In the sixteen years since GM crops started growing in the US, New Zealand has remained a GM free food producer. Not because of red tape, nor because New Zealanders are anti-science. Quite simply it is because GM foods continue to be shunned in New Zealand’s high-value export markets.
Consumer resistance in Europe, parts of Asia and Australia has largely corralled GM food production to the Americas, where 83% of GM crops are grown. The 11% of GM crops grown in Asia is almost all cotton, not food.
European supermarket chains and food companies have become gatekeepers for unwilling consumers, shutting out GM ingredients and setting private standards that often bar even trace GM contamination.
Market resistance has been especially strong when it comes to GM crops developed for direct human consumption: GM tomatoes and potatoes have all but vanished from the marketplace, and GM wheat never even made it to the shelves.
As a result, GM crops and food ingredients go where they are invisible to the consumer. Today, you will find GM in animal feed, biofuels, food products in North America (where GM foods do not yet have to be labelled) and in food ingredients (such as oils) that do not have to be labelled for GM content.
Yet this week, multinational GM seed companies and the US State Department have come to town to convince New Zealand food producers that they are missing out.
AgCarm’s Graeme Peters, a local representative of GMO developers Monsanto, BASF, Syngenta, Dow and DuPont, led the charge (Luddite approach to GE hampering NZ Inc, August 31).
The reality, however, is that the companies he represents have yet to come up with crops that would provide real economic benefits for New Zealand farmers – quite apart from failing to win over consumers.
Globally, soy, maize, cotton and canola account for 99% of all GM agriculture – crops that we grow little of here, if at all. Other food crops have been approved, but their cultivation is tiny. It is widely agreed that the current line up offers little or nothing for New Zealand.
Three decades of domestic research have similarly failed to deliver anything commercially viable. Nor is the near term particularly promising.
GM seed available overseas has predominantly been engineered simply to resist herbicides and pesticides.
Breeding other types of plants – ones that can cope better with drought, soil salinity and the like – has proved far more difficult than first thought. Monsanto’s long-awaited GM drought resistant corn does not perform any better than conventional corn bred for dry conditions, according to the US Government. In New Zealand, publicly-funded development of GM grasses is at least a decade behind schedule. Farmers have been told not to expect a commercial product before 2022 at the earliest and the potential on-farm benefits remain speculative.
In 2012, the idea that a modern, market-focussed agricultural economy needs GM plant breeding to keep competitive is outmoded. The science has moved on.
GM is just one new plant breeding technology and other approaches are fast gaining traction. One of these is marker-assisted selection (MAS), which uses gene science to better target traditional breeding. MAS is capable of achieving almost everything that GM can do, yet it carries none of the marketing risks.
Horticulture New Zealand knows this. Three years ago, it sent a clear signal to crown research institutes: the industry wants cutting edge science, but it does not want GMOs because they are simply not consistent with the clean, green brand. That is: horticulture does not need GM.
Half of the research at the country’s primary pasture grass consortium is using non-GM technologies to breed new grasses.
That’s important given that the pastoral sector is nervous about going into the field with GM grasses. Developers AgResearch and Pastoral Genomics could not get industry sign-off to begin trialling experimental lines in New Zealand because of concern about contamination and market reactions.
Rightly so, as Europe is paying more – not less – attention to GM feed these days. France and German, for example, have just introduced voluntary labelling schemes. Take a trip through the up-market Carrefour chain in France, and you’ll see isles of New Zealand meat products labelled “Fed without GMOs”.
New Zealand is just one of many countries that has not adopted GM agriculture. Given the absence of GM crops that would benefit New Zealand and the strong resistance from consumers, it would be surprising for a country that earns half its export income from food products to take any other position.
GM agriculture might benefit Monsanto Inc, but New Zealand Inc is rightly focused on what high-value markets want, where GM free production remains an advantage and, in many cases, a prerequisite for market access.
Stephanie Howard is Projects Director at the Sustainability Council of New Zealand.