Sunday, August 14, 2022

Rethink on GM policy needed

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John Caradus, scientist and chief executive of AgResearch’s commercial entity Grasslanz Technology, is pushing industry leaders, politicians and farmers to reconsider genetic modification (GM) as the primary sector grapples with the challenges of climate change, nutrient losses and disease. He spoke to Richard Rennie about his recent work reviewing GM globally.

There is a level of hypocrisy within New Zealand’s stance on genetically modified (GM) foods that does not sit well with John Caradus. 

He points out NZ consumers can shop for over 90 different GM foods produced from 10 plant species here, but NZ farmers are unable to grow any of them.

“We have a regulatory system that makes it extremely difficult for any entity considering doing so,” he says.

The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO) may mean it is theoretically possible to trial GM species here, but the reality is far from that.

“There is a reluctance due to the sheer difficulty and cost of doing so, the level of reaction likely from the anti-GMO lobby and reluctance at both an industry and government level to publicly support this technology. You would need that support for a successful Environment Protection Authority hearing.”

As he enters the later stages of his professional life, Caradus admits he sees nothing to lose in speaking out about the national GM stance that has remained unchanged for more than two decades.

“I have bit the bullet on this because I am tired of the say nothing approach. There are people out there who see value in it, but simply are sick of the battle, or don’t want it.”

The Royal Society Te Aparangi launched a campaign more than three years ago to raise the profile of new GM technology and its potential in the primary sector, with examples like lactose-free milk and apple trees capable of multiple crops touted as examples of the tech’s results.

But since then, the Government has shown little appetite for change while other countries have pushed on with broader acceptance of GM. 

Australia, the United States, Brazil,and Argentina have all determined if gene edits are simply deletions or changes to existing DNA that can occur in nature or through traditional plant breeding, there is no need to regulate it.

NZ has a very “process focused” approach to GM. 

In contrast, countries with a progressive view on it like Canada take a “novel products” approach to approval, evaluating the risk of an organism that results from the tech against its economic benefit.

Caradus says NZ’s tough regulatory limitations would be understandable if GM were proving a hard sell to consumers overseas. 

But his review, which studied many survey outcomes, has revealed this is not the case.

“It has been said we can’t go for GM crops, that Chinese consumers will not like it, but China has the sixth largest area in the world under GM crops and is the world’s largest importer of GM soy.” 

His review found Chinese consumers more likely to accept GM foods when they include a price advantage and credible data on their safety. 

A 2016 survey of Chinese consumers found 58% had a positive to neutral view of GM food.

Closer to home, a trial at fruit stalls in NZ, France, Sweden,and the United Kingdom selling organic, conventional and spray free-GM fruit highlighted how consumers were more focused on the “spray free” selling point than the organic. 

Organic enjoyed the greatest market share initially, but when it was sold at a premium,and a discount offered on the cheaper-to-grow GM fruit, the organic fruit lost significant market share and GM gained as much as 60% market share in NZ.

A 2021 UK study reveals consumers’ willingness to pay more for “GM-free” or organic food rated low compared to willingness to pay for enhanced animal welfare or being “carbon neutral”.

Caradus says claims by GM opponents about health risks are also well debunked, backed up by 20 years of GM crop sales having no documented proof of anyone becoming ill or dying from ingesting GM food.

“And given the litigious nature of the US, you can be assured we would know if this had been the case.”

As Kiwi farmers grapple with the impacts of climate change and disease incursion, Caradus cautions not only are they missing out on a tool for their climate response toolbox with the likes of GM drought resistant grasses, but also significant income.

In South Australia the ban on GM crops was lifted in 2020, partly in response to evidence famers had lost more than A$400 million in potential income by being unable to grow GM canola rapeseed.

Caradus freely acknowledges his interests in the science of GM, but is not proclaiming it to be a silver bullet to help boost productivity or increase crop resilience.

“But it could be another tool in the toolbox, particularly as we try to provide farmers with crops that help lower methane emissions and nitrate losses.

“We are at the point where we need to have a grown-up debate about this. 

“There is potential we will be left behind, but it also comes back to scientists to show the GM they are proposing is adding value, it is not all just one way.”

John Caradus’s review of genetic modification can be read in full here.

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