Stephanie Howard is Projects Director at the Sustainability Council

This opinion piece appeared in Farmers Weekly, June 16 2014

In a competitive global marketplace, successful agricultural innovation is not simply about giving plant breeders a free rein.

It requires decision making processes that ensure innovation meets a wide range of demands. Where use of genetic modification in the food chain is concerned, entry-level requirements are transparency and traceability.

That is why a recent High Court ruling will be welcome news to the New Zealand food industry.

The Court overturned a decision by the Environmental Protection Authority that had allowed two new techniques for creating GM plants and animals to avoid New Zealand’s GM laws.

That was a close call for a country that is so dependent on high-value markets that continue to resist GM foods, including China’s growing middle class.

If allowed to stand, the EPA decision would have meant that GM crops made by zinc finger nuclease (ZFN-1) and a similar technique could have been introduced into New Zealand fields without any consultation or assessment of the consequences and no requirements for developers to notify food producers where or when.

That decision might have suited GM developers wanting to duck regulation, but it would have done the New Zealand food industry no favours.

Crown research institute, Scion, which had asked the EPA to rule on whether the new techniques are covered by our GM laws, went so far as to say that the High Court ruling will “block New Zealand’s ability to innovate”.

That is pure hype: the court ruling does not stop Scion or anyone else from developing plants using ZFN-1. So it’s business as usual for researchers. And the EPA requirements for commercial use are hardly unreasonable: developers need to show the EPA that their use will have a net benefit for New Zealand.

What the ruling does guarantee is that food producers and other stakeholders will have a say before developers take ZFN-1 crops outdoors.

Scion’s suggestion that the Court ruling puts New Zealand behind other countries is also inflated. So far, Australia has issued private advice whether ZFN-1 organisms should be treated like GMOs. Only the US has made a final decision on that question, and it is a country that New Zealand would be wise not to treat as a role model for GM food policy.

The reality is that most of New Zealand’s key trading partners are far from settling the question of whether ZFN-1 organisms are GM and what regulatory tests they must meet. And it will likely be much longer before the most critical decision-maker of all –consumers – decide whether ZFN-1 is acceptable in the food chain.

That is why the EPA’s sudden deregulation of the new breeding techniques posed such a risk to New Zealand’s food exporters.

New Zealand could have lost its valuable status as a GM free food producer – and for techniques that have yet to demonstrate they can deliver.

All it would take is for Europe or China to decide these new techniques are GM and the losses could be very significant, should ZFN-1 crops have been released in the NZ supply chain.

The bigger question is how New Zealand can harness agricultural innovation in the service of environmental sustainability and economic prosperity to secure our position in high-value markets. That requires a lot more than giving plant breeders free rein.

Good process and regulation are friends of innovation. They provide assurance of scientific safety and are fundamental to social and so market acceptability.

If there is one lesson that the food industry has learnt from the history of GM food technologies so far, it is that resisting regulation and transparency breeds mistrust. And once that trust is lost, it is difficult to recover.

Key export markets have remained effectively closed to GM foods for nearly two decades now. The GM industry’s attempts to avoid fronting up to consumers about what is in their food have fuelled that resistance.

While that lesson may be clearly imprinted in food industry minds, Scion seems oblivious to the risks that unfettered use of new GM techniques presents for food exporters. Its agenda for a regulation-free regime runs directly counter to the interests of exporters targeting high-value food markets.

The CRI’s inability to think beyond its narrow research interests also shows how vital it is that decisions about use of GM are not left to individual operators.

Last month’s High Court ruling ensures that there will be a proper process – , one that involves consultation with the food industry and wider community and considers outcomes for all, not simply what individual developers seek.

New Zealand need not and should not rush decisions about whether these new techniques are GM.

If they prove their worth and are accepted by our key trading partners, the agricultural industry may chose to use them.

For now, ensuring that use of new GM techniques is properly controlled allows New Zealand to hold position until key trading partners and markets have made up their minds about what levels of safety assurance and transparency will be required.

Any country reliant on high-end markets to make its way in the world should be eager to preserve that choice.