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GM – Public Risk, Private Benefit

GM – Public Risk, Private Benefit

The recent rash of editorial and reactionary response to the advocacy of the use of GM technologies in agriculture in Aotearoa/New Zealand by Du Pont and Monsanto senior management deserves some sober and rational attention. At a recent International Agricultural Biotechnology conference sponsored by the Federation of Maori Authorities, a GM Panel claimed that NZ “could miss (the) bus” and be left behind, raise several interesting questions. If they meant the agribusiness bus, then perhaps that bus is well worth missing given that the agribusiness bus has driven rural NZ to a current debt of about $48 billion with the environmental impact cost of NZ business in 2010 averaged at $0.41 of every $1 revenue earned?

Consideration of the role of GM technology in agriculture was a part of the Federation of Maori Authorities members commitment to understanding the wider potential of the application of biotechnologies “to global issues such as climate change, sustainability, health, nutrition, and how to feed nine billion people in 2050”. It is disappointing that little else was reported from the conference except the commercially driven claims of the GM heavyweights. The responses these claims invoke create a smokescreen obscuring critical questions and drawing attention away from advances in farm practice, research, and technology, potentially of much greater benefit to NZ agriculture than the original sledge-hammer techniques that produced a range of glyphosate resistant plants.

Recent research at AgResearch Grasslands on the whakapapa of white clover opens up exciting ways of copying nature and creating new varieties potentially with better drought and saline tolerance and vital in a world of growing climate instability and water shortages.

Scientists at the Bio-Protection Research Centre at Lincoln University are a key part of an international effort to understand and apply startling research that plant-root symbiotic fungi “create” healthy more productive plants by inducing systemic resistance to diseases and improving plant growth by up-regulating plant genes. Fungi, without the help of Monsanto, or Du Pont have been quietly working together with plants for millions of years to accomplish what your brightest genetic engineer would never imagine in their wildest dreams. More importantly, scientists from the Bio-Protection Centre are already working with farmers to find the best ways of using this research to reduce input costs, improve quality, and benefit the environment.

Agriculture is ill-served by the pursuit of short term gains from commodity products by farm expansion and intensification. GM glyphosate-resistance technology is part of this same failed and environmentally damaging mindset.

Export gains result from farmers working with scientists to change and fine tune farming practices and processors working with technologists to adapt new technologies to meet specific industry requirements. NZ’s infrastructure has been built on the tax take from the primary producers and associated manufacturing and processing businesses that have benefited from this collaborative work. Shutting NZ entrepreneurs off from the free-flow of ideas and the intellectual property resulting from tax-payer investment in science and technology has set this country back some 20 years.


Alfred Harris has a first class honours degree in genetics, with experience as a scientist in public good research and as a share-holder and owner of biocarbon technology and research companies. He is currently involved in a range of research including practical methods for reducing the impact of intensive dairy farming on water quality.

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