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New Zealand has been issued an ultimatum by GM heavyweights - change our tune on genetically modified food or watch our exporting lifeblood lag behind the rest of the world.

The warning was delivered yesterday by a high-powered panel including the US Government's bio-tech trade envoy and the vice-president of US giant DuPont Agricultural Biotechnology.

The panel pitched crop-enhancing bio-technology as the world's best hope of feeding a population expected to double by 2050 - and said that if New Zealand failed to buy in, our crops could become quickly out-dated.

No commercial GM crops are grown in New Zealand and any easing of strict Government controls around the practice would be controversial.


But Jack Bobo, a senior adviser for biotechnology to the US State Department, claimed not doing so could hurt us.

"New Zealand has a choice - will it continue to meet its own needs and the needs of others, or will it slowly become a net importer of foods?

"Because it's such an important part of your economy, I would expect New Zealand would want to be at the forefront of agricultural development."

AgResearch scientist Tony Conner said the amount of land planted with GM crops worldwide last year was six times the size of New Zealand.

"If we continue to not adopt this technology, you run a huge risk of being left behind ... in another decade, we could be dealing with yesterday's crops," he said.

New Zealand GM experiments largely remained confined to laboratories and there had been few field tests over the last decade since tighter regulations were introduced, he said.

The rules are being studied by the Minister for the Environment, while another unreleased study has sought to find out how much money the country misses out on because of them. An earlier report by Treasury linked tough rules to fewer trials and less innovation.

The ministers for Trade and Primary Industries were unable to respond to Herald questions yesterday.


Anti-GM campaigners have compared the issue's importance to that of our no-nukes policy and claim New Zealand is being bullied over a position hindering trade talks.

Greens MP Steffan Browning, who helped lead a protest against the conference, argued NZ's strength lay in the quality of the food it produced. "Rather than going for volume, we need to be going for best value and not compromise our brand or the other things we do and produce in New Zealand."

Organic NZ spokeswoman Debbie Stanwick dismissed the panel's warning as "scaremongering, especially when most of the world's leading trading partners, such as China, have already legislated to protect their own crops from GE".