch with the markets. New Zealand relies on premium markets –  our future is not with low-price commodity markets,’’ he said.

Environment Minister Hon Amy Adams recently announced that hazardous substances and new organisms were comprehensively regulated on a national basis and councils should not use the Resource Management Act (RMA) to set up their own independent regulatory frameworks.

However, like some other regions, the Hawke’s Bay coalition believes that the Environmental Protection Authority has no mandate to protect regions, regional brands or regional returns.

Chambers said it was a pity that the federation’s representative on the subject, William Rolleston, was entrenched in an ideological position.

Dr Rolleston is the federation’s vice-president and science spokesperson and is also  the former chairman of the pro-genetic engineering [GE] lobby group Life Sciences Network.

Straight Furrow believes that the federation has also been lobbying MPs to prevent local or regional authorities from introducing an additional layer of protection against GMOs.

Dr Rolleston said all aspects of agriculture, from organics to the use of the most modern technologies, had a place and there must be a balance.

“The Royal Commission of Enquiry into Genetic Modification concluded that our regulatory system was robust, they said we should proceed with caution and assess applications on a case by case basis.  Federated Farmers agrees with these conclusions.’’

Dr Rolleston, however, did not disclose that the same Inquiry made recommendations “for additional controls to make the existing system more robust.”

The enquiry  also concluded that that the methodology for the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 allow for genetically modified crops to be excluded from districts where they would be a threat to other crops.

Dr Rolleston also said farmers should have the right to use modern technologies such as genetic modification which had been assessed by a regulator to be safe and of benefit to New Zealand.

“The overwhelming scientific consensus from around the world based on more than a decade of use is that genetic modification is no more risky than other modern breeding methods.

“Studies claiming harm from genetic modification have not stood up to scientific scrutiny.  Evidence from countries who have allowed GM into their agricultural systems have shown it to be extremely popular with farmers. All New Zealand farmers deserve the choice to use modern technologies which have been approved as safe,” said Dr Rolleston.

“A blanket ban as proposed by Pure Hawkes Bay does not allow case by case objective assessment of the risks and benefits of the science nor the likely effect on our markets. It will be a cost on Hawkes Bay rate payers and makes the assumption that the council (in this case the Hastings District Council) has greater competency in these matters than the EPA.”

Much like Auckland and Northland, where a similar initiative has gained ground over the last decade, public opinion is decidedly against GMOs in Hawkes Bay.

A Colmar Brunton poll last year indicated that 84 per cent of citizens surveyed want the region to remain GE-free in the field, and 85 per cent wish their councils to ensure that eventuates.

Globally, GMOs have proven continually less popular over the last two decades and was hailed by the European Commission in 2010 as the “Achilles heel of biotechnology.”

PHB said market resistance in Europe and Asia, in particular, had been so strong and persistent that many prominent food companies, supermarkets and retailers had taken a strong stance against the presence of GMOs in their food. Buyers had become powerful gatekeepers exercising considerable influence on the market prospects of GM foods.

Horticulture New Zealand, the grower group representing 5,500 commercial fruit and vegetable growers believes that research in that sector should presently focus on the application of technologies in areas other than GMOs.

PHB also cites overseas examples of GE-free food production zones, such as 21 regions in France and 16 in Italy.

“Among them, Burgundy, Champagne, Provence and Tuscany have enviable reputations, their names synonymous with good food and rich traditions in food production the world-over.”

Waikato University Agribusiness Professor Jacqueline Rowarth presented the other side of the GE coin.

“The number one major impact factor on consumer decision is price – according to the Nielsen global survey last year. Whatever the geographical region, price is number one, followed globally by ‘health.’ This means that before any initiative is taken, very careful cost benefit analysis should be undertaken. Markets are fickle in terms of their ‘being prepared to pay a premium’ and producers suffer when the swing returns to ‘least cost options,'” she said.

Ms Rowarth was equally cautious about the future prospect of a GE-free New Zealand.

“Taking this line would mean growers and producers being penalised by not being able to use new technologies important for productivity and environmental efficiency – which will have an impact on food price increase.”

Ms Rowarth said drought-resistant grasses performing well in Australia and America was one example of growers potentially missing out.

“GE has a part to play in reducing GHG [greenhouse gases], increasing water use efficiency and food quantity and quality. In order to compensate for not using the new technologies, consumers would need to pay high compensatory prices to the producers and growers – and history says that they won’t,” she said..

However, Pure Hawkes Bay maintain that enormous leaps forward  have been made with conventional non-GM breeding techniques and any commercial release of drought resistant grasses is at least 10 years away.

jamie.ball@fairfaxmedia.co.nz

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