Building a Field of Dreams

Ministers in key economic portfolios,
such as Lockwood Smith and John Luxton, determined few years ago to make New Zealand the trailblazer in the jungles of world trade protocols. They had simple faith: by pulling down our trade barriers unilaterally, they would hasten the freeing up of world trade. Other nations, bedazzled by our boldness and the benefits to our economy, would be sure to follow.
Environmentalists urged the incumbent Government to exercise similar pioneering spirit while royal commission is conducted into genetic engineering. They wanted ban on genetic-engineering field trials until the commission reports back on its examination of range of biotechnical issues. The Government responded by asking for voluntary moratorium on field trials.
Thus we are pioneering partial pause, until the royal commission, the Government, or someone maps out guidelines within which we may march onwards. But when we resume our march, will other countries stop their work and mark time while we catch up? Fat chance.
The economic implications, as scientists in other countries make significant advances while we muse about GMO developments, are enormous. The dairy industry, for example, has been investing essentially in three research areas. First, to develop techniques for delivering more nutritious forage crops to help our cows make better milk. Second, to hasten the herd improvement programme that’s been running for decades to help breed better cows. Third, to create new milk-based products, particularly in the medical domain, to treat diseases we have got and those we might get.
Scientists are at work, too, trying to improve existing dairy products Ñ cheeses that mature quicker, milk that stays fresh longer, and so on. Similar developments are proceeding in other primary-industry research institutes.
Among the fascinating but still mostly theoretical possibilities being examined around the world are milk with designer proteins, or with extra casein for some applications and more whey for others.
There are much broader potential benefits. Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, in March endorsed high-yield agriculture including bio-engineered crops. The Sierra Club is leading US environmental organisation, committed opponent of corporate greed. Its reasoning: high farm yields will help to save wildlife habitats and wild species. Thus we must sharply increase yields on existing farmlands or risk losing millions of hectares of wildlands and hundreds of thousands of wildlife species to low-yield crops and livestock.
Last year, 76 million acres of farmland in the United States were planted with crop varieties created by gene-splicing technique. This included 47 percent of all soybeans and 37 percent of the corn harvest. The idea is that raising crops resistant to pests without chemicals or unaffected by herbicides sprayed to kill weeds would be an enormous economic boon.
The downside is that American farmers lost at least US$200 million in exports to Europe because of the deep disquiet there about so called “Frankenfoods”. This disquiet could open another front for pioneering New Zealanders. We could cash in on reputation we must win and maintain for producing GMO-free food.
Whether the rewards justify our foregoing the chance to pioneer transgenic technologies is critical question.
A few weeks before the commission of inquiry into genetic engineering was set up, an economic report was published by the Association of Crown Research Institutes. It gave disturbing food for thought. We are the lowest exporters of high-tech products in the OECD.
Our companies generally buy their research and development-intensive capital equipment rather than develop it. They are less adept at producing high-tech goods for export.
The value of our high-technology imports is more than five times the value of corresponding imports. Not for the first time, New Zealand is urged to move from relying on commodities to products and services which command high prices by embodying sophisticated knowledge and can be marketed skilfully. Whether we can afford to take time out now, for the duration of an inquiry, is moot point.

Bob Edlin is Wellington-based economic commentator and journalist.

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