Hawke’s Bay food producers celebrated a major milestone recently, with Hastings District Council’s decision to make the district an official GM Free foodproducing zone in the local plan.

The move is supported by a growing number of Hawke’s Bay producers, pastoral farmers and exporters, like us, who see GM Free status as a golden opportunity to position Hawke’s Bay as a premium food-producing region.

The decision means that Hastings producers can tell buyers and customers that produce grown in our fields is officially GM Free – a claim we ultimately want to be able to make for all food products grown in Hawke’s Bay.

This year will see whether the five-year campaign by producers to secure the region’s GM Free status bears fruit, and whether the Hawke’s Bay community retains the ability to decide whether the region’s productive land remains GM free.

Despite strong support from local producers and the economic risk GM release poses to the Hawke’s Bay economy, Federated Farmers is challenging the Hastings rules in the Environment Court. The Federation doesn’t want Hawke’s Bay to be a GM Free food-producing zone and wants officials in Wellington to decide whether GM crops are grown here. Meanwhile, the Government wants to prevent Hawke’s Bay and other regions from protecting their GM Free status\ by changing the RMA.

That is why Pure Hawke’s Bay producers will be backing the Council in the Environment Court and will be taking the case to Parliament to defend our right to decide whether our region stays GM Free.

To do that, we have launched a fundraising drive to raise $150,000. You will be seeing GM Free signage around Hawke’s Bay as we aim to unite the region on this very important issue.

We are confident we can secure Hastings’ valuable GM Free status in law, but Hawke’s Bay’s support is crucial to winning this legal battle and influencing politicians when it comes to making decisions on the region’s GM Free status.

Embracing GM Free status is not about turning our backs against science, it is about listening to the markets and creating value for Hawke’s Bay food producers.

Quite simply, science that is not accepted in the market place is no use to us. And GM foods continue to be a pariah, particularly to the millions of affluent consumers who we want to buy our products. And market rejection of GM affects conventional producers just as much organic.

In fact, acceptance of GM foods globally is going one way: south. Developments in the US – a new growth market for Hawke’s Bay producers – underscore that. There, demand for certified non-GM food has seen astronomical growth in the last year alone and now outstrips demand for certified organic products.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, seventeen European Union countries recently banned GM crops in their territories – and where our further market opportunities lie – confirming Europe’s entrenched rejection of GM foods.

The market demand for GM Free is not just for horticultural products, it is strong and growing in leaps and bounds for pastoral farming. Grass-fed and non-GMfed labeling is growing fast in markets that will pay top dollar.

Because of that market rejection, GM food crops – grown overwhelmingly in the Americas – end up as animal feed or unlabelled food products. That strategy may work for US broadacre farming and low-value commodity crop markets, but it couldn’t be further away from where Hawke’s Bay’s valuable food export economy needs to position itself to grow wealth.

Market rejection of GM food products is why no GMOs are grown anywhere in New Zealand and why no export-focused food company wants that to happen any time soon.

As a result, New Zealand research and development on GM crops is drying up. Take the pastoral industry’s flagship pasture grass programme. It has put development of GM grasses on the back burner because Fonterra opposed field trialing GM grasses and because it can’t drum up funding. Now the rising star of that research programme uses conventional breeding, assisted by modern genetics, to deliver new non-GM pasture grass lines that will help future proof New Zealand pastoral farming.

As business people, we are pragmatic. We accept that the market attitudes to GMOs could change. But realistically, it will be some time before that comes to pass because resistance to GM foods is so deeply rooted in so many of the countries Hawke’s Bay producers export to.

So it makes sense to capture the clear marketing advantage that GM Free offers now and take a look again later. That will happen in ten years, when the plan comes up for review. The point is that keeping Hawke’s Bay GM Free is a reversible step. Releasing GMOs into our productive land is not.

Despite the clear economic advantages to remaining GM Free, the Minister for the Environment, Nick Smith wants to cut the regions out of decisions on GM so that Wellington makes that call. But he has not been able to get backing from traditional support parties to do that directly.

Now he is looking to bypass Parliament by getting new powers in the upcoming round of RMA changes. Those proposed powers would allow him to strike out Hastings Council’s policy, this time without having to get approval from Parliament.

Hawke’s Bay food producers want Parliament to consign the Government’s proposal to the waste bin so the regions can capture economic opportunities from GM Free status, if they can make the case under local planning laws.

We believe that Hawke’s Bay food producers are best placed to know what is right for our local economy. GM Free is low-hanging fruit in demanding high-end markets and a no-brainer for New Zealand’s premium food producing region.

We hope that Hawke’s Bay will get in behind us and help us lead the way for New Zealand and be the first region to officially declare GM Free status.

What the Hastings District Council GM Free food producer policy means

The plan covers what we grow in Hastings. To protect the GM free status of the district’s productive lands, GM plants and animals cannot be grown or trialed here. That policy lasts for the life of the plan (ten years), and then comes up for review.

The Council rules have nothing to do with GM medicines (Hawke’s Bay people will have the same access to approved GM medicines as other New Zealanders), contained laboratory research using GMOs, or the import of GM food ingredients, as long as these are not live (for example, whole grains or kernels).

Bruno Chambers, Scott Lawson and Will MacFarlane are food producers and members of the Pure Hawke’s Bay initiative.

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