Can NZ afford to ignore GM?

Source: Central South Island Farmer, 06/03/13

Nuffield scholar Michael Tayler is questioning how much longer New Zealand can continue to turn its back on the opportunities genetic modification technology has to offer.

The Temuka cropping farmer spent last year travelling the world as part of his study looking at new technologies.

After meeting with countless farmers, scientists and agricultural leaders GM and the possibilities it offered came up again and again, he said.

“Before I left, I had no pre-conceived ideas about GM. I just wanted to look at what technologies might improve yields for arable farmers.”

He became convinced that New Zealand should at least keep an open mind to the benefits that GM technology offered.

He outlined his findings in his report, ‘New Technologies in Arable Farming’.

He accepts there is an argument for New Zealand becoming a niche producer, targeting high-end export markets but questions the viability of New Zealand positioning itself as a non-GM country long-term.

“Many surveys show that consumer attitudes to GM crops are softening, albeit slowly, and if that trend continues we may well be left producing for a shrinking market while our competitors embrace the new technologies, leaving us at a competitive disadvantage”

He was convinced New Zealand would one day grow GM crops, but it would need consumer acceptance for it to be done successfully.

“New Zealand shouldn’t blindly turn its back on it.

“We should at least have a look at it, but the key will be to get the public on board.”

Overseas surveys showed that attitudes towards GM food were becoming more favourable, he said.

There would be increasing pressure on agriculture to lift production in the wake of world food shortages brought about by a growing world population.

GM technology was one of the tools that farmers could use to feed these people.

He believed it was possible for GM, conventional and organic farming systems to co-exist.

If organic and conventional farming systems could operate side by side, GM and non-GM farms could do so too, he said.

“There is no doubt there will be challenges, but there is already co-existence of GM and non-GM in other countries.

He pointed to the development of genetically modified wheat that was aphid-resistant as an example of a crop that could benefit New Zealand farmers. Growing it could save thousands of dollars in insecticide costs, creating environmental benefits as well as financial ones.

New Zealand needed to have a mature, reasoned debate over the pros and cons of GM.

It was also time for another high level study into GM in New Zealand.

This last occurred in 2001 when a Royal Commission report was released, he said.

“We need to have a look at it because in 10-15 years time, the bulk of the food produced in the world may be genetically modified and if we haven’t at least researched what opportunities are available, we could be left behind.”

Ultimately the markets and the consumers would decide.

The easiest way to stop GM food would be for people to stop buying it, but demand was growing worldwide, he said.

GM was a huge area and not all of GM technology would be suitable for New Zealand farming systems.

But New Zealand farmers could cherry-pick the proven technology that is most appropriate and still maintain the country’s clean green brand integrity.

“I do understand it is an emotive topic but I believe everyone has the right to choose.

“I’m not saying we should jump into GM boots and all, it’s not the silver bullet for global food shortages, but there is some exciting stuff out there that’s happening with GM and the science will only get better.

“How long can we afford to ignore it?”