Jon Carapiet: AgResearch proposals tantamount to economic suicide
4:00AM Tuesday Aug 11, 2009

Jon Carapiet says flirtations with genetic modification put our clean-green brand at risk.

The recent opinion piece by Federated Farmers' John Hartnell painted an inaccurate picture of concerns about genetic modification. It also failed to appreciate why it is vital for New Zealand to protect its genetic modification-free production system.

The Northland and Auckland local body councils' collaborative community consultation on GM is not "outside the role of local government" but a response to community concerns that central governments are failing to address the risks of genetically modified organism land use and provide a strict liability regime.

If the millions spent on the Royal Commission into Genetic Modification are not to have been wasted, Federated Farmers must stop interpreting the commission's recommendation "to preserve opportunities" as a green light for the release of such modified organisms for primary production.

On the contrary, New Zealand can benefit much more from using non-genetically modified DNA technology and confining the risky and inaccurate science of genetic modification to the laboratory.

Marker Assisted Breeding (MAS) is one advanced non-GM technique used to identify naturally occurring genes and accelerate traditional breeding, without the risks of genetic modification.

Zespri has successfully demonstrated this by developing new kiwifruit varieties that are all GM-free and meet the expectations of customers worldwide. It is their vision that properly reflects global food trends towards safe, clean, sustainable production, and that will benefit New Zealand for decades to come.

Important recommendations of the royal commission have been sidelined with the Government's refusal to establish a Biotechnology Commissioner and the quiet axing of the Bioethics Council.

Most alarmingly, the royal commission recommended against using food animals as bioreactors for pharmaceuticals - precisely what AgResearch proposes as it applies for importation of genetically modified embryos, creation of arthritic horses as models of human disease and commercialisation of a range of species anywhere, indefinitely.

Recent surveys show 70 per cent of New Zealanders are strongly opposed to genetically modified animals. Quite apart from the deformities and animal suffering from cloning, there are risks from AgResearch partnering with overseas biotechnology companies whose financial viability is in doubt.

Weighed against the billion-dollar asset our clean, green brand represents, AgResearch's proposals are tantamount to economic suicide. AgResearch has failed to learn the lessons of the past, denying any knowledge of the financial collapse of Scottish company PPL whose 3000 genetically modified sheep were destroyed after its failed clinical trials, with no money for scientific tests or clean-up of the land.

New Zealand stands to lose its billion-dollar reputation as clean, green and GM-free from such ventures. Even Federated Farmers realises the marketing benefits of a GM-free New Zealand. In its battle with British butter producers Federated Farmers invited Johnny Rotten - frontman for the competitor's campaign - to visit New Zealand because "grazing outdoors on GM-free grass and natural winter feed makes for happy cows and fantastic quality milk".

For the good of its membership Federated Farmers should be supporting local government, not criticising it.

We must protect our brand so that just having New Zealand as its country of origin adds value to any product. There should be no such thing as a commodity from clean, green, GM-free New Zealand. If there is a strategic asset worthy of legal protection, it is this.

The Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) are failing to perform, having allowed conditions of GM field trials to be breached. More significant problems from commercialising genetic modification are an inevitability that New Zealand cannot afford.

New Zealand's Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO) requires no bond or proof of financial fitness from companies seeking to exploit our animals and land.

Nor is insurance required as a way to moderate extreme risk-taking. The Australian Insurance Council has refused insurance on genetic modification because, like the harm caused by asbestos, it could take decades to emerge. This dismal prospect for GM foods is supported by warnings from European scientists and the American Academy of Environmental Medicine that GM foods should be avoided. We should also listen to Canadian farmers, whose experience with GM crops has prompted them to roundly reject the latest push to unleash GM wheat on to the world.

But New Zealand's role at international forums, including supporting GM wheat and Terminator seeds, shows our Government's drive for free trade in itself puts our brand at risk. Such policy steers us on a collision course with the right to know where food comes from, labelling of GM ingredients, establishing New Zealand agriculture as a GM-free zone and protecting the integrity of our environment and food system.

We must never forget that the consumer is king and overseas markets are seeking precisely what Brand New Zealand can offer.

We must take the opportunity to find a middle path for genetic modification within an ethical biotechnology strategy that respects our brand and community values.

* Jon Carapiet is spokesman for GE-Free NZ (in food and environment)