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How Valuable Is Agricultural Sovereignty?How Valuable Is Agricultural Sovereignty?

New Zealand’s strict GMO stance builds green image

December 15, 2013

10 Min Read
How Valuable Is Agricultural Sovereignty?

Isolation can be an advantage. From its spectacularly varied landscape to its Maori-meets-cosmopolitan culture, New Zealand is like no other nation on the planet. Beyond what you read about in travel brochures, several key factors make this storied island country agriculturally unique. Because of its geography, climate and isolated position in the South Pacific, New Zealand boasts a treasure trove of native flora and fauna found nowhere else on the globe. In fact, 80% of the nation’s plant species are native.
New Zealanders recognize the value of these precious resources, and so preserving their integrity and prosperity has long been entrenched in the country’s ethos. But these efforts do more than just maintain botanical bragging rights. New Zealand’s commitment to natural biodiversity has become central to its position as a giant exporter of food and beverages.
With its strict ban on GMO seeds and a growing reputation for green agriculture, the Kiwis have an opportunity to brand the island nation as a last bastion of agricultural sovereignty. That opportunity could be huge.
Protecting the prize
Page25_20Chart.JPGAccording to Graeme Jarvis, natural products specialist at New Zealand Trade & Enterprise, 54% of the nation’s exports are food and beverages, namely dairy products, lamb, beef, kiwifruit, apples, seafood, onions, squash and other vegetables. Even though in the grand scope of the global economy, New Zealand accounts for just 5% of global food and beverage exports, the numbers are pretty impressive when you consider that the nation is about the size of Great Britain and has just 4.6 million residents. “We’re a small country, but definitely hold our own in the world,” Jarvis says. “As an island nation, exports are our lifeblood.”
A huge piece of keeping New Zealand’s biodiversity intact is preventing any invasive plant species from entering the nation. “New Zealand’s reputation is of a credible, natural, ‘clean and green’ supplier,” says Michelle Palmer, industry expert in the region. “A single invasive species could ruin New Zealand’s reputation globally and create havoc with the nation’s ability to supply offshore markets with agricultural goods.”
These fears have sparked strong preservation efforts on the part of the government, as well as many independent businesses and organizations. “Our nation has strong conservation programs in place for flora and fauna,” Jarvis says. But tough security at New Zealand’s borders bears the brunt of the responsibility for keeping potential pests from penetrating. “Border security is vital to ensure that invasive species are kept out so that the New Zealand ecosystem, all of its flora and fauna, is maintained in a healthy vibrant state,” Palmer says.
While this iron-clad stance has for the most part worked, a very few species have found their way in, and the ensuing damage is already palpable. “Varroa mite, for example, has had a major impact on honey production,” Palmer says. “It is now widespread and has the ability to wipe out wild bee populations. Without the bees, there is no New Zealand honey industry.”
Working the land
New Zealand’s pride in and economic reliance on its unique botanical bounty has heavily influenced the nation’s agricultural practices. As Jarvis depicts it, rather than being overrun by factory farms and feedlots, the landscape is more pastoral, dotted with several smaller, independent farmsteads, almost harkening back to an earlier America. “We largely have a pastoral, forage-based agricultural system, where animals are exposed to the elements,” he explains. And because New Zealand is the world’s only nonsubsidized agricultural sector, Jarvis says farmers and ranchers are highly innovative and productive. “Since they receive no government subsidies, they are the masters of their own fortune and are driven to do very well,” he explains. Jarvis does note that some bigger farms are starting to crop up, as well as more corporate entities, but it’s a far cry from the United States’ agricultural landscape.
Organic agricultural practices are also quite common and becoming much more widespread. Besides an inherent commitment to environmental stewardship, purveyors are inclined to go organic becausecertification has been in place for decades, predating the formal U.S. program, and makes it easier to produce and market goods. “The establishment of organic certification in the 1980s catalyzed an increase in production, trade and consumption of organic products,” Jarvis says. “Prior to that, it had been local sales from small farms, orchards and co-ops.”
Exportation of organic goods started gaining steam in the early 1990s. “That was the first phase of rapid growth in organics among the exporters working in close relationships with BioGro NZ, the first professional organic certification scheme,” Jarvis explains. “Strategic interventions by various governments, the formation of Organic Products Exporters Group and the support of Organics Aotearoa NZ steered the sector. Then organic really took off throughout the ’90s, influenced strongly by large export champions Zespri (kiwifruit), Heinz Wattie NZ Ltd (fruits and vegetables), ENZA (pip fruit) and later Fonterra (dairy) and fresh vegetable exporters.” As a result, he says organic exports have grown from NZ$32 million in 1997 to between NZ$215 and NZ$225 million in 2012.
Organic cultivation is strong and growing in the country’s farmland today. “Approximately 9% of horticultural land and 1% of farmed grassland in New Zealand is under organic certification,” Jarvis says. “The 2012 NZ Farm Sustainability Survey shows that of those involved in farming in New Zealand, 5% are currently organic or being converted, 6% intend to use a certified organic management system, and 16% intend to use some organic methods in future.” Last year’s growth rates support that. “We’ve already seen rapid growth in the number of organic certified licensees and organically certified operations—6.6% and 24.6%, respectively, in 2012 compared to 2011 figures,” he adds.
According to Claire Bleakley, president of GE Free NZ, this growth should only continue. “There is a strong movement to try and get organic production in 20% of New Zealand farms by 2020,” she says.
Exports aside, consumers within New Zealand are also embracing organic. “The organic industry is growing at a steady pace,” Bleakley says. “Due to relatively few problems, it is easier to be organic and follow genetic engineering-free standards in New Zealand than in the U.S. We have a range of different certification bodies and biological farming systems that are producing good, healthy soils and food with high nutritional content.”
But beyond food, Palmer says organic personal care is also gaining traction domestically and for export. “There is an increasing trend toward the production of cosmetics and skin care,” she says.
Clear labeling of organic—and also natural—foods and other goods has helped this industry flourish. “The Ministry for Primary Industries provides very clear food labeling guidelines that cover what companies and products must state around labeling ‘natural’ foods,” Jarvis says. He says organic product accreditation and certification are well organized and carried out by the government’s auditing agency, AsureQuality, as well as BioGro NZ, Demeter and Organic Farm NZ.
Getting ahead of GE
While the US is entangled in controversy over genetic engineering, the potentially irreversible ramifications of having introduced GE seeds, and consumers’ right to know whether they’re consuming GE foods, New Zealand has buffered itself from most of this maelstrom by stopping GE seeds from entering its borders.
“In 2001, a Royal Commission on Genetic Modification was established to investigate and report on issues surrounding genetic modification in New Zealand,” Jarvis says. “It recommended that New Zealand should ‘proceed with caution,’ while at the same time ensuring that any opportunities from genetic modification are preserved.”
So although the government didn’t say “never” to GE seeds, it laid the cement for a very cautionary stance, which has thus far kept them out. “New Zealand is generally considered a GE-free country, particularly around agriculture and primary industries,” Palmer says. “GE seeds and grains cannot be imported into New Zealand.”
As with keeping out invasive species, government border security is responsible for stonewalling GE seeds. “The Ministry for Primary Industries tests seeds at the border, but they are so underfunded that this isn’t always enforced properly,” says Bleakley. “There was a contamination incident called Corn Gate, where Syngenta mistakenly sent over viable seed, which was ploughed under and destroyed.” Still, in the event something did slip by the government, Bleakley believes GE-free demand will safeguard New Zealand’s integrity. “Interestingly, our markets keep us honest because this is what we trade on,” she says. “So if any GE contamination were to be found, it would cause a trade incident.”
That trade piece is crucial, especially as demand for GE-free food grows globally. “Experiences with GE crops overseas makes it even more imperative that we protect and market our GE-free status as a food producer in line with the New Zealand brand,” says Jon Carapiet, national spokesman for GE Free NZ. “Even in the US, it is projected that GM-free will be 30% of the food market by 2015. New Zealand exporters should be positioned to meet the global demand for clean, safe, ethical GE-free food.”
While viable GE seeds are not permitted, a select few finished products containing GE ingredients are allowed in New Zealand. “Other GMOs can be imported under very, very, strict regulations,” Palmer says. “GE materials in foods sold here have to be assessed by inspectors and regulators and approved for sale. There are currently just over 20 foods for sale in New Zealand that contain GE materials.”
But unlike in the US, New Zealanders know exactly which products these are, because any food containing GE material must be labelled as such. “Any food, food ingredient, food additive, food-processing aid or flavoring that contains genetically modified DNA or protein must have this fact noted on the label,” Jarvis says. “If a food or ingredient has altered characteristics, this must also be on the label. For example, if an oil was made from a plant that had been genetically modified so that its oil boils at a higher temperature, the oil would have to be labelled, even though no genetically modified material would be present.”
For now, stakeholders agree that New Zealand has a pretty good handle on the GE issue. But that does not mean GE denouncers are resting on their laurels. There is immense pressure from overseas companies, namely Monsanto, to introduce GE seeds—and in order to secure allowance, these corporate giants know they must convince New Zealand’s government that this would be beneficial. They’re definitely trying. “Overseas companies are contracting with government research institutes and pushing to release GE with arguments that we must have it,” says Carapiet. “Arborgen is pushing for GE trees. Agresearch has foreign partners pushing for GE animals, driven by a desire for IP and patents, such as for GE ryegrass for dairying.”Page27_20Chart.JPG
Thus far the government hasn’t budged. “The government gauges these requests on a case-by-case basis and there’s been no need so far to allow in GE seeds,” Jarvis says. “However, none of the GE crops currently commercially available globally have been developed especially for New Zealand conditions.” If that were to change, permission may be more likely.
Some see implementation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) as another potential threat to New Zealand’s GE-free stance. “This 12-nation free trade alliance could enhance business opportunities for New Zealand—as long as the nation maintains its stance on intellectual property, agriculture and other areas,” Palmer says.
But will New Zealand hold tough? Carapiet isn’t so sure. “The TPPA could result in New Zealand being prevented from staying GE free, prevented from marketing our products as such, and even having to pay compensation to Monsanto or others under ‘member state resolutions’ if their GE crops are not allowed to be grown here,” he says. “We—and I expect most reasonable people—believe our laws for labeling GE food and the right to keep GE in the lab should be extended to all nations, including the US. The fear is the TPPA will be a betrayal and prevent testing and labeling, and ultimately our right not to have to eat GE food.”

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