John Caradus, Grasslanz Technology Ltd,
PB 11008, Palmerston North 4442, New Zealand
Email: john.caradus@grasslanz.com
ORCID number: John Caradus 0000-0001-7887-9041

The full paper on which this article is based was published by Taylor & Francis in the New Zealand Journal of Agricultural Research on 22 May 2022 and can be accessed at https://doi.org/10.1080/00288233.2022.2077380.

Introduction

In New Zealand, a genetically modified (GM) organism means any organism where genes or other genetic material have been modified by in vitro techniques. This includes New Breeding Technologies (NBT) such as gene editing. The aim here is to (a) examine the importance of consumer attitudes towards food produced from GM plants or from animals fed GM feed; and (b) consider whether consumer attitudes would reduce the demand and acceptance of food produced by New Zealand pastoral farmers if GM forages were included in animal feed.

Factors influencing the release of GM foods would include the need to transform the sustainability of agriculture, increasing costs of farm inputs, mitigating agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, adapting to climate change, e.g., more frequent and intense droughts, increasing animal welfare concerns, and improving precision of GM techniques. Indeed, it is propositioned that GM cultivars are safer than those bred using traditional methods without use of genetic modification because they are made in a very precise manner (Roberts 2018). This position is supported by peer reviewed published work in respected journals and led to the Nobel Laureates Campaign demanding that non-scientific statements be withdrawn in the debate on the safety and value of using genetic modification for crop development particularly for the developing world. Some commentators have determined that banning GM crop use may prove detrimental for national and international economies (Lee and Giesbrecht 2021).  They noted that using GM crops has increased farming efficiency, cost effectiveness, and a rise in income for developing countries and diminish global economic inequality.

In New Zealand, genetic modification is regulated under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act 1996 administered by the Ministry for the Environment. While research and development on genetic modification of plants is permitted indoors with the appropriate and approved level of containment, there have been few applications over the past 25 years for evaluation of genetically modified plants in outdoor containment trials. While not necessarily opposed to GM technologies many exporting companies in New Zealand view the GMO-free brand as a marketing opportunity. Yet despite this the New Zealand government has continued to fund research on genetically modified organisms. The regulatory framework established from the HSNO Act to provide the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) a process for decision making uses a case-by case approach for assessing the risk-cost-benefit of each genetic modification event (Dinica 2021). This process has been labelled as technocratic and inconsistent with the precautionary principle of regulation (McGuiness Institute 2013). The McGuiness Institute report also concluded that “New Zealand is no further ahead on public policy regarding outdoor use of GMOs than it was when the Commissioners reported their findings in 2001”. In the 9 years since the report from the McGuiness Institute was published nothing has changed and indeed New Zealand continues to be poorly equipped to make a strategic decision on the release GMOs to the outdoors (Howard 2022). A further report published by the New Zealand Productivity Commission 2021 entitled “New Zealand firms: Reaching for the frontier” concluded that New Zealand’s approach to regulating genetic modification techniques under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 was last reviewed in 2001 and does not reflect technological advances since that time. It boldly recommended that the Government should undertake a full review of the regulation of genetic modification, to ensure it is fit for purpose and supports domestic innovation. On this topic the report proposed 10 recommendations of which six were:

  • consider the emerging regulatory approaches in other jurisdictions, particularly New Zealand’s key product destination and competitor markets;
  • consider the trade and regulatory enforcement impacts from different treatment of GM technologies in different markets;
  • assess consumer attitudes in New Zealand and internationally;
  • consider the potential impacts on New Zealand firms that wish to retain GM-free status, and on New Zealand’s reputation and brand more generally;
  • assess the fitness for purpose of the current regulatory oversight and enforcement arrangements; and
  • consider the merits of separate legislation and/or a standalone regulator for genetic technologies.

The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification (Eichelbaum et al., 2001) stated that – “Genetic modification has been used freely in New Zealand for more than a decade as a research tool, for medical purposes, and in food ingredients.” Indeed, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), which is governed by separate legislation, lists on its website (FSANZ 2021) 93 foods of plant origin across 10 species, and 4 foods of microbial origin produced using gene technologies.  So, while the New Zealand public can purchase food with GM ingredients, appropriately labelled, it is currently not possible for New Zealand farmers to use GM technologies in food production.

Country of origin effects

New Zealand’s top trading partners are China, Australia, USA, and Japan who collectively take 58% of New Zealand’s exports. China, New Zealand’s largest trading partner imports about $17 billion of goods, namely dairy, meat, wood and preparations cereals, flour, and starch.  China is also Australia’s major export market despite Australia permitting under regulation the production of some GM crops (Ishii and Araki 2017).  While primarily these exports are ores and minerals, (Trading Economics 2022), China is still a top market for Australian exports of meat, wine, wool, fruit and nuts, seafood, grains, and dairy. China itself has the sixth highest area under commercial cultivation of GM crops of 28 countries known to grow GM crops (Ishii and Araki 2017). Additionally, China is the largest importer of soybean (97 million MT- over 6 times greater than the next highest importer the European Union) (Shahbandeh 2022) most of which will come from USA and South America where soybean crops are largely GM varieties.

In 2007 the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) declared that “marketers of GM canola and of products from livestock fed on GM materials, including GM canola, are unlikely to be disadvantaged in the Australian and world markets” (DAFF 2007). This article also noted that “when Canada introduced GM canola, it lost access to the EU market for its canola seed. However, Canada has found ready markets for its increased canola supplies elsewhere, particularly in Mexico, the United States, Pakistan, and China.” A recent analysis on opportunity costs due to some States in Australia delaying adoption of GM canola resulted in foregone output of 1.1 million T of canola and a net economic loss to canola farmers of AU$485.6 million (Biden et al. 2018).

The perception of a country can have a marked effect on consumer preferences, but this can vary depending on the product category (Roth and Romeo 1992). In China, country of origin of a product has as an important influence for the purchase of dairy products, because of the quality and safety implications (Yang et al. 2018). As a result, Chinese residents show a preference towards dairy products from foreign countries, particularly Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Netherlands and USA. Reasons for this included a lack of confidence in the Chinese dairy processing industry, and their risk averse nature which seeks information on product quality and health benefits. In addition, the food scandals that occurred in the early 2000s has resulted in the Chinese approach to food safety being defined as precautionary authoritarianism and has resulted in more stringent provisions to repress violations (Bozzini and Sicurelli 2021).

Attitudes towards GM foods and food derived from animals fed GM feed

In many countries animal feed is provided in a total mixed ration containing harvested plants or plant parts (e.g., grain, cottonseed, soybean meal) and much of this is derived from GM crops (Henseler et al. 2013; Sieradzki et al. 2021). Most of the genetically modified traits in these crops are input traits such as herbicide resistance or insect resistance. But increasingly there is a move toward output traits that improve the quality and nutritive value of the plant. Currently the GM traits being sought in New Zealand for forage plants to be consumed by animals are of the latter category (Winichayakul et al. 2020; Roldan et al. 2022). In New Zealand, animal feed is primarily pasture grazed in situ with foods derived from these being dairy or meat products. An extensive review has indicated that GM soybean and maize with enhanced output traits, such as nutritional characteristics affecting quality and/or quantity of proteins, amino acids, oils, and carbohydrates, can have profound effects on improving animal performance and productivity and there is no indication that GM crops are less beneficial to livestock compared with normal crops (de Santis et al. 2018; Matovu 2021).

There is still a segment of society that would prefer to not purchase and consume meat from animals fed GM feed (Karasu and Öztürk 2020). It has been surmised that avoiding GM foods is mainly due to subjective rather than objective knowledge (Ardebili and Rickertsen 2020). Indeed, a recent review concluded that “there is broad scientific consensus that all approved foods and feedstuffs that have been derived from GM plants and fish and from livestock, poultry, and fish fed diets containing GM food products are safe to eat” (Blair and Regenstein 2020).

In a review article (Knight 2016), it was concluded that “it is highly unlikely that the introduction of GM plants into New Zealand would have any long-term deleterious effect on perceptions in overseas markets of food products sourced from New Zealand” and is unlikely to affect New Zealand’s image as tourist destination, and further there is unlikely to be any premium gained for our food products by remaining GM free. A review undertaken by the previous Labour Government concluded that “price impacts of GM releases in New Zealand are likely to be lower than those used in the previous modelling and therefore the results for GM organism release scenarios are more likely to be a positive rather than a negative movement in GDP” (Cullen and Hobbs 2003).

Using economic modelling it was concluded that if consumers prefer non-GM products, New Zealand producers gain by focusing on those crops, but alternatively, if consumers prefer second-generation GM products (which focus on output traits such as improved nutritional features and processing characteristics), producers increase their returns by growing those crops (Saunders et al 2003). If these improvements were solely aimed at improving productivity, then theory, experience and expectations show that an increase in productivity does not necessarily lead to increased returns. Using genetic modification to mitigate the causes of environmental issues, such as greenhouse gas emissions, nitrogen leaching into waterways (Winichayakul et al. 2020; Roldan et al 2022), reduced pesticide use (Saleh et al. 2021), increasing soil carbon (Sutherland et al. 2021), and/or clear health benefits to the consumer (Lusk et al. 2014; Boccia and Punzo 2021) may provide a more acceptable balance between perceived risk and benefit (Smith et al. 2021). A review of 543 journal articles has shown that public support for the use of GM technologies increases when the potential benefits of the technology are well articulated, there is trust in government regulatory schemes, and media delivers a positive influence that increases belief in science (Sendhil et al. 2021).

Concluding comments

Genetic modification (GM) has been widely adopted globally and has shown improved yield, quality and environmental impacts and has the potential to provide consumer benefits through improved product quality, nutritive value, and shelf life.  Public concern over GM foods is focused on their impacts on human and animal health, environmental safety, labelling and consumer choice, intellectual property rights, ethics, food safety, poverty reduction and environmental conservation. While there are factions of society who will always be against the use of GM in food production the evidence from studies attempting to understand market forces and public attitudes is that the use of GM plants in New Zealand for food production is unlikely to have long-term deleterious effects in overseas markets. There is a need for legitimate debate that warrants research effort into providing a clearer impact analysis. In addition to having the political will to use all technologies available to provide solutions to current and future challenges, an informed discussion with major trading partners is required.

An extensive review suggests that a large segment of consumers, but not all, are willing to consume and pay for foods derived from gene edited (including insertion, deletion, and gene replacement) plants, especially if they express useful traits that the consumers perceive as beneficial for human and animal health and the environment (Beghin and Gustafson 2021). GM food products that focus on mitigating the causes of environmental issues, such as greenhouse gas emissions, nitrogen leaching into waterways, reduced pesticide use, increasing soil carbon, and/or clear health benefits to the consumer may provide an acceptable balance between perceived risk and benefit. There has been no reliably documented loss of life or serious environmental damage that can be attributed to the use of GM technologies (Smith et al. 2021). All scientific published accounts would indicate that GM foods pose not greater risk than non-GM foods (Touyz 2013; Giraldo et al. 2019), and most studies demonstrate that the insecticidal proteins deployed in GM crops cause no unintended adverse effect on either non-target invertebrates or to natural enemies (Naranjo 2017; Romeis et al. 2019). Public support for the use of GM technologies increases when the potential benefits of the technology are well articulated, there is trust in government regulatory schemes, and media delivers a positive influence that increases belief in science. Certification of labels on both GM-containing and GM-free foods will play an important role in how consumers make decisions; where labels are used then stating the consumer benefit is essential for product uptake.

It has been argued that opposition to gene technology has taken on a life of its own and provided little benefit to anyone, and that the ethics of agricultural and food biotechnology has been drowned out by simplistic arguments about feeding the world, on one side, and a blend of fearmongering and ignorance of food systems, on the other (Thompson 2021). The development of new GM crops that provide either human health and nutritional benefits or assist with solving current and future environmental challenges will deliver consumer benefits (Vega Rodríguez et al. 2022). Quality scientific information is essential to ensure consumers understand these benefits.

In New Zealand, the use of genetic modification is regulated on a case-by case basis that has been labelled as technocratic and inconsistent with the precautionary principle of regulation. Genetic modification has continued to be used as a research tool and for medical purposes but has gained no traction, momentum, or impact in improving New Zealand’s economic wellbeing. Gene editing which can precisely target changes in genes has been heralded as game changer, but there are fears it will suffer the same fate as genetic modification leading to mistrust and suspicion among vocal sectors of society. Some countries, but not New Zealand, have however decided that where gene edits are simply deletions, and the end-product is indistinguishable from products produced through traditional plant breeding, then they do not need to be regulated (Turnbull et al. 2021). Additionally, because of New Zealand’s current regulatory environment, opportunities are being missed in delivering new products using GM fermentation technologies (Deckers et al. 2020) and synthetic biology (Macdonald 2022). From a regulatory viewpoint consideration is required to focus on regulating the benefit – risk issues associated with the end-products of genetic modification rather than the processes used in their development, as occurs in some other jurisdictions (Smyth 2017; Turnbull et al. 2021).

Conflict of interest

The author is employed by Grasslanz Technology Ltd which has an R&D investment portfolio that includes both genetic modification and gene editing of forages and microbes to provide mitigating solutions to current environmental and animal welfare issues facing both New Zealand and other pastoral economies.

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