It is interesting how a call for more time to understand and debate the release of genetically modified organisms brings such strong words from GM advocates.

In a Dialogue page article, David Saul, an academic bacteriologist at Auckland University, championed the future role of GM food and sought to belittle those who questioned this and were not of science.

He maintained that GM products should not be regulated any more stringently than conventional foods. However, it is not regulatory barriers that are holding back GM food. It is simply that the customers don’t want it.

This is recognised and reflected most clearly by private sector GM investors. Like the Sustainability Council, they recognise the clear potential for medical advances through GM, advances that do not bring the risks of genetically modified organism release.

The overwhelming proportion of private GM research and development globally is directed to medical and other non-release applications. The market capitalisations of these companies dwarf those that have chanced shareholders’ funds on GM food.

The United States Department of Agriculture has concluded that GM crops often convey no significant productivity advantage over unmodified crops. The prospects for improved commercial returns are no better on the marketing side.

According to detailed research by Professor Caroline Saunders, New Zealand would obtain higher returns for its food exports if it were not a GM producer than if it embraced GM agriculture. Her study across a range of export foods showed at best minimal additional returns under GM production, and distinct benefits under the zero or low GM option.

Wrightsons chairman John Palmer similarly painted a bright future for GM food in the Business Herald. He said he “senses a significant change of mood” in Europe in respect of GM food. Yet his senses are at odds with the 71 per cent of Europeans who recorded in a European Commission survey that they did not want to eat GM food, no matter what level of testing had been applied. And those senses seem not to have detected that not some but all major British supermarkets have gone GM-free.

Mr Palmer grounds his observations on the fact that the European Consumers Union “is not opposed to GMOs”. But according to the EU’s Minister Counsel for Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, GM food still has a very long way to go before it is a serious commercial prospect.

“Unless we restore EU consumer confidence in this new technology, genetic modification of food is dead in Europe” he told an American audience.

The European Union is still our biggest customer for agricultural products, and until there is evidence of a change in consumer perceptions, why would New Zealand even consider shifting its production to GM in advance? Just where is the business case for GM food?

The Sustainability Council has pointed to this as just one of the reasons more time is needed before any GM release is approved. The council believes that, in any case, it will take at least another five years to undertake the scientific research needed to understand the potential effects of releasing genetically modified organisms.

A five-year moratorium on GM release will affect only a small part of New Zealand’s biological research efforts because only a very small amount is targeted to GM release. Most of the applications for cutting-edge gene technology simply support conventional techniques. They tend to involve gene manipulation only inside the laboratory. The product will have benefited from GM technology, but no genetically modified organism capable of reproducing itself ever leaves the lab.

For example, plant breeding is now informed by GM technology but conventional breeding methods are overwhelmingly preferred by those undertaking commercial breeding.

Mr Palmer’s charge that Sustainability Council members are of “poor knowledge and vested interests” is disappointing and surprising given the clear vested interest Wrightsons has in GM agriculture. The council has no such vested interests.

In the past few years, we have read many claims by interested parties concerning an imminent bonanza for New Zealand based on GM food. Rather than attempting to belittle other views, the GM debate would benefit from Mr Palmer and Mr Saul addressing the hard question of who is going to buy GM food.

We have yet to see the business case for New Zealand taking the GM agriculture route. If it is there, let’s see it now, since all New Zealanders carry the risks of GM release.

By Sir Peter Elworthy, a past president of Federated Farmers and chairman of the Sustainability Council.

Published in the NZ Herald.