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
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.