by Simon Edwards
It baffles John Caradus that there are nearly 100 foods produced using gene technology that can be sold in New Zealand if suitably labelled but it’s not possible for New Zealand farmers to use GM technologies in food production.
“You’ve got to say that the logic just doesn’t stack up,” the Grasslanz Technology scientist and CEO says.
More than 90 foods produced using gene technologies of plant origin across 10 species, and four of microbial origin (ingredients in meat and infant formula substitutes) are listed on the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand website.
“So, on the one hand there’s a regulatory authority saying it’s all good to eat these if they’re labelled and people know what they’re eating, and on the other there’s a regulatory authority saying, ‘well, sorry, but you can’t grow them here, without going through a daunting application process, because they’re genetically modified.”
John is among a growing chorus of individuals and organisations – including Federated Farmers and most recently the NZ Productivity Commission – calling for a science-informed public debate on GM and a review of whether our current regulations are fit for purpose.
In a paper recently published in the New Zealand Journal of Agricultural Research, with 185 cited references to published papers and surveys, John says there is plenty of evidence to suggest “a large segment of consumers, but not all” are willing to buy gene-edited foods if they cost less than non-GM foods. The full article can be found at this link.
His paper concludes: “Genetic modification has been widely adopted globally and has shown improved yield, quality and environmental impacts and has the potential to provide consumer benefits through improved product quality, nutritive value and shelf life.”
Public concern over GM foods is focused on their impacts on human and animal health, environmental safety, labelling and consumer choice, intellectual property rights, ethics, food safety, poverty reduction and environmental conservation.
“While there are factions of society who will always be against the use of GM in food production the evidence from studies attempting to understand market forces and public attitudes is that the use of GM plants in New Zealand for food production is unlikely to have long-term deleterious effects in overseas markets,” John’s paper says.
“However, the reputation of the country of origin of food products can have a significant influence on consumer choice. There is a need for legitimate debate that warrants research effort into providing a clearer impact analysis. In addition to having the political will to use all technologies available to provide solutions to current and future challenges, an informed discussion with major trading partners is required.”
Asked by FedsNews what he believes the average Kiwi thinks about GM foods, John says it’s hard to speak for the whole country.
“My take on it is that we’ve got a vocal minority who are against the use of GM foods and animal feeds. That’s for what they see as legitimate reasons, but when you actually drill down into their arguments, they don’t stack up.
“If we could demonstrate that GM foods provide a benefit to the environment – for example, less need to use pesticides, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, drought resistance – or in terms of nutrient value and the like, with good data to support it, I suspect the majority of New Zealanders wouldn’t bat an eyelid about eating foods derived from that type of plant.”
Consider what has happened in the United States, he says. “They’ve been eating GM food and animals have been eating GM feed for 25 years and you don’t really see any debate. Admittedly, they all go through a rigorous process of assessment before they’re put on the market, but that’s no different from here.”
In New Zealand, genetic modification is regulated under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act 1996, last reviewed more than 20 years ago, and administered by the Ministry for the Environment. While R&D on genetic modification of plants is permitted indoors with approved levels of containment, there have been few applications over the past 25 years for evaluation of GM plants in outdoor containment trials.
In short, it’s just too hard here, John says. That AgResearch felt forced to go to the United States to carry out outdoor trials of its high metabolisable energy ryegrass – a potentially very significant way of reducing methane belched by our sheep, cattle and cows – is by no means the only instance of our researchers going offshore.
“We’ve gone through the USA’s regulatory process; it’s quite robust and requires a lot of information. But it works. And there’s been no detrimental effect to the environment that we’re aware of from running these trials. And then there’s another step to go through if you actually want to use (the product) commercially.
“But in terms of experimental trialling, it’s a relatively straight-forward process that people are using effectively. Why can’t we do that here?”
John’s paper notes that the McGuiness Institute stated back in 2013 that New Zealand was no further ahead on public policy regarding outdoor use of GMOs than when the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification reported its findings in 2001. And there’s been no change in the ensuing nine years.
John, and Federated Farmers president Andrew Hoggard, are among those who hope recommendations on GM in the NZ Productivity Commission’s 2021 report ‘New Zealand firms: Reaching for the frontier’ – and the government’s somewhat tepid but at least positive reaction to it – may be the circuit breaker on the topic.
The Commission’s report urges the government to undertake a full review of the regulation of genetic modification to ensure it is fit for purpose and supports domestic innovation. It proposed 10 recommendations, including that the government
- consider the emerging regulatory approaches in other jurisdictions, particularly New Zealand’s key product destination and competitor markets;
- consider the trade and regulatory enforcement impacts from different treatment of GM technologies in different markets;
- assess consumer attitudes in New Zealand and internationally;
- consider the potential impacts on New Zealand firms that wish to retain GM-free status, and on New Zealand’s reputation and brand more generally;
- assess the fitness for purpose of the current regulatory oversight and enforcement arrangements.
John says he’s well into preparation of a follow-up paper to the one he’s just published that examines the facts and myths about GM, and asks if there are unintended consequences, are they manageable?
“It will get down and dirty into the detail of what these transgenics in GM plants are actually doing, what the consequences are of the traits they are producing and the impacts for society.
“From the references I’ve looked at there are things that result from GM technologies that were not intended but that’s the same with just about every technology. And the majority of them are manageable.”
John says he’ll also be pointing out that the GM technologies that we use, or could use, in the economy are often no worse than technologies, substances, breeding processes, etc., already employed in conventional agriculture “and in many instances are better.
“If we say to people we can reduce the use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, I would imagine society would applaud that. And if we say the answer is actually a genetic modification, I think a lot of people will go ‘woah, hang on, why aren’t we looking at that?’.
Time to talk to our trading partners about gene technologies
Many of New Zealand’s exporting companies resist GM technologies because they view the GMO-free brand as a marketing opportunity. But is it?
Grasslanz’s John Carradus points out in his paper on GM that our top trading partners are China, Australia, the USA and Japan, who collectively take 58 percent of our exports. All of those countries have approved and grow at least some GM crops.
Australia permits (under regulation) production of some GM crops yet China is a top market for Australian exports of meat, wine, wool, fruits and nuts, grains and dairy. China itself has the sixth highest area under commercial cultivation of GM crops among 28 countries known to grow GM crops.
Moreover, John’s paper notes, China is the largest importer of soybean (97 million MT – over six times greater than the next highest importer, the EU) most of which will come from the USA and South America, where soybean crops are largely GM varieties.
The perception of a country can have a marked effect on consumer preferences for its products, and that can depend on the product category and a whole range of other factors (environmental footprint, animal welfare standards, etc).
A study from 2019 found no evidence that South Australian farmers enjoy better access to European Union non-GM grain markets, and since 2012 there has been no premium for grain from South Australia, despite it being the only mainland state with a GM crop moratorium.
“In Tasmania, while it was agreed that a GMO-free status does create a point of difference, there were a range of views expressed in relation to market advantage and disadvantage. One conclusion from that study was that Australian consumers were more concerned about preservatives and food colouring additives, the use of antibiotics, hormones and steroids in animals, as well as on-farm pesticide use than the use of GM foods,” John’s paper states.
Last month it was announced that the European Commission has opened a public consultation on the future EU legislation for plants and animal feeds produced by certain new genomic techniques (targeted mutagenesis, changes to a small number of base DNA, and cisgenesis, transferring a gene from the same or a closely related species).
And the UK government has introduced a bill that will allow genetically edited plants and animals to be grown and raised for food.
As well as a review of our existing GM regulations, a discussion with our major trading partners is overdue, John says.