Friday, December 1, 2023

We need to edit our response on genetics

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New Zealand is handing an advantage to competitors who are not hampered by the world’s strictest GMO legislation, says Alan Emerson.
The benefits of GM food include that it is more nutritious and tastier, there is increased supply with reduced cost and a longer shelf life, Alan Emerson says, quoting the US’s National Institutes of Health.
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The recent release on genetic modification by Te Puna Whakaaronui, the independent government-funded food and fibre think tank, makes interesting reading.

For the record, I’m in favour of genetic modification (GM) and believe we should have adopted the technology a long time ago. It is an indictment on spineless politicians that we haven’t.

I’m aware of the anti-GMO brigade but they use emotion, not science, to advance their cause. I’d describe them as modern day Luddites with about the same irrational arguments that Ned Ludd had way back in the 1800s.

In addition, the plaintive cry that it will harm our country’s image is fallacious. There is no credible research to back that up.

The think tank’s report starts by telling us that “globally, genetic technology has been applied across the food and fibre sectors to improve yield, size, taste and nutritional content of product as well as develop resistance to factors such as disease, pests [and demonstrate] drought and salt tolerance”.

GMOs are also pivotal for human health. For example, modern day insulin is a genetically modified product, as will be the long-awaited cure for cancer.

Of concern is that the think tank tells us that our regulatory framework is not fit for purpose. I’d agree, it’s not.

The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act banning GMOs dates back more than 30 years. The world has moved on.

I have a real difficulty understanding our politician’s aversion to genetically engineered (GE) crops especially when research tells us that 75% of processed food in a supermarket contains elements of genetic modification, meaning it is here, now.

The major everyday crops that have been genetically modified include corn, soybeans, sugar beet, cotton, apples, tomatoes, rice, potatoes and squash.

In addition, corn syrup is used as a sweetener in many foods and drinks. Corn starch is used in soups and sauces. Soybean, corn and canola oils are in snack foods, bread, salad dressings and mayonnaise. Sugar beet produces sugar. 

The World Health Organisation and the National Academy of Sciences in the United States have found no evidence that GE foods are harmful.

Recently Federated Farmers surveyed 1000 Kiwis with the question, “NZ scientists using genetic modification have developed a new type of grass that can reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution from cattle and sheep. Do you think Kiwi farmers should be given the choice of using this new grass if they wish?”

The results were clear, with 72% of respondents saying yes and just 15% saying no, which begs the question as to why GM isn’t legal here.

The grass referred to in the Feds questionnaire was developed by AgResearch in NZ but had to be trialled overseas courtesy of our antiquated laws. That’s scandalous.

It actually gets worse, as the Feds pointed out. They argue that our overseas competitors can use GM whereas we can’t. That means they are more sustainable and profitable than we are.

Reinforcing that, the US’s National Institutes of Health published a paper on the benefits of genetically engineered food. It is a long list but includes food being more nutritious and  tastier, increased supply with reduced cost and a longer shelf life – and some food being medicinal. Potatoes can also be modified to produce fewer cancer-causing substances when fried.

Additional benefits include disease- and drought-resistant plants that require fewer environmental resources such as water and fertiliser, combined with less use of pesticides. 

The institutes add that “there are no side-effects from consuming GE foods”.

What galls me is the continual bleating of some greens and the anti-GM brigade about climate change, our “nuclear moment”. The answer to that “moment” isn’t to have fewer cows and with it a reduced income, but genetic modification. Pine trees can be genetically modified to absorb more CO2 and grass can be modified so ruminants burp less methane. That science is available now. So, if we are serious about climate change then we also need to be serious about genetic modification.

Another bleat I’ve heard is that if we accept genetic modification, it will affect us in the marketplace. People will be less inclined to buy NZ products.

I find that argument spurious as the countries we export to don’t ban food containing genetically modified material. Countries that do include Algeria, Madagascar, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Bhutan, Belize, Peru and Venezuela. They are hardly major export markets for us. 

The think tank investigated whether GM impacted a country’s brand, with the answer being a conditional no.

So there is absolutely no reason not to legalise genetic modification here in NZ now. If politicians of all colours are remotely concerned about the issue they need to investigate the current science on the topic.

Genetic modification in one form or another has been around since the 1970s. Detractors have used some of the problems of almost 60 years ago to try to effect legislation today.

Science has changed and we need to change as well.

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