Sunday, July 3, 2022

Scholar calls for GM revisit

After months of international travel looking at global agriculture, Nuffield scholar Michael Tayler has returned convinced about opportunities for New Zealand growing genetically modified (GM) crops. His study focussed on GM and precision agriculture as methods NZ could adopt to boost productivity. The GM angle was always going to be the most controversial and one he admitted he thought about long and hard before “opening that can of worms”. However, his family’s extensive agri-business operation near Timaru spans crop and all animal-protein production, giving him an appreciation about where potential could lie. Despite his own operation’s scale, he has a worldly appreciation of NZ agriculture’s small place in the global scheme of things and its need to stay relevant and competitive. He visited countries and farmers who had the benefit of multi-million populations just down the road and landscapes facilitating massive irrigation and broad-acre economies only dreamt about in this country.

“I came away from an agri conference in the United Kingdom eventually convinced there was a place for GM here in NZ, helping us retain competitiveness and bringing environmental advantages with it.”

He learned even in the more sensitive GM environment of Europe and UK, farmers were quite open to the science, with opposition coming more from vocal fringe groups and vote-conscious bureaucrats.

In 2010 the European Commission said the main conclusion to be drawn from 130 research projects and 25 years of research involving 500 independent research groups was that GM was no riskier than conventional plant-breeding technology.

In fact, because of the extra-rigorous testing and procedures it could be argued it was safer than conventional food.

This was reinforced by multiple studies assuring the technology was safe. Aside from allergy issues identified early on with crops that have been withdrawn since, there had been no substantiated cases of harm. This was despite more than three trillion GM meals being consumed in North America, many in one of the most litigious societies in the world.

Tayler accepts NZ does not need to feed the entire world and there is an argument for being a niche premium GM-free food basket.

However, after his tour and research he believes as GM is becoming better understood, acceptance is growing and the time will come when the science already proven on many crops is more widely accepted.

This could leave NZ with no case for a premium, or the technology or competitive edge needed to export half a world away.

The safety of the technology was further reinforced while Tayler was writing the last of his study in January.

Labelled a “GM turncoat”, ardent anti-GM protestor and author Mark Lynas “came out” at the Oxford farming conference to acknowledge the value GM would bring in feeding the millions of babies born every year.

Lynas acknowledged his lack of scientific understanding about the technology and apologised for personally vandalising field trials. He also criticised Greenpeace and the UK Soil Association for ignoring scientific facts about GM.

Tayler has also detected a slight but measurable change in public perception to the technology in Europe. It is one he believes needs to be surveyed again in NZ.

Retail survey work conducted last year indicated 14% of consumers strongly disagreed GM would help reduce the use of chemicals in food production. This was a decline from 21% in 2008, with many shifting to “don’t know” and indicating the industry needs to better communicate the benefits GM can deliver.

A trial on GM wheat Tayler visited at Hertfordshire in the UK provided one useful example of technology he could see used in NZ. Scientists had combined a gene from the peppermint plant into wheat to use the peppermint’s production of pheromones to deter aphids from the wheat. The aphids transmit viruses that restrict the transport mechanisms of the plant.

“This would effectively allow arable farmers to grow wheat without the need for insecticides, creating not just financial benefits but environmental benefits as well.”

After success in the laboratory, the project is in its field-trial stage.

The cornerstone GM crops widely used in the United States and South America are cotton, rice, and soybeans, which are not applicable to NZ. But the lack of “off-the-shelf” range is more of a reason for NZ to start with science that could deliver relevant crops sooner.

Global cereal yield gains have slowed significantly in the past 20 years, while nine million people die every year from malnutrition.

Tayler believes for Westerners with “full bellies and full wallets” to oppose even re-examining GM is hypocritical.

“I understand this is an emotive subject and agree GM is not the full answer to global food shortages but it can be a part of the answer.”

However, he also acknowledges the negatives that have accompanied the technology. This includes the development of glyphosate resistance in weeds growing on Roundup Ready GM corn crops.

“But that is like any other cropping situation. GM or not, you have to manage your crops and rotations to stop resistance developing.”

Similarly, claims of corporate overcharging for GM corn reflects more the pressure and costs companies face to get the product into the market, rather than any exorbitant return from it.

“If it became more available commercially then the costs of getting into market would be lower, and seed costs would fall,” Tayler said.

He believes NZ arable farmers are as efficient and skilled as anywhere in the world but would not be adverse to technology that enabled them to grow crops more economically, with lower environmental impact.

“It has been 10 years since we last looked at GM and I think it is time to revisit it.

“At the end of the day it is about choice and the need to respect people’s right to choose. Just as we have no right to stop people growing organics, likewise other farming systems can have a place as well.

“It may be too early now but I believe in the future we will be growing commercial genetically modified crops in NZ.”

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