In amongst the 1,100-odd pages of the draft Hastings District Plan is an exciting proposal to capture a huge marketing opportunity for all food producers in the region: keeping the district’s fields free of genetically engineered (GE/GM) crops and animals for the life of the plan over the next ten years.

The idea originated with a group of the region’s producers, who see enormous potential in positioning Hawke’s Bay as a world-class, premium food-producing region – and who see that remaining GM Free in the field is central to that.

The group – Pure Hawke’s Bay – asked Colmar Brunton last year to poll the feeling in the wider community: 84% of respondents thought the region should remain a GM Free food producer, and a similar number wanted councils to make that a reality.

This is all about the markets. It is a branding and positioning proposition to place us at the pinnacle of premium food production. This is unashamedly about what is best for us and Hawke’s Bay’s economy.

And the high-value markets have spoken. GM continues to be one of the most controversial food technologies in recent decades, and is an anathema to high-value production. It has remained corralled in commodity crops and in unlabelled products for the last decade and a half. Despite many tantalizing promises year after year, it has exclusively been the same story of low-value commodity GM crops such as soy, maize and canola grown mostly in the Americas, with GM cotton grown in Asia and Australia.

In all that time, producers have not dared to go near foods directly consumed by humans that would require labelling. GM wheat, a crop that Monsanto hoped would be well into its first decade of cultivation in North America was pulled from the market because Canadian and US wheat growers wouldn’t have it. It has yet to resurface.

Wholefoods, the largest natural foods retailer in the US, in March 2013 required all products with traces of GMOs to be labelled. Not surprisingly, sales of these products have plummeted and many are being delisted. From a sales and marketing perspective GM meat, fruit and vegetables remain unthinkable, let alone selling for a premium.

Finding competitive advantage

Producing high quality food for international markets is a challenging business, with risks coming from the weather, disease, competition, costs, labour and consumer demands. The truth is, here in Hawke’s Bay, we are not low cost and we need a competitive advantage to survive. Hawke’s Bay producers supporting official GM Free food producer status are looking for innovative approaches that can give us an important point of difference, marketing advantages, and added value to our regional economy.

We know that keeping our fields, orchards and vineyards GE Free for the next decade will not close off access to sophisticated plant breeding technologies, should we need them. GM is not the only advanced plant breeding technology available to us.

Marker assisted breeding (MAS) is another approach to have emerged from the revolution in gene science. It is traditional breeding plus – it uses genetics to zero in on interesting traits, and thus speeds up the process of bringing a new cultivar to market. It is a highly effective breeding technique and is acceptable in the market place. Many new exciting developments such as drought-resistant grasses are already under development, providing faster, effective, and acceptable techniques of conventional breeding.

You may hear GM advocates talking about Cis-Genics, which is a form of genetic modification within a species, as opposed to Trans-Genics, which is between species. The market, however, does not differentiate. From a market perspective there is no difference – it is all GE.

Of course, GM’s fortunes could change. Research could begin to come up with GM cultivars that do more than service low-value commodity crops. And consumers could become more tolerant of GM. Pure Hawke’s Bay supporters acknowledge that possibility, but think it unlikely, and are happy to support reviewing the situation in ten years. The reality is that GMOs that meet both of these criteria are highly unlikely to come forward during the ten year life of the district plan.

This comes down to something very basic – the amount of time it takes to develop a GMO. Genetic engineering is not a fast technology. It takes 10-15 years to develop a commercial GM variety, according to Monsanto, who’ve been doing it for 30 years. Unless a GMO is under development right now, it will not be ready during the proposed period.

Often it takes much longer, for example tree crops and grasses. It now looks like it will take New Zealand developers at least 20 years to deliver a commercial GM grass.

This means a decision to capture the marketing benefits from formal GM Free status for a ten-year period is not a decision relevant to any future GM grasses. That option will remain open to our pastoral farmers should a commercial product eventually emerge beyond the 10 year time frame proposed in the draft plan. The GE Free proposition is all about keeping our options open, because once we have released GMOs into the environment it is like possums, rabbits and gorse –there is no going back.

Fonterra agrees

Fonterra is also opposed to the field trialling of GM grasses in New Zealand, let alone their commercial release. Customers view New Zealand dairy as GM Free”, the company says, “and the introduction of GM pasture would have a significant impact for some customers and New Zealand’s reputation.” Even field experiments might be perceived as a release – a risk that Fonterra does not want to take.

Our resilience and profitability as a region increasingly lies with high-value products and niche markets, where provenance and environmental integrity are very important to consumers.

We need access to innovative, cutting-edge approaches, but we also need to be savvy when it comes to the technologies we use. We need to be sustainable and keep close to consumers in high-end export markets. And we can do all that without growing GM crops for the next ten years.

Pure Hawke’s Bay is a group of local food producers committed to building the region’s global reputation for safe, sustainable and high quality food.

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