Sue Kedgley: Beware GM heavyweights visiting New Zealand

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Dr William Rolleston, Vice President of Federated Farmers. Photo / APN
Dr William Rolleston, Vice President of Federated Farmers. Photo / APN

Some of the leading figures in the global campaign to get genetically modified crops accepted around the world, have been in New Zealand this week.

They were keynote speakers at the International Conference for Agricultural Biotechnology, which Dr William Rolleston, Vice President of Federated Farmers, claims is the 'biotechnology equivalent of the Rugby World Cup.'

I am sure they all took the opportunity, while here in New Zealand, to lobby the government and key industry and farming figures, about GM technology, and why New Zealand should embrace it.

Their presence in New Zealand, and the fact that the government donated $100.000 to the conference, has led to speculation that we are about to see a renewed push to get GM crops growing in New Zealand.

This speculation has been fuelled by calls by Dr Rolleston and some conference participants for a renewed debate about the role of genetic modification in New Zealand, and claims that we will be left behind if we don't embrace GM.

Before becoming Vice President of Federated Farmers, Dr Rolleston was Chairman of the Life Sciences Network, a pro-GM lobby group that spearheaded the campaign to get a GM moratorium in New Zealand lifted.

Since the moratorium was lifted, there hasn't been an application to grow a GM crop in New Zealand. Some speculate that's because our rules are too strict, and corporates fear there's too much resistance to GM technology.

Behind the scenes, however, Crown Research Institutes, industry bodies and various corporates have been quietly pushing genetic modification and trialling GM trees, GM brassica, GM cows and other animals. They are now lobbying hard to loosen the rules around GM.

AgResearch and Pastoral Genomics have developed a GM rye grass, which is being trialled in the United States, and seems the most likely prospect for an application for commercial release.

Before farmers are persuaded to start growing GM grasses or crops, however, they should study the experiences of Australian farmers who have experimented with growing GM crops.

A few years ago, four Australian states agreed to allow some GM crops to be grown. Australian farmers were assured that GM crops could happily co-exist with other crops without contaminating them; that GM canola would produce greater yields than ordinary crops, and that they could get premium prices for their crops.

These assurances have been proven false, according to two Australian farmers who toured New Zealand a few weeks ago, to warn our farmers not to follow them down the GM path.

Bob Mackley, a crop and sheep farmer in Victoria, said he was not initially opposed to GM. But last year, after two days of heavy rain, his neighbour's genetically modified canola crop was washed on to his property. Some of the GM canola sprouted and took hold in his land. It was extensively contaminated and he lost his GM-free status.

But he then discovered that he, not his neighbour, would be liable for the inadvertent contamination of his land. The patent holder, Monsanto, could fine him for growing GM seed without a contract, as has frequently happened in America, or for inadvertently supplying GM contaminated seed without declaring it.

He says Australian farmers are now being told that GM contamination is inevitable, and they can't insure against it. And farmers who opted to grow GM canola are discovering that their crop effectively belongs to the patent owners, such as Monsanto and Bayer.

Grower contracts with these companies specify which pesticides they can use on their crops, and other agricultural practices. They can also limit who farmers can sell their crops to, and the selling price. He worries that Australian farmers who grow GM crops could end up as 'serfs in their own land' - essentially crop growers for multinational corporations like Monsanto and Bayer.

GM canola is turning out to be a 'cheap, low grade product,' he says, which is difficult to sell, and most farmers are getting up to $50 less a ton for their GM canola than others are getting for GM-free canola.

We're constantly told we must follow Australia. But if this is the experience of Australian farmers, why would we follow suit? Why would we put our high value world export markets at risk, and our reputation as a producer of clean, green safe food, to grow food that no one wants to eat?

Why would we risk contaminating our farmland, to grow crops that fetch a lower price than conventional crops? Why would we reduce our farmers to the status of serfs, growing crops that are effectively owned by multinational corporations? It doesn't make sense.

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