Assurances from each of the three leading political parties that law governing the outdoor use of GMOs will at minimum not be weakened are good news for the economy as much as the environment.

The HSNO Act requires that GM developers show a net benefit for New Zealand and it is critical that this test is not eroded as GMOs are a serious risk to the economy and the clean green brand.

Environment Minister Nick Smith’s new assurance that the law will not be weakened under National is consistent with his earlier refusal to vary the HSNO Act when Pastoral Genomics pressed for changes to help get its GM grasses into the field.

The minister was responding to a Herald on Sunday report that government agencies are commissioning research to find out if the current law is holding back developers from getting GMOs and other new organisms into New Zealand fields. This study is to feed into further work assessing whether the law is too protective and should be weakened in a bid to promote economic growth.

Why a study of this form has come forward at all, and without the Environment Minister’s knowledge, is puzzling on a number of counts:

  • Market resistance to GM food has not gone away as predicted. In Europe, opponents outnumber supporters by three to one and the general pattern has been declining support.
  • Local researchers are increasingly saying they will not take GM products into the field until there is acceptance from local growers as much as consumer markets.
  • Non-GM ways of providing similar gains in agricultural productivity are currently at the leading edge of plant science – marker assisted selection in particular. So there is no need to go the GM route – the regulations under HSNO can be completely avoided if such alternatives are used.

The HSNO Act would benefit from change but in the direction of strengthening it. Labour’s new environment policy recognises this and includes pledges to introduce traceability and segregation provisions, and to strengthen liability law to protect conventional farmers affected by GM contamination. Labour has also committed to redirecting government research funding to support non-GM means of raising agricultural productivity. The Greens go further in this direction with the party retaining its policy for GMOs to only be used in the lab.

To have relevance to an incoming government of any stripe, the terms for the proposed study need to be rewritten, and they in any case focus on the wrong question. Strengthening the economy does not depend on weakening the tests that GM developers must face. Fonterra and Zespri are among the companies that have warned of economic damage from using GMOs in the field, as a result of the impact on the nation’s clean green brand.

Given the high level of sustained consumer resistance to GM foods, the challenge is to develop an agricultural strategy that supports non-GM innovation and protects New Zealand producers and the brand.