By John Carapiet, consumer researcher and for GE-Free NZ (in food and environment)
In his call for deregulation of gene editing, Malcolm Bailey of the AgResearch Endophyte Gene Editing Steering Group has forgotten the importance of the consumer in the gene-editing debate.
Bailey says, in “Outdated genetic laws hobble NZ research” (May 29), that gene editing is the closest thing we have to a “silver bullet” and we have to be able to use it. But the same argument has been made before, and genetic engineering (GE) is already allowed.
There is no ban on GE in New Zealand and strict regulation is an advantage when it requires evidence of safety for people and the environment.
Farmers and exporters benefit from us having high standards for safe, natural food. It is a point of difference for many consumers and underpins NZ’s exports and reputation.
Evidence of safety for people and the environment is built into regulations and is the foundation for consumer trust. Lessons learnt from problems with harmful chemicals in agriculture have supported the consumer preference for more natural, organic, GE-free food, and for testing and labelling of gene-edited food.
The debate on regulating gene editing is happening across the world.
There is still clear consumer demand for safety testing and labelling of gene edited foods. Ignoring this expectation risks losing consumer trust and confidence.
Bailey suggests we follow countries such as Argentina and Brazil but it is more appropriate to learn from others’ mistakes. The launch of the gene-edited hornless cow is an example of things going unexpectedly wrong after the discovery of unwanted genetic elements accidentally integrated into the genome.
Against the public wish, the United Kingdom government has moved to deregulate gene editing as “precision breeding”. The Food Safety Authority and YouGov polls found over 79% of people support safety testing, traceability and labeling of gene-editing products. The UK Co-op supermarket has introduced a policy rejecting genetically edited food crops and animals without strict assessment and labels.
Exporters such as Fonterra and Lewis Road Creamery are adopting the Non-GMO Project label for products in the United States. Beef + Lamb NZ and Zespri benefit from their non-GMO status and have succeeded internationally because of the consumer demand. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported in 2019 that the value of non-GMO-labelled product was US$11 billion ($18bn) in Germany alone.
The USDA warned: “German consumers’ increasing awareness of and preference for Ohne Gentechnik-labelled foods is also driving demand in the market for GMO-free animal feed, leading to marketing opportunities for growers and producers of non-GMO feed ingredients and additives, while eroding demand for US exports of genetically engineered soy.”
The value of genetic science in agriculture is not just about commercialisation to sell more gene-edited products. Consumer appeal in the work of Lincoln University for environmental mitigation using natural, unmodified fungi to address nitrate issues is an example of “working with nature”, with none of the consumer rejection of genetic engineering that remains an issue across markets.
Dropping our strong regulation of gene editing to create “more products” for farmers is not what we need.
Protect New Zealand farmers’ advantage as a non-GMO producer. Give farmers financial support to transition to longer term sustainability. Align exporters trading on Brand New Zealand to maintain best-in-world standards for consumer choice through safety testing, traceability and labelling of gene-edited products.