GM crops are not in New Zealand fields because developers cannot get sufficient support from food producers and consumers, not because the law is holding them back, a Sustainability Council report finds.

Yet a government study on the HSNO Act is going ahead in its original form despite pre-election assurances that the regulation of GMOs will not be weakened.

Then Environment Minister Nick Smith was unaware of the proposed study into new organisms when tender documents surfaced in November but made clear that his government would only contemplate a change of law for non-GM organisms.

Developers have been pushing for HSNO to be weakened to make it easier to get GMOs into the field, and the Treasury believes the act in general is limiting economic growth.

The report released today by the Sustainability Council shows that the law is not to blame for a fall off in GM field activity in New Zealand, as developers often claim.

GM food developers are simply not willing to apply to field trial GMOs because they have not been able to win the support of the agricultural sectors that would use them.

The CRI that was once a driving force of GM development in New Zealand, Plant and Food, now states that it will not develop GMOs for outdoor use unless it has the horticulture sector behind it. Horticulture New Zealand has said it does not want GM crops.

Pastoral Genomics and Agresearch have also put on ice their plans to field trial GM grasses in New Zealand because they could not get support across the pastoral sector.

Developers also maintain that regulatory requirements are too expensive. However, as the Council’s report details, the taxpayer foots the lion’s share of assessment costs: for three field trial applications since 2001, the regulator has met 88% of the regulatory assessment costs; developers just 12%.

Sustained market resistance, domestically and abroad, is the real reason GM food crops are struggling to get off the starting blocks in New Zealand. This, in turn, has made farmers and growers less willing to support field activity. Even in the Americas where GM food production is significant, it is effectively confined to four crops and it is mostly used as animal feed or in processed foods where GM content is not labeled.

Changes of law do not change consumer attitudes. Indeed, reducing GM developers’ accountability may well make consumers even more wary.

The Environment Ministry continues to maintain that there is no substantive evidence to suggest the regulations governing GMOs are a problem but says it is still going ahead with the GMO part of the study so that it can obtain “quantitative evidence” on whether HSNO is holding back innovation and so economic growth.

The continued inability of state funded GM developers to meet performance targets for delivery of their products to market should be prompting a quite different sort of review: one that questions the value of continuing to invest in GMOs instead of funding non-GM agricultural opportunities.

Read the report: Citizens Arrest