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NZ At The Crossroads - Speech

Office of Hon Phillida Bunkle

Address To the Soil and Health Association Organics 2020 Conference
Mt Albert
20 May 2000


Now more than ever, consumers, both in New Zealand and around the world, are increasingly conscious of what they eat.

New Zealand, as an internationally recognised "clean green" country, is poised to make crucial decisions that will directly affect our ability as consumers to have choice, guaranteed safety, and true information about the food products we purchase. The Government's Royal Commission of Inquiry into GE will, among its other challenging tasks, look into GE in food products.

Whatever the arguments for and against genetic engineering or modification, I think it's important to note that while consumers are not always against GE because it is unsafe, but rather that it is unnatural. But before I get side-tracked on the GE debate, I'd like to talk to you about a subject which is obviously close to the hearts of you – and me – here today.

The focus of New Zealand's entire food production sector is on the use of technology to leverage more productivity, efficiency and innovation to meet the world market.

Our research institutions involved in primary production are feverishly working at the latest biotechnology.

However, most of that energy and investment builds on existing methods of production that usually deplete or pollute the environment, displace people or at least do not provide opportunities for people to be involved.

In other words, these “technological advances” are not sustainable.

Much of the GE debate has been around genetic modifications that allow greater use of synthetic chemicals on plants, such as “round-up ready” crops. Animal gene modifications include those that enhance conversion of pastures into meat and milk. One of the side effects is increased CO2 emissions.

One of the big questions we must face as a nation is: Should New Zealand choose a different pathway of innovation and development that is sustainable? Are there market opportunities that this country can exploit while at the same time preserving our environment and our communities and, offering people employment?

I do believe that organic food production is clearly one of those opportunities that we must explore. The Government recognises the enormous economic potential of organically produced food which, on some estimates, is worth well over $6 billion world wide and growing rapidly.

Already at this conference you will have heard of the near obsession the Japanese market has with purchasing food from specific countries.

Japanese food importer Korekiyo Terada was convincing if not frightening, when he told you yesterday in very simple terms that adopting a GE agricultural sector will destroy our market there.

We are talking about tens of millions of people who buy our products because they associate New Zealand with its clean green image.

Their own surveys show that 95 percent of Japanese consumers buy on the basis of country of origin. Those Japanese consumers sent an open letter to Australian and New Zealand farmers and agri-businesses earlier this year.

In that letter the consumer groups said: "Japanese consumers are seriously concerned about the potential health and environmental hazards of GMOs". Consider this as food for thought. Last year Japan accounted for 12.7 percent of New Zealand's exports – that 12.7 percent amounted to $2.9 BILLION.

Also last year, the Organic Products Exporters Group (OPEG) conducted a survey which showed 47.3 percent – that's nearly half – of New Zealand's organic exports go to Japan ALONE! Europe is the next largest importer of NZ organic products with 32.5 percent.

If we are to consider our long-term position in the international organic products market, it's clear that New Zealand must make a choice.

We must choose either a biotechnology-based agricultural sector, or an organics-based one. It is time someone waved a huge flag in front of the primary production sector and I am willing to be that person. We must heed Mr Terada's warning and we must maintain the clean, and green image of our primary production sector.

Organic Production and Economic Development

The wonderful thing about organic products of course, is that as well as being distinctly marketable overseas, back home it has enormous benefits in regional development.

Organic food production is underpinned by a philosophy of sustainability. That is, achieving equilibrium in producing food and at the same time preserving or increasing soil fertility, fighting pest and disease problems naturally without the using synthetic chemicals, preventing environmental degradation and most importantly achieving this through a method which is economically viable to producers and the community.

This Government’s economic development policy will invest heavily in projects that sustain communities, sustain the environment and create jobs over the long term. Social, environmental and economic sustainability is the cornerstone of the Government’s economic development approach.

Investment of $100 million annually will be made in the community directed at individual businesses, industries and new enterprises that make development choices compatible with these sustainable goods.

Sustainable development is about meeting the needs of this generation without compromising future generations. I see organic production as a flagship of economic sustainability. It has all the elements in compliance with Government policy.

This is investment by the State that will compete philosophically with the vast institutionalised other Government investment in new technologies that are not focused on the long term, but that potentially harm the environment and often displace people out of work.

It is with these issues in mind that this Government must now carefully consider its decisions on future strategies. I am heading a regional taskforce to specifically look at organics as an economic development opportunity for the East Coast region. I think someone has described it, quite aptly, as Organic Gold. The taskforce will combine local and central government minds to consider this new way forward.

And while that is happening, I am also taking part in a ministerial organics taskforce, to look at the promotion of organics.

Ensuring the Integrity of Organics

The image of “Brand” New Zealand is one of food that is clean and green and safe to eat. This image, however, is not sustainable in the eyes of world markets if it is based on biotechnological developments. The market trend is towards safety. Consumers are increasingly less certain about the safety of technology enhanced production. Even where safety is not an issue, I have already pointed out that for many consumers, they consider GE foods unnatural.

The overseas market is screaming out for organic products. These markets can not be ignored as a fanciful short-term trend in consumer demand.
The opportunities for New Zealand to tap into this demand – by a method that is sustainable to both our community and environment, not to mention hugely beneficial to our regional and national economies – are huge.

But while this debate continues, it is important that the organic claim is credible.
In defining the organic product, we will be able to ensure the integrity of the organic claim.

I have made it one of my priorities to address this and to inhibit the growth of organic frauds.

I am also in favour of considering a labelling system that would recognise different degrees of "organic" graded for their purity. The bottom line must be spray free. I rather fancy the idea of a five-star organic product or even better a top grade being marked by a "Kiwi Green" sticker.

The Government is embarking on a process to ensure the integrity of organic production by investigating organic standards. The desire is also to protect consumers’ interests by ensuring organic production is accurately labelled, defeating those who want to profit out of the organic image with product that does not comply.

I sincerely wish you well for the remainder of this conference.


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