Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Time for a national conversation about GE?

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The world has really changed since NZ last had this discussion in the late 1990s and early 2000s, writes Wayne Langford.
Malcolm White weighs in on genetic modification in agriculture, saying things are not as simple as they seem.
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By Wayne Langford

Federated Farmers has had a number of members reach out in the past few weeks wanting to better understand our position on the use of genetic modification, genetic engineering, and gene-editing in New Zealand – so I wanted to put pen to paper and share some views.

I completely understand that this is a really significant issue for a lot of people and that there will be a lot of different opinions right across our membership. 

This will range from those who are complete opposed, right through to those who think it’s the only way forward, and everything in between. 

For the avoidance of doubt, Federated Farmers’ position is that we strongly believe it’s time for New Zealand to have a national conversation about things like gene-editing where we consider all the potential benefits, weight them up against any risks, and decide how we want to move forward together as a country. 

The world has really changed since we last had this discussion in the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

The science has continued to develop at breakneck speed, and so has our collective understanding of some of the big global challenges we are facing like climate change and biodiversity loss. 

We’ve all got a lot on our plate, and we need some real solutions. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean GE is a solution that we will move forward with, but as a country we shouldn’t just close the door on the issue – we need to continue to revisit it and to be open to new technologies like gene-editing that have a lot of potential to help not just farmers, but all New Zealanders when it comes to things like healthcare. 

We would be doing ourselves a huge disservice as a country if we weren’t even prepared to have that conversation.

That’s why in February this year Federated Farmers wrote to the five political parties in Parliament (Labour, National, Green, ACT, and Te Pāti Māori) asking them to commit to a review of New Zealand’s rules relating to genetically modified organisms. 

That advocacy has prompted both major political parties, and some of the smaller ones, to commit to take another look at whether our current rules are fit for purpose. 

The potential opportunities here are too great to just leave them sitting on the table without even taking a look at them. 

Could gene-editing help us completely eradicate pests like possums that are spreading disease and decimating our native forests? 

Could GE ryegrass lower our greenhouse gas emissions or improve our resilience to drought? 

Could it increase our farm production? These aren’t just imaginary concepts – they’re real possibilities. 

Of course, there will always be risks and trade-offs that need to be considered too. 

There are some legitimate questions that still need to be answered about whether the use of GE would have unintended consequences or devalue New Zealand’s international brand. Do our consumers around the world care about our GE Free status, and more importantly, are they willing to pay a premium for it? I also wonder what they would place a greater premium on: Our GE Free status or having a lower  greenhouse gas product?

As a country which is completely reliant on trade, with 82% of our exports coming from the primary sector, of course we need to continue to look closely at what our customers are asking for and respond to those preferences – because they’re ultimately the ones who buy our products. 

When I look at countries like Canada and Australia, who do allow GE cultivars to be grown, they still maintain a very strong reputation for their high-quality food exports.

At the end of the day, every consumer is different. We all have our own values, views, and preferences – we see this all the time with food. Some people choose to only eat organic; some choose to be vegetarian. Some people make their decisions depending on quality, price, or availability. Farmers then respond to those market signals when making decisions about what they produce and how they produce it – and GE would probably be no different.

As the president of Federated Farmers what I would really like to know is whether individual farmers would be able to make that choice for themselves, or would that decision be taken away from them because of the choices of their neighbour? In other words, can we have a situation where some farmers are producing ‘GE Free’ products while others are using GE technology? 

That needs to be looked into more and explained clearly as part of the conversation. Surely it must be a possibility when a lot of the soy milk sold in NZ supermarkets is labelled as ‘GM Free’ but is produced in the United States – a country that has a huge amount of GMO soy being grown. Not that this dairy farmer is buying soy milk. 

Regardless of where you stand on this issue it’s really important that we do have the conversation – and that we have it in a respectful way. There should be absolutely no tolerance for misinformation or scaremongering, but equally we can’t just dismiss legitimate concerns. 

Federated Farmers will be discussing our position on GE at the end of November, so if you’re a member who has a view on the topic then we want to hear from you before then. Make sure you reach out to your local Feds team, share your views, and join the conversation. 

Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.

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