GM forestry proposals: Government move a mistake

A version of this opinion piece appeared in the Dominion Post on August 10 2015.

The Government has a target of doubling the value of the country’s primary exports by 2025. It should support premium regional branding initiatives which generate higher returns for New Zealand’s food exports.

For Hawke’s Bay producers, retaining the region’s current GM free status is an important component of our premium food exporting. We need to achieve the highest possible prices from high-end premium markets to meet the governments export objectives.

Yet the Government is now proposing to strip the regions of the ability to regulate GM tree releases in its new plantation forestry standard – a move that will prevent Hawke’s Bay from fully preserving its GM Free status.

The Government has not been able to get Parliament’s support to remove regions’ ability to create GM Free production zones under the RMA.

So now the Minister has resorted to a ‘back door’ route by a national environmental standard, which he can do without Parliament’s approval.

That move is deeply unpopular. A national poll commissioned by Pure Hawke’s Bay, a group of food growers and exporters, found that 4 out of 5 New Zealanders surveyed believe regions should be able to keep their territories GM Free using the RMA.

As food producers, our first concern is to ensure that our fields remain free of GM. Any GM Free policy must include GM trees because plantation-scale GM forestry could be very damaging for our food export branding.

A real concern to food growers and exporters is GM pollen from the trees. In spring time parts of the region turn lemon yellow as pine pollen spreads over our towns and productive land.

Our food exports are routinely tested to ensure they are free of GM contamination. If GM pollen attaches to our food products and is detected, our exports will be rejected.

GM forestry developers have not been able to convince the forestry industry that GM trees have a role in sustainable forestry. Neither of the two leading global sustainable forestry certification schemes permit the use of GM trees in accredited plantations.

The Government says that the standard will “save the forestry industry millions in compliance costs”. This ministerial preference for GM trees would come at the expense of food exporters and cost them hundreds of millions of dollars if our products are contaminated.

The minister’s proposal is unnecessary. Forestry developers can apply for a District Plan Change for their GM trees. If the proposition offers a net benefit to the region, it would then be permitted.

The important thing for Hawke’s Bay is that by requiring developers to make their case regionally a decision would be focused on the region’s economic interests. If such decisions are left to Wellington, as the Government is proposing, regional economic and branding opportunities could be overlooked.

At a meeting with Pure Hawke’s Bay food producers earlier this year, the Minister for the Environment appeared to have a poor grasp of the export trade risks and economic impact that GM releases would present.

Given the government’s export targets, limiting the regions’ branding opportunities is shortsighted and is alarming for New Zealand food exporters. Consumer resistance to GM is strongly entrenched in our export markets.

Councils in a number of other regions also wish to improve their economic opportunities through premium food exports, by utilizing their current GM free status.

The Government has not provided any analysis to substantiate its case.

Hawke’s Bay food producers are looking for a constructive relationship with the Government as we seek to create greater employment opportunities and wealth for our region.

In this spirit of cooperation, we urge the Government to drop this proposal to make GM forestry exempt from regional or district plans. It would be far more beneficial for the Government to protect and enhance existing export market successes, as they are integral to regional employment opportunities and the economy.

Exporting to premium international markets is a key component of the government’s export ambitions and it should support Pure Hawke’s Bay growers by allowing the region to guarantee its GM free status in the district plan.

Bruno Chambers, Scott Lawson and David Cranwell

Pure Hawke’s Bay represents food producers who want to secure premium branding for Hawke’s Bay and who collectively account for hundreds of millions in food exports annually. 

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