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Ian Ewen-Street Address Organics 2000 Conference


Keynote Adress for Organics 2020 Conference 20 May 2000 Ian Ewen-Street MP Green Party Spokesperson for Agriculture, Education and Biosecurity

Sometimes we overlook the obvious. I think New Zealand agriculture is rather like that at the moment - we are overlooking the obvious. For the last 15 years we have been so focussed on trying to get rid of tariffs and trying to become internationally competitive in commodities that we have overlooked that our farm gate returns have been getting lower and lower and rural communities are de-populating. With the possible exception of the dairy industry, the reality is that New Zealand agriculture is in the doldrums.

However, I am enormously optimistic that New Zealand agriculture stands at a profound watershed right at this moment and that we have the potential to once more make agriculture rewarding financially, socially and environmentally. To explain my optimism, I need to go back to the outbreak of mad cow disease in the United Kingdom and to recall the horror with which people reacted to the realisation that they could actually be killed by the food they assumed was safe. Not long after the mad cow disease scare, it was revealed that Belgian farmers had been giving feed laced with dioxin to their animals. Then there was another scare in France about toxic sludge which was being used as a filler in stock feed for animals used for human consumption.

People rightly began to question what was in the food that they ate and the closer they looked, the more they found. For instance, they found that perfectly healthy pigs and chickens were injected with antibiotics to keep them healthy at precisely the same time as resistance to antibiotics was seen to be increasing. I am not aware of any direct causal relationship having been established between "superbugs" in hospitals and the feeding of antibiotics to animals, but the coincidence in timing must surely give us pause for thought.

People also found when they looked further into food quality that some animals (particularly beef cattle in feed-lots) were injected with oestrogen-based growth hormones in order to make them grow faster. In the United States, this appears to have created a human hormonal imbalance problem leading to young girls entering puberty at the ages of 7 or 8 and young boys developing breasts.

Another example closer to home is the additives found in processed food in New Zealand supermarkets. If you look carefully at the next lot of processed food you buy, you will often find a series of additive numbers, which manufacturers are legally obliged to put on the label. These 3 digit numbers represent additives, such as colourings, flavourings and preservatives, and most are generally considered to be harmless, although some are linked to serious problems in organs such as the stomach and liver, and some are even considered to be carcinogenic.

Many people are scared of these additives, they are scared of mad cow disease and they are scared of dioxin. They are also scared of antibiotics and growth hormones. So, when genetically engineered food items started appearing on supermarket shelves, the first instinct of many British people was to say "We have had enough interference in the food chain. We don't want any more unknown ingredients. Whatever this genetically engineered food is, we don't want it."

Consumer resistance to genetically engineered food and food with chemical additives has created an enormous groundswell, particularly in Europe and spreading to Japan, US and many other countries. People are demanding pure food. They simply don't want genetically engineered ingredients or chemical additives. They don't want growth hormones or antibiotics. And, increasingly, they do not want food with any chemical residues. The only source of food guaranteed to be free of these contaminants is certified organic food.

This is the basis of my optimism for New Zealand agriculture. We already trade heavily on our clean, green image and we are already recognised as being the producers of food of the very highest quality, though whether our practices actually justify such an image is debatable. Consumers all around the world are prepared to pay high premiums for food which is free of what they consider to be contaminants and their demand outstrips our ability to supply. I believe we have a wonderful opportunity to establish ourselves as exporters of high quality organic food and, in the process, completely revitalise agricultural production in New Zealand.

However, it will not be an easy task. There has been a strong push from some political sources, from some scientists, from the biotechnology corporates and from some primary producers to embrace genetic engineering as the resolution of all our problems. I believe this is a dead end street.

There are many arguments against the further use of genetic engineering in food production on the basis science, health and ethical issues. I want to focus on the trade effects of New Zealand being known as a country which has genetically engineered products.

A number of countries - notably the United States - already have high production levels of genetically engineered crops and animal products. If we were to follow the same route, we would simply be competing on similar terms to the Americans for markets which are increasingly rejecting genetically engineered products. Effectively we would be putting ourselves in the situation of competing for a market which is declining. The financial returns to NZ farmers would also decline.

On the other hand, if New Zealanders rejected the use of genetically engineered food products and marketed ourselves as an organic country, we would be opening up burgeoning markets where people are prepared to pay premium prices for the guarantee that their food is chemical free and GE-free.

In world terms, New Zealand's food production is minuscule and the demand for certified organic food far outstrips our ability to supply the market. For instance, the seasonal demand for certified organic kiwifruit in Japan alone can exceed our total kiwifruit production.

Another example is recent exports of Braeburn apples. The New Zealand producers of conventional, chemically dependent Braeburns received $7 per carton in Europe. At the same time, transitionally certified organic Braeburns were receiving $17 per carton and fully certified organic Braeburns fetched $35 per carton in the same market.

Perhaps the most important thing to recognize in making a decision about whether to embrace genetic engineering technology is the realisation that the decision is very lop-sided. If we as a community, as a country, choose to accept that the benefits of GE outweigh the risks, that decision is permanent. It is a one way street because genetically engineered animals and crops are living things which reproduce, cross breed and pollinate with closely related natural species. The process is not reversible, once artificial genes are in the wider environment, they are there for ever. Conversely, if we decide as a community not to embrace genetic engineering at the moment and in future find that we were wrong and that genetically engineered crops and food are safe and desirable and sell well round the world, we can revisit the decision. At least, we will have left our choices open. If we take the GE route now, we are embracing an unproven technology with potentially huge risks to our trade, health and general welfare.

It is important to note that if we embrace genetic engineering, then the market for New Zealand organics will effectively be lost because we can never again prove that our food has unmodified genes. There is no doubt that, from an agricultural point of view, genetically engineered products and organic products are mutually exclusive because of interbreeding between closely related species. By definition, organic products can contain no artificial genes. From a trade perspective, if we embrace gene technology now, then our trading partners will see us as a producer of genetically engineered exports.

What can we as individuals do to influence the choice about whether New Zealand takes the GE route or not? There are two things going on at a political level at the moment, both of which are extremely important. The first is the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Genetic Engineering. The commissioners have been appointed and the terms of reference approved. The Commissioners will be calling for submissions in the very near future. At the same time, the Primary Production Select Committee in Parliament has embarked on an inquiry into organic agriculture in New Zealand for the next 12-18 months. This is an inquiry into the potential for organic farming and the barriers it presently confronts. The inquiry hopes to establish a robust definition of what "organic" actually means so that both producers and consumers can use the term with a degree of certainty. It also hopes to establish a set of national minimum standards for organic production. As you will be aware, we have had the internationally recognised Bio-Gro and Demeter standards in New Zealand for some years, but there have been newcomers to the certification block, using the brands Organza and Certenz. While I have no major problem with competition between various certifying bodies all certifying to the same set of standards, I do have a very real fear that competition for clients in an unregulated standards environment will lead to undercutting of those standards and ultimately to dilution of the term "organic".

I recommend that as individuals and groups we should make both written and oral submissions to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Genetic Engineering and to the Primary Production Committee inquiry into organic agriculture. Information on making submissions is freely available from Parliament so contact our offices to obtain this information. Letters to MPs don't need stamps and we do accept collect phone calls.

I have spent some time discussing the trade and export aspects of organic farming but there are other issues to be addressed as well. For instance, it seems to me that we are creating a moral dilemma for ourselves when we export organic products to appeal to the elite end of the market. We are looking for premium prices from people who are prepared to pay for expensive organic products. At the same time, the Soil Association in the UK is actively encouraging consumers to buy local produce to reduce the level of "food miles" involved.

There are other justifications for using organic farming techniques which are not based on the pure profit motive and which have a benefit and relevance to the broader community.

One of these justifications is the concept of "ecological footprint". This is the idea that individual human beings need a certain area of land to sustain themselves. All of us consume crops and vegetables and animal products. We all benefit from oil and minerals extracted for fuel and other purposes and timber from trees. We need fresh air and clean water. Waste materials have to be disposed of and so on. It has been calculated that for the average American, the area of land required to sustain each individual is 7-8 ha. The average New Zealander consumes less than the average American, but our ecological footprint still takes up about 5 ha. In other words, every New Zealander needs a minimum of 5 ha to sustain ourselves in the present day lifestyle.

Simple mathematics reveals a sobering fact. There are 9 billion ha of productive agricultural land on this earth and 6 billion human beings, so each individual in the world can only be allocated 1.5 ha, so already each New Zealander uses far more than their fair share of the earth's resources. It is simply not possible to bring every person up to the standard of living of the western world without increasing the size of the earth. There is no alternative but to reduce our impact on the earth and one of the most significant ways we can do this is by reducing our demand for energy, for agricultural chemicals and for high technology.

Organic agriculture is not just about absence of chemicals or earning high premiums for our products. It is not just about maximising our income from exports. Fundamentally, organics is about the sustainability of our existence on this planet, and our main tool for achieving this is the ongoing health of the soil. Soil is what sustains us and what will sustain future generations.

The soil of an organic farm is rich in humus, earthworms, mycorrhysal fungi, countless bacteria and other living things, so that the soil is a living organism in its own right. I see it as our responsibility as farmers to maintain a healthy soil so that the generations who come after us retain the ability to sustain themselves and their families.

The simple mathematics of the concept of ecological footprint leads to the realisation that we simply cannot carry on the way we are going. At some point we will have to say that chemically dependent farming will have to diminish or cease.

We have choices. We can continue with our use of chemicals. We can embrace genetic engineering. Or we can go organic. To me, the obvious solution from all perspectives is to go organic. I believe it will improve our health, it will bring economic benefits and it will contribute to long term ecological sustainability.

But it is not going to be an easy task. Please don't underestimate the power of the vested interests, the power of the chemical companies, the power of biotechnology corporates, the power of scientists and the power of politicians. It seems to me that despite the best of intentions, many of these people are not working to improve the food we eat. They are not trying to improve living conditions in the developing world. They are not trying to make a better world for our children and grand-children. They are trying to make money.

Let us not overlook the obvious, but focus on the obvious - the realities that chemical dependence has been a fifty year blip in a long history of organic farming and that in New Zealand organic farming can sustain today's population and the population of the future. With the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Genetic Engineering and the Primary Production Committee inquiry into organic agriculture, we can participate in important decision making processes. The decisions we make right here, right now will have a profound effect on the future generations who come after us. They have no voice, so we have to make the decisions for them. Let us not disappoint them.

ends

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