“Government has yet to answer the question whether New Zealand farms will be contaminated if agricultural GMOs are released on a commercial scale”, said the Chairman of the Sustainability Council, Sir Peter Elworthy.

“Coexistence” was proposed by the Royal Commission as a means of “preserving opportunities”. It has been offered as a mechanism to allow each farmer to choose a production method without compromising other farmers. Government reported today on analysis by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry confirming that there are theoretical possibilities for the coexistence of GM and non-GM production.

However, Government has not described how New Zealand farmers will be able to meet the market demand for GM Free produce if GMOs are adopted here.

“The New Zealand food industry needs more than assurances that theoretical models are available. It needs to see those models fully described and successfully demonstrated before they are implemented” said Sir Peter.

The European Commission does not believe zero contamination is possible in practice when growing GM crops.

Further, its recent assessments of the cost and effectiveness of segregation systems have found that even with tolerance limits, segregation measures are likely to be uneconomic for many crops.

“Ultimately, markets decide how much trace contamination is acceptable” says Sir Peter. “Where food is concerned, there is a marked resistance to trace GM contamination in conventional lines.”

This is bearing out in North America, which is currently considering whether to introduce GM wheat. European and Asian buyers have informed wheat exporters that they will not buy any Canadian or US wheat, GM or not, if GM varieties are introduced.

After extensive research with seed companies and government officials on possible strategies, the Canadian Wheat Board, which represents 85,000 wheat growers, has still to identify a segregation system that will meet the requirements of international buyers.

It has concluded that all farmers would be penalized by GM introduction: “If GM wheat was grown even by a few individuals, the risk of co-mingling and market rejection would be unacceptable and would affect all farmers, including those who have not adopted the technology”, the Board maintains.

“Coexistence has been offered as a solution to preserve choice for all farmers”, says Sir Peter. “Yet, the evidence from overseas market reactions is that once an agricultural GMO is released, the only choice is between being a GM farmer or a GM-contaminated farmer. To date, the proven segregation strategy is the border”.

Given the irreversibility of a commercial scale release, New Zealand food producers need to be fully confident of the effectiveness segregation before any release takes place.