FACTS & FIGURES
from NZ polls on public attitudes to GMOs
* 74.5% of New Zealanders support the nation's food production remaining GM Free (polled August 2005)
* 2 years ago when GM was much more of a headline issue it was 70.1%
* another poll shows more New Zealanders lack confidence (45%) in the regulator ERMA's ability to regulate GMOs than have confidence (40%)
* 79% of New Zealanders support the current policy of zero tolerance to GM contamination of seed imports
* 77% support zero tolerance of GM contamination of crops in the field
* In 2003, one kiwi company lost close to half a million dollars because of contaminated corn seed.
Rural NZ supports GM-free production
By: Simon Terry
The most recent poll on public attitudes to GMOs shows rural and urban dwellers equally support the concept that New Zealand should remain a GM Free food producer.
The overall result was that 74.5% of New Zealanders would support the nation's food production remaining GM Free. Rural responses showed fractionally higher support at 75.5% while urban respondents were marginally lower at 74.1%. However, both are within 1% of the overall result.
The DigiPoll random survey conducted for the Sustainability Council first informed those questioned that there is no commercial production of genetically modified food in this country.
These August figures compare with 70.1% support when the same question was put two years ago during the heat of the moratorium debate.
Since then, the GM discourse has had a far lower profile with not a single application to actually release a GMO into the environment having been made. There has not even been a field trial application in the last eighteen months when before the moratorium debate, there were a number each year.
In other words, even in absence of any recent trigger to galvanise public opinion, support for New Zealand's food production remaining GM Free is a as high as ever.
GM issues are not high up in the news simply because GM developers have chosen not to put projects before ERMA, the Government agency responsible for assessing whether a particular GMO release should be permitted.
As ERMA's former CEO Bas Walker said at his recent retirement function, "that could all change in 24 hours" if something like a release application came forward.
The large sums being invested by New Zealand GMO developers mean such an application needs to be made eventually if the products are to go beyond lab experiments in New Zealand.
At that point, the current decision-making processes leave the ERMA board to make the call, unless the Minister for the Environment "calls in" the application from ERMA.
There are a series of problems with leaving decisions on GM release to ERMA alone.
The first is that while ERMA has been regulating GMOs within the lab with no obvious sign of disquiet, there is a lack of public confidence in its ability to decide the crucial question of GMO release.
Polling conducted for ERMA in March shows more New Zealanders lack confidence (45%) in its ability to regulate GMOs than have confidence (40%).
Another is that there is no effective liability regime for harm caused by an activity carried out in accordance with an ERMA approval. Any costs arising from unexpected effects or inadequate controls tend to fall on innocent parties such as farmers growing the crops and their neighbors.
Thirdly, any approval to release a GMO is a major national policy decision. For a nation that earns half its export income from food production, this is a fundamental branding and marketing call quite apart from the broader high level issues it raises.
In Australia, states have the statutory right to regulate GMOs for economic reasons. To date, six states have passed legislation allowing them to so designate on GM crops. No state has yet permitted a GM crop to be grown for commercial food production and a number have designated the entire state.
The net result is that Australia remains a GM Free Food Producer because the state Governments have taken responsibility and made the strategic call.
"Case by case" assessment of scientific and other issues particular to the release proposal only makes sense once the higher strategic decisions, such as the branding and marketing, have been explicitly attended to.
Consumer resistance to GM contamination remains very strong in Japan and northern Europe. Any detectable level of GM content triggers product rejection in these premium markets.
In 2003, one kiwi company lost close to half a million dollars when routine testing by a Japanese fast foods producer showed just 0.05% GM content that arose from contaminated corn seed.
As has been demonstrated by the most recent local contamination incident in August, contamination can also arise through GMOs of one crop (soy) mingling with a completely different conventional crop (maize) during transport and storage. This incident resulted in product rejection by the domestic processor in order to protect export market reputation.
Public opinion in New Zealand is similarly aligned with this market sentiment. The August DigiPoll survey also reported that 79% New Zealanders would support the current policy of zero tolerance to GM contamination of seed imports. It further found 77% support for zero tolerance to GM contamination of crops in the field, once informed that this too is the current policy. Rural and urban support was again quite close - within 2% of the overall result.
GM crop cultivation is thus a branding and producer liability culvert unless and until consumer responses change substantially.
The Sustainability Council sees potential in the use of genetic modification in medicine but believes New Zealand should remain a GM Free Food Producer at least until there is clear acceptance of GM products in key export markets, and sufficient research has been undertaken on the environmental effects of GMOs to properly assess their impact in New Zealand.
Simon Terry is Executive Director of the Sustainability Council, a Wellington based charitable trust. He also manages an economic consultancy that has reported on a wide range of resource issues.