GM Special: green image vs food security in Oceania

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GM Special: green image vs food security in Oceania

Genetically modified (GM) food is a no-go in New Zealand where 'clean and green' is key, while Australia's labelling laws mean even with approval transgenics would face tough consumer opposition. With higher labor costs than their Latin American competitors, the two countries' agricultural sectors have more to gain from an organic premium price.

Yesterday our GM Special took a snapshot of South America, where scientists were dismissive of claims in Peru that transgenics would affect the country's biodiversity.

Photo: Biological Farmers of Australia

Following the path of countries like Ireland and Greece, Peru has approved a 10-year moratorium on transgenics, but most other major agricultural economies in the continent have an open approach to the technology.

Argentina and Brazil have positioned themselves as major players in transgenic soya, corn and cotton production, but critics says the practice has led to an increase in the use of pesticides.

It is claims like this that give New Zealand an advantage in the global food market, with Horticulture NZ chief executive Peter Silcock attributing success to a natural image.

It is a similar sentiment that has likely kept GM food off Australian retail shelves to a large extent, although there are processes in place for approval. Australian Food & Grocery Council deputy chief executive Dr Geoffrey Annison, says despite the short-term hurdles for transgenic horticulture in his country, its 'preponderance' is inevitable in the long term.

New Zealand

Horticulture NZ chief executive Peter Silcock

On first contact for this story with Horticulture NZ, we are told the entity can't add much to the piece as New Zealand doesn't grow GM food and never has.

This in itself shows just how much a non-issue the concept is for New Zealand, but the horticultural body's chief executive Peter Silcock is happy to explain why.

"I think New Zealand’s got quite a proud positioning in terms of being clean and green, and what we recognize is that there’s quite a lot of consumer concern around genetic modification and we need to be very much consumer-driven in terms of the products we’re presenting in the market," he says.

"One of the big things for New Zealand horticulture is that our labor costs are quite high compared to a lot of our competitors, and therefore we need to be focusing on the premium end of the market.

"I think from a produce industry point of view the industry is pretty comfortable with the situation that we’re in, and you know, there’s no call for any approvals of genetic modification."

He says New Zealand does have a regulatory system for approval before GM crops can be field tested and commercialized, but nothing has come out of it to date.

In the pro-GM debate the words 'technology' and 'progress' often pop up, but Silcock says what New Zealand has found a balance in harnessing technological advances without gene modification.

"What we want to do is focus on some of the things that are going to align with the image that people have of New Zealand about being clean and green, and we believe we can still use some technology in the lab, no problem at all, getting some of the benefits of innovation without actually producing the genetically modified crops.

"The industry has given our researchers quite a clear message that we do want to see innovation, we do want to see new varieties - they're important to us and the industry’s investing in new varieties, whether it be for kiwifruit and apples or other products.

"There's a clear message to the researchers that they can’t be genetically modified crops, but we’re happy for technologies to be used in the lab that might speed up the breeding programs."


Australian Food & Grocery Council deputy chief executive Dr Geoffrey Annison, says there is a 'long history of GM food' on his side of the Tasman Sea, although fruit and vegetables have not been a part of that story.

"There was a genetically modified pig developed in South Australia in the 1980’s but it never went to market, and then there was a GM carnation in the early 90’s that was quite successful for some time," he says.

Australian Food & Grocery Council deputy chief executive Dr Geoffrey Annison

"But the most successful earlier crop was GM cotton, which was produced by researchers at the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) and adopted widely by the cotton industry in the 90’s and indeed still is used extensively by the industry.

"Those were the products developed before we had full regulation of genetically modified organisms in Australia."

He says it wasn't until the mid-90's that the regulatory body - the same one that applies to New Zealand - got active to create a framework for GM food approvals, sparked by U.S. soybean imports for animal feedstock.

"First of all FSANZ (Food Safety Australia New Zealand) says for all GM foods to be approved they need to go through a process with a dossier that’s full of evidence of safety and toxicology provided by the company seeking approval for the food - that's a rigorous safety assessment procedure.

"Then they also determine whether they require labelling, and basically the labelling is required if the food derived from gene technology contains appreciable amounts of modified DNA or protein above 1%.

"The reason for it being above 1%, is because of the nature of the food supply chain there is the concept of advantageous presence, as small amounts of food material can move onto another as it comes through the supply chain."

So while Australia and New Zealand do have mechanisms to approve GM food crops, why have there been so few results in horticulture?

"I think the biggest reason why there has not been the development of GM horticulture crops, is that it’s almost certain they would trigger a label indicating they were GM and that in itself has been a problem for the major food companies," says Annison.

"Whether we like it or not GM technology has to some extent been demonized by the criticisms against it, so from a commercial view it’s still a bit of a problem to use GM materials where they require labelling.

"It’s been very unfortunate that the technology has been criticized heavily, against a backdrop of no scientific evidence at all put forward to suggest the technology itself is inherently risky."

Annison has called on those involved in the debate to look at products on a case-by-case basis.

"I think anybody who makes a blanket statement about something that is essentially a range of different technologies is on very loose ground. There is fundamentally no scientific evidence that says gene technology and genetically modified crops are a threat to anything.

"It’s the same with any technology – there will be less or greater risks depending on how it’s applied and in which crops, and what the technology is.

"To rail in an indiscriminate way against the technology is just illogical. You may as well say electricity is a dangerous technology, as you can use it and people can get harmed by electricity if they stick a screwdriver in the powerpoint, but the benefits of electricity far outweigh it."

The 'inevitability' of GM

GM Canola. Photo: Carl Davies, CSIRO Plant Industry

Annison highlights the recent example of canola as a major step forward for Australia in transgenic crop technology, which could pave the way for other products.

"I think we are slowly on that path, and the reason I say that is we now have GM canola growing in Australia now coming towards its second season of planting, and indeed I think it is likely that GM wheat will be approved for use in Australia some time in the next few years," he says.

"The GM wheat is primarily beneficial for the environment. They're proposing drought-tolerant and salt-tolerant wheats, and there’s probably going to be higher levels of drought going forward and issues with salinity.

"The benefits of gene technology could be seen by the community and it could become a non-issue as far as a consumer concern, and that could pave the way for horticultural products to take advantage of the technology."

He says Australia is still a long way from GM technology acceptance in horticulture and that won't change until there is an 'extremely compelling commercial reason' to use it.

"Whether the commercial opportunities are there in the short to medium-term, I would say probably not looking too rosy, but in the longer term its almost inevitable that gene technology will be brought into some of these crops.

"I think there’s certainly the issue of food security and I don’t think that’s going to be a driver of gene technology in the short term, but looking quite some time ahead we’re going to have to produce more food with fewer resources, there’s no doubt about that and gene technology is a potentially powerful tool to help us do that.

"I have no doubt we will see a preponderance of GM foods on our shelves in the future. I just don’t think it’s going to be in the next five years, but I’d be surprised if there’s not a few there in 15 years time. I’m 55 and I hope to see it."

While Australia has regulations in place for GM food approvals, its states and territories have their own legislations -  Tasmania, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory do not allow the cultivation of GM crops. On the other hand, Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory do, while New South Wales currently has legislation changes proposed before parliament.

While Australia does not have any whole foods on supermarket shelves, imported GM ingredients are in the market with appropriate labels.

Earlier this year the Queensland University of Technology announced plans to grow GM bananas for the purpose of African development.

Related story: GM Special: fighting like cats and dogs in South America

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