Our GM-free meat status undersold

New Zealand meat exporters need to cash in on our GM-Free status, says Simon Beamish

NZ FarmerJune 28 2016

OPINION: Hawke’s Bay’s GM Free status is hugely important for exporters and the pastoral sector can surely extract more value from the market.

Walk through the door of a Whole Foods Supermarket into the fruit and vegetable area and ‘GMF’ signage is everywhere and the products are selling for a premium. In Europe the GM Free labelling is growing unbelievably quickly. A number of Hawke’s Bay exporters are taking full advantage of the branding and marketing opportunity. I would love to see our meat exporters do the same.

Our farm, Awapai, has been in our family since the 1870s. We have been breeding high performance sheep and cattle for over 100 years. We are a breeding partner to Focus Genetics. The genetics programme has made significant gains in the last two decades with a lot of science, research and development. This to date has not involved genetic modification. I am all for science down on the farm but not at the cost of selling lamb into the red meat commodity market. That commodity pricing and selling makes my business unsustainable.

For Hawke’s Bay producers, it is our buyers and consumers in markets across Europe, Asia, and increasingly the US, whose opinions count.   And their opinion is pretty clear. Consumers are demanding GM Free meat and other products. This is a point of difference for New Zealand, so let’s grab the advantage.

I have strong views on this because at the moment we aren’t standout performers when it comes to selling our meat internationally. There is not enough clever marketing and not enough effective branding to pin New Zealand up as the best, sustainable and safest place in the world to grow beef and lamb.

As New Zealand’s special trade envoy Mike Petersen said recently at a deer industry conference that we need to tell the green kiwi story. New Zealand needs a brand to differentiate it as free range, grass-fed and free of genetically modified organisms – and that can’t come quickly enough, as Ireland’s powerful Origin Green campaign is proving a huge advantage for Irish farmers.

Imagery of New Zealand countryside, farms and livestock helps market our food on the international stage. If we were to introduce genetically modified organisms, there is no doubt that in the current climate, we would damage our reputation and brand.

How many farmers are actually seeing their meat at the point of sale? We farm very remotely from our markets. Once our lambs are put on the truck we have signed off on all care and responsibility.  We get back on the farm and do stuff we can take control of. The relationship and the communication with our customers is now up to the meat exporter. So how important is it to the meat companies that we are GM Free? This is a really important question.  and worthy of further debate. I urge the companies to respond.

Hastings District’s initiative to protect our current GM Free status does not deprive me or any other pastoral farmer of choice because, simply put, there isn’t currently  any choice. There are no GM pasture grasses on the market now and there are unlikely to be any for the next decade. If this was to change then the merits of adoption can be considered down the track. The ability to edit and silence genes is fascinating and has amazing ramifications especially for certain areas of human health. But right now, I produce GMF red meat and I want every advantage and value that can be extracted from the market which is crying out for it.

I understand pastoral farmers do not have to make any immediate decisions on GM grasses because it will be some time before drought-resistant grasses would be available.The drought-resistant grasses that farmers have sponsored for more than a decade are in limbo with no Government funding and opposition from leading pastoral industries to field trials in New Zealand. AgResearch’s grasses, meanwhile, need another $25 million and a great deal more time to get close to providing pastoral farmers with a commercially viable product.

If and when a GM grass arrives that really gives us pastoral farmers a real step up, it will still be a big decision for the region – and the country. That’s because the difficult thing with pasture grasses is that they don’t stay inside farm boundaries and so one farmer’s choice is effectively a choice for all farmers.

European supermarket chain Lidl’s own-brand dairy products will be GM free this July, while the world’s biggest yoghurt producer, Danone, has committed that its top three brands – half of its current production – will be GM animal feed free by 2018.

This is from the website page of the Aldi supermarket: “We know that GM food is controversial and that many of our customers don’t want to eat it. That’s why we have a ‘No GM’ policy that requires all of our own label products to be free from GM ingredients.”

These developments are really significant for Hawke’s Bay producers because it is the market place that determines whether our businesses thrive or not.

Importantly, for Hawke’s Bay farmers it is the protecting of our GM free status that allows us to have the value added conversation on the other side of the world.

As a farmer, exporter, I can confirm that consumers want GM free produce and that market demand is growing.

– Simon Beamish is an award-winning Hawke’s Bay sheep and beef farmer and farm forester.

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