There is mounting evidence that New Zealand cannot have it both ways on GM agriculture.
That it cannot grow GM crops in some areas and leave others reliably GM free, as the Royal Commission proposed.
Contamination of non-GM farming is now considered all too likely an eventual result.
In response to this, the US Government last week proposed regulations that would provide for food safety tests to be conducted before a new GM plant was even field trialed.
The regulations cite “the likelihood that cross-pollination due to pollen drift from field tests to commercial fields and commingling of seeds” would increase as more field trials started.
In other words, the risk of even small trial plots contaminating commercial crops is now judged to be sufficient to make pre-testing advisable. The new GMO may otherwise enter the food chain illegally.
A US agricultural industry consultant, Susan Harlander, bluntly put it that “cross-pollination among conventional and biotech crops is inevitable”.
For New Zealand then, it would just be a matter of when the scale of GM planting became such that contamination was similarly “inevitable”.
The separate harvesting and processing of crops can reduce the extent of additional contamination – it cannot prevent it entirely. And the effectiveness of such systems over time is already under question.
Even then, the cost of the systems required to minimise contamination is such that it is uneconomic for most crops unless the accepted tolerance levels are very high.
In Argentina, segregation of maize is estimated to raise costs 7%, according to the International Service for National Agricultural Research.
This is thought to be too much for all but the highest value GM crops in Argentina.
The European Commission has similarly produced a study projecting that crops such as rape seed and corn cannot be segregated economically.
Inadequacies in the segregation systems can be even more costly. The failure of segregation measures designed to keep GM corn separate from non-GM corn in the US led to one incident that cost hundreds of millions of dollars in product recalls.
If introducing GM agriculture for some farmers now means that all farmers are exposed to eventual contamination, then the choice is not just a matter for individual farmers.
All farmers are stakeholders in that decision. As are all New Zealanders.
Any decision to embrace GM agriculture would expose the New Zealand economy to a far greater extent than it would other nations.
Agricultural production accounts for 48% of our export returns.
This is 5 times the OECD average and double the nearest country.
This means that for New Zealand, adopting GM agriculture carries 5 times the exposure of a typical OECD nation.
The Sustainability Council has urged that more time be taken to consider potential impacts that affect not only all farmers, but New Zealand’s ability to earn its way in the world.
The Council is not anti-GM. It is pro-science and recognises the clear potential for advances through GM in medicine.
One Council member, Professor Garth Cooper, has employed GM-based techniques in his medical research for the past 20 years.
The bulk of GM techniques are used in the containment of the laboratory. A very small portion of GM requires the release of genetically modified organisms.
Private investors similarly recognise this distinction between the medical and the agricultural.
In the home of biotechnology, the US, the vast bulk of funds invested go to companies that create GMOs only within containment.
It is in these medical and other non-release applications that investors believe have the potential to yield real wealth, not GM foods.
This is mainly due to strong consumer resistance to GM foods of all forms.
The strength of this resistance was such that within three years of the commecialisation of GM corn, US corn exports to Europe had dropped 95%.
The USDA sees little or no prospect of regaining that market as other exporters have moved quickly to respond to EU requirements.
This carnage began in 1997, when only 9% of corn crops were GM, but ended up affecting all corn growers just the same.
A European Commission survey found that 71% of Europeans did not want to eat GM food, no matter what level of testing had been applied.
And not some but all major British supermarkets have gone GM-free.
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.
This brief survey brings into focus the following key questions for New Zealand Inc:
Why would New Zealand adopt GM food production, at this stage, when our key markets are resistant to it?
Why would we not at least wait until there were signs of market acceptance? What exactly is case for going ahead now?
If we don’t want to adopt GM agriculture now, why remove the moratorium on GM release (as medical applications are generally not affected)?
By Sir Peter Elworthy.
Published in the Dominion Post.