Food security differs from food security

October 3, 2012

Is New Zealand concentrating on food safety when there’s more to be gained by concentrating on food security?

 “I was stunned to learn what we know as Food Security is defined by the World Bank as Food Safety.  It may sound like semantics but it carries a huge implication for our agricultural producers and exporters,” says Letitia Isa, a student of Massey University Executive MBA programme.

“This simple but fundamental misapprehension may see New Zealand jumping ever higher but illusionary hurdles.  Instead of higher standards boosting returns, they may in fact be eroding them for almost no financial gain.

“When the World Bank says Food Safety they are not talking stainless steel, the National Animal Identification and Tracing Scheme or the Emissions Trading Scheme.  What the World Bank means is how New Zealand can contribute to the feeding nine billion people by 2050.

“That carries with it a powerful but different policy message.

New Zealand has a well deserved reputation for food safety but the premise that we are jumping unnecessary hurdles isn’t new.

Ever-stricter requirements for food safety have been used as non-tariff barriers for years.

When my farmer was in London in 1982 he visited the Smithfield market and was appalled by the low standard of hygiene there when the EU was requiring such high standards in our freezing works which provided a lot of the meat.

“New Zealand can feed some 24 million people according to the University of Waikato’s Professor of Agribusiness, Jacqueline Rowarth.  The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation says developed countries need to increase output by 70 percent to do their bit.

“It might sound provocative, but we need to seriously weigh the cost-benefits of adopting polices that do not generate tangible revenue at the farm gate, or increase production. While European supermarkets seem to be a de facto political and policy benchmark, are ever higher compliance costs worth it?

“It may sound counter intuitive, but perhaps quantity does have a quality all of its own.   A simple metric maybe if a policy adds a dollar of cost, does it produce well over a dollar of added revenue at the farm gate?

“Moreover, are our other policy settings, particularly around Genetically Modified Organisms, retarding New Zealand’s ability to do its fair global share?

“Certainly, the way the World Bank defines Food Safety needs to become central to New Zealand policy formation.  If not, we risk unprecedented global disorder that New Zealand could not escape,” Ms Isa concluded.

It would be stupid to jeopardise our reputation for food safety, especially in the higher-paying markets which are more likely to be concerned about quality than quantity.

However, if we can also increase the quantity of food we produce and still ensure it is safe to eat without the unnecessarily high hurdles some markets require we might be able to do our bit to help the world’s hungry while simplifying compliance, reducing the costs of production and increasing returns.


Frankenfood or farmaceuticals?

September 10, 2012

Opponents to genetic modification talk about ‘frankenfood’.

Those with more open minds see the health and financial opportunities in farmaceuticals.

New Zealand scientists have genetically engineered cows to produce milk that can treat a number of human diseases.

Cloning techniques have been adopted in the genetic modification of animals, a field looking to alter cows’ milk to produce pharmaceuticals in an application known as “biopharming”.

Crown Research Institute AgResearch says it has been the pioneer in transferring from mice to cows the concept of changing the composition of milk. . . .

AgResearch has several “proof-of-concept” cows which could produce milk with human proteins that could treat human diseases. Recently, the research has extended to production of therapeutic antibodies in goatsmilk.

Touted by proponents as the next Green Revolution to help feed the world, and labelled “frankenfood” by critics, genetic modification has generated both interest and controversy. . .

Of course there are risks, as there are with the development of conventional pharmaceuticals, but there is also the potential for breakthroughs in health treatments, pest and disease resistance and improved nutrition.

Overseas GM has already been used to develop insect resistant and herbicide tolerant crops, tomatoes with more antioxidants, canola oil which yields low-cholesterol oil, rice which makes vitamin A, cassava which produces more protein and lower caffeine coffee.

In New Zealand research includes:

Improved grassPastoral Genomics, a New Zealand GM research consortium, is developing a genetically modified grass to have at least 25 per cent more leaf mass, more protein for livestock and improved drought resistance, alongside other aims. The scientists have begun trials overseas.

Wasp-killing bacteria The Ministry for the Environment says GM is being investigated as a potential tool for pest control, specifically “research to genetically modify bacteria from the gut of wasps to produce a toxin that could kill wasp species”.

As with any new developments, a cautious approach is sensible.

But we shouldn’t close our minds, laboratory doors and paddocks to GM and the health, nutritional and financial reward that could come from it.


Do we still need to feed the world?

September 7, 2012

New Zealand is regarded as a leader in farming but we’re at risk of being left well behind if we don’t adopt 21st century biotechnology.

Crop-enhancing biotechnology is the world’s best hope of feeding a population expected to double by 2050, but scientists at an international conference in Rorotua this week warned NZ is in danger of missing the bus as resistance to genetic modification blocks development. AgResearch scientist Tony Conner said the amount of land planted with GM crops worldwide last year was 6 times the size of NZ. “If we continue to not adopt this technology, we run a huge risk of being left behind..In another decade we could be dealing with yesterday’s crops.”

No GM crops are grown in NZ, despite the vast potential for improved output from homegrown GM pastures, alongside exported products such as tomatoes, capsicum and squash. The loss in not embracing GM has been put at $1.5bn.

The reason we’re not embracing GM is that opposition based on emotion rather than science is dominating the discussion.

Caution with anything new is sensible but the blanket ban on genetic modification is blinkered.

Green MP Steffan Browning who helped lead a protest against the conference contends NZ should rely on organic and traditional means of producing food. “Rather than going for volume we need to be going for best value and not compromise our brand.” A research study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine could find little evidence food produced organically, without artificial fertilisers or other chemicals, is healthier or the vitamin content was any different.

Genetic modification might help farmers reduce the need for artificial fertilisers and pesticides, it would definitely enable us to produce more.

Food security is one of the biggest issues facing the world.

Although we export most of the food we produce, it’s not a lot on a global scale. Genetic modification could enable us to produce more food with better nutritional value.

If we could do more to feed the world, should we, or is it acceptable to keep the blinkers on, worry only about our little corner and let someone else concern themselves with feeding the hungry?


First they came for the apple trees . . .

April 14, 2012

First the vandals came for the apple trees:

Vandals spent a night destroying 1500 apple trees on a Hawke’s Bay orchard at the weekend and the owner is at a loss to explain why his fruit trees were targeted.

Some staff are now sleeping in paddocks to keep an around-the-clock watch on the remaining crop, which provides a livelihood for several families.

On Sunday morning Jonty Moffett arrived at his orchard at Fernhill, near Hastings, to discover the trees had been cut down the previous night.

The two-year-old trees were 1.8m to 2m tall. Some had been cut in half, others had been severed at ground level. . .

Then they attacked the pines:

Vandals have destroyed 375 genetically modified radiata pine trees at a research site in Rotorua, causing about $400,000 worth of damage.   

The tress, planted at forestry research site Scion to test herbicide resistance and study reproductive development, were  destroyed over Easter weekend, chief executive Warren Parker told Radio New Zealand.   

The trees were protected by electric fencing.   

“Somebody broke in through the three security fences – dug under the final one – and either pulled out or cut off 375      plants … It is outright vandalism,” Dr Parker said. . .

There is no suggestion the two incidences of vandalism were related.

The second one was almost certainly the work of people opposed to genetic modification, goodness only knows what motivated the vandals who destroyed the apple trees.

But if three security fences don’t keep vandals out there’s little anyone can do to keep their property and crops safe from those determined on doing damage.


Anti GM resolution progress or regress?

April 17, 2011

Whangarei District Council has voted to investigate regulating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) through the District Plan in conjunction with other councils in Northland and Auckland.

There’s nothing wrong with caution. But discussion suggests that rather than recognising a need to progress carefully  this is a step towards banning GMOs altogether:

“At the very least, we need GE to be a prohibited activity until the liability issues are resolved, and preferably, prohibited for good,” Cr. Deeming said.

Whether this is progress of regress depends on whether genetically modified produce is the means to a better fed world with healthier people or a blind leap into darkness.

Public opinion seems to go for the latter yet in the widest sense genetic modification is just what happens naturally through reproduction. However, the intervention of scientists has sped up the process so changes which used to take place over generations can be achieved in a much shorter time and that’s what’s fuelling fears that the stuff of science fiction nightmares might soon be unleashed on an unsuspecting world.

Biotechnological developments ought to be an improvement on nature because they allow a far greater degree of precision in determining the outcome. So in human terms, for example, instead of the lottery we now face when we have a baby we could pick the best of both parents to produce healthier and more talented offspring: the shape of his teeth and the quality of mine; his spelling, my grammar; his musical ability my …

The idea of such designer babies might be amusing in theory but in practice it’s only a small step away from the Nazi idea of producing a super race. However, does the risk of genetic modification being used in this way mean we shouldn’t allow its development when it might also be harnessed for good to circumvent hereditary illnesses?

There are probably enough ethical guidelines in medical science to safeguard the use of biotechnology with people but it’s not so easy to draw lines between benefit and risk in agriculture.

On one side there’s evidence of an increase in not only yield and quality but also health giving characteristics, for example animals with less fat and more protein or a super tomato with more of the caratoid which protects against cancer. We could also get improvements in flavour and while the thought of chocolate flavoured broccoli doesn’t do much for me I can see advantages in vegetables which appealed to children more than junk food.

The potential gains appear to outweigh the risks in these examples.  But there are fears the technology which does this could also result in environmental mayhem as genes from animals and crops bred for a specific purpose transfer to other species with potentially disastrous consequences.                                                                

People on both sides of the argument use history to back up their case: miscalculations about the dangers of DDT, dioxin and mad cow disease are reminders of what happens when science gets it wrong; but there are equally compelling examples when science has got it right such as vaccinations which have rid the world of small pox and reduced the risk of polio.

The debate in New Zealand isn’t just about consumer choice, it’s also about the future of farming.  Do we exploit the fears to sell our GM-free produce at a premium or embrace the new technology in the hope it will give us productive and marketing advantages?

There is no certain answer because there are both risks and benefits in whatever we do. But while concern is understandable and caution essential, I wouldn’t want to see a complete moratorium on biotechnological development.

There’s no progress without risk. I

I’d be prepared to take the risk of experiments with proper safeguards if it increased production and/or meant food which now needs to be sprayed or drenched  with potentially toxic substances could be bred to resist pests and disease in the first place.


GW or GM

October 21, 2009

If you see a member of an endangered species eating an endangered plant, what do you do?

That’s an environmental conundrum and here’s another: what if genetic modification could reduce globbal warming?

AgResearch is seeking approval for trials of transgenic grasses which it thinks could reduce greenhouse emissions.

AgResearch’s applied biotechnologies manager, Jimmy Suttie, said the transgenic grasses had both environmental and productivity advantages.

The grasses were high in energy, which meant fewer animals were needed to get the same production, reducing the amount of methane released.

The science behind the forage meant digestion of the plant was more efficient, cutting the amount of methane produced by animals and increasing energy that went into tissue and productivity.

But Dr Suttie said the technology also had implications for further research to cut methane emissions and reduce the volume of water required by the plants.

A lot of people who oppose oppose genetic modification also support radical efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.

Would they be prepared to relax their opposition to genetic modification if it could be part of the solution to global warming?

GW or GM? Some see both as threats but GM also provides opportunities.


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