When National Party leader Christopher Luxon announced their policy to encourage commercial release of GE organisms in New Zealand he was challenged by Jack Tame on OneNews about the unintended consequences of the plan.
Questioned about the value of our clean green Brand and risk of contamination of conventional and organic production, Mr. Luxon argued that the added value to the economy from GE-free exports was a mere five percent. It is nothing for producers or exporters to be concerned about. (1)
The deregulation of GE for commercial release comes with a trade-off that the National Party are willing to make in discounting the value of GE-free/ non-GMO food exports.
But what if they’ve got their numbers wrong?
What if the premium is not five percent but more than that?
What would a15% premium for non-GMO mean for New Zealand’s future Food Strategy and ensuring strict control of GE in agriculture?
What if the premium is not five percent but six times that? What if studies show an average 29% premium for GE-free, with variation by product-type and consumer market?
What about something even higher…+ 45%?
The economic benefits of biotechnology are cited as the main justification for ending strict regulation of Gene Editing. National’s announcement has cut short the wider conversation about the future of sustainable agriculture and the role of ethical genomic science within that.
The Productivity Commission published its Frontiers report also in support of change to the rules to unleash biotechnology. But that report largely relies on industry messaging against regulation.(2) The Productivity Commission cites future promise for products like GE ryegrass, but gives no cost/benefit analysis comparing alternatives to reduce methane. Nor does it downgrade claims for GE ryegrass in light of failed US trials.(3)
How much is the GE-Free premium worth?
This is something that the Productivity Commission did not evaluate in its Frontiers review, but should have. Providing data for New Zealand exports is vital to ensure we understand the true value and protect the advantage that GE-free status provides.
On the downside, there is anecdotal evidence of farmers receiving ‘just a few cents on a kilo of milk solids’ for being non-GMO. If so, farmers need to be asking hard questions of their company management. Maybe they are still missing what consumers are saying and underselling their brand story to overseas customers, as indicated to Silver Fern Farms in a Kantar market research report.(4)
Without a proper evaluation of the economic benefit of GE-free status for farmers, producers and exporters it is not possible to make informed decisions.
Is there is enough added-value in natural, safe, non-GMO food that there no longer need be such a thing as a ‘commodity’ from Brand New Zealand?
Nobody seems to know, but the best available evidence suggests a much higher premium needs to be accounted for. That is to say the best available evidence so far, other than limited public data, Christopher Luxon’s guesstimate, anecdotes and more useful real-world observations of market demand for GE-free food.
This data on the premium for GE-free is included in a Food and Fibre sector report referenced by the Chief Scientist in a recent letter to the Prime Minister to support a review of GE regulations. The Well-NZ report for the Food and Fiber sector by Te Puna Whakaaronui has two resources to identify the level of market premium for GE-free food that we should expect.(5)
The first report is a meta-analysis of 25 studies by Lusk et al which calculated the premium at +29%. The other study cited in the Food & Fibre report is a meta-analysis by Dannenberg which found a premium of 45%.
Clearly they cant both be right. Both studies come with caveats, including variations for the premium by country and product. Nevertheless, the premium is significantly greater than five percent and far too much to be discounted as an economic asset.
There is definitely money in it and appeal to consumers.
The adoption of the Non-GMO Project label by Fonterra and Lewis Road Creamery is a response to market signals. The only logic in using the label is to gain a marketing advantage, at least in the USA. (6)
A survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation in 2018 found nearly half of US consumers try to avoid GMO foods. (7)
The US Department of Agriculture identified that US producers of GE foods are missing out! They had lost access and exports to high-value markets with a demand for non-GMO products worth billions of dollars. (8)
European consumers and farmers are pushing back on synthetic food, including a vote in the Italian senate to ban cellular meat. (9)
Retailers and consumers are joining the EU Environment Ministers in strongly opposing exemptions of regulation for Gene Editing that will deny people the right to choose.(10,11) In the UK 80% of consumers want products of New Genomic Techniques tested, tracked and labelled. (12)
Even the makers of the Impossible Burger have responded to consumer preferences for non-GMO soy in key markets outside the US. They have replaced the main GE ingredient with certified non-GM soy and test each batch they import to ensure there is no GE contamination.(13)
A recent report by Plant and Food Research found people are open to new technologies but had a preference for controlled and contained agriculture. In New Zealand and Australia use of Gene Editing has the highest level of consumer rejection of all the technologies tested.(14)
Consumer sentiment around GE foods remains suspicious said Dr Denise Conroy, project leader for the study of Future Urban Consumers. The appeal of organic food in overseas markets is also noted. It is driven by concerns over food safety, contamination and poor regulation, which New Zealand consumers have traditionally had to less worry about.
The organic sector also benefits from its standards that exclude synthetic inputs and GE organisms. New Zealand organic exports grew 20% between 2017 and 2020 to $723 million.(15)
Counting the Cost. Who knows?
It is possible that MBIE and other industry organisations, organic producers and our major food exporters already have data we need. They may be working on publishing it to inform the conversation about trade-offs and the most appropriate applications for an ethical biotechnology strategy for New Zealand.
Calculations to inform the debate are overdue and made more urgent by The National Party’s policy. At an individual level the right to choose will be taken away for consumers and farmers by rules that exempt new gene edited products from regulation. New Genomic Techniques will not be required to be safety tested, traced through the food system or labelled on packaging.
At a national level, the cost to the economy and to Brand New Zealand would be much greater than the National Party imagines.
Data will allow a conversation on how New Zealand can best navigate the complex economic and environmental challenges we face, including the role of biotechnology and regulation of Gene Editing in agriculture. There is value and economic advantage to Brand New Zealand from GE-free exports, but how much is it really worth and who will protect it?
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Lusk, Jayson L., Mustafa Jamal, Lauren Kurlander, Maud Roucan, and Lesley Taulman. 2005. “A Meta-Analysis of Genetically Modified Food Valuation Studies,” Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 30.1: 28–44.
Dannenberg, Astrid. 2009. “The Dispersion and Development of Consumer Preferences for Genetically Modified Food — A Meta-Analysis,” Ecological Economics:The Journal of the International Society for Ecological Economics, 68.8–9: 2182–92.
15) 2021 Organic Sector Report https://drive.google.com/file/d/1soMkI1mOGHUzfgKA_6NJ7RM1rrafuXcZ/view
Jon Carapiet: Born in Ghana and educated at Cambridge and Auckland Universities, Jon is a consumer researcher and advocate, photographer and writer. Jon started talking about valuing and protecting Brand New Zealand in the early 2000’s and is spokesman for GE-Free NZ (in food and environment). Twitter jon@brandnewzealand