GM could put niche maize at risk

Any relaxation of rules allowing genetically modified crops into New Zealand could ruin small but valuable niche export markets for North Island maize growers.

A specialist Bay of Plenty maize grower, Colin Mackinnon, of Whakatane, said there was a world of difference between growing maize in the United States, where genetically modified seed was widely used in corn and maize crops to control pests and diseases, and similar crops grown in New Zealand.

His comments came in response to a challenge posed by Southland Federated Farmers’ president Russell MacPherson for New Zealand farmers to consider the potential technology benefits of genetically modified seed to develop, for example, clover cultivars resistant to pests such as clover root weevil or more drought tolerant forage plants for dry hill country.

Mackinnon, who is the northern North Island representative on Federated Farmers’ Grains Council, said he had some sympathy for MacPherson’s views on genetic engineering, acknowledging that without innovation New Zealand agriculture would not prosper.

While GE clovers and grasses could have a strong future in New Zealand, he said any change in New Zealand’s GEfree status could jeopardise maize exports under the banner of being totally GE-free to expanding niche markets around the world.

He said about a third of the 180,000 tonnes of maize grown in New Zealand was exported as whole grain, kibbled grain, as feed mixes or as derivatives such as sugars, starches and sweeteners for human consumption. Markets included New Caledonia, Tahiti, Fiji, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Middle East.

While New Zealand’s maize crop was tiny in comparison to a world trade of 900 million tonnes annually, Mackinnon said the key point of difference was its GE-free status.

“There is no compromise by our overseas buyers,” he said.

“There is no doubt that under prevailing international market conditions that if GE maize was grown in New Zealand, the North Island maize grain industry would collapse and a billion dollar industry, along with its skilled staff and infrastructure would become redundant.

“We’re so small it would seem logical to remain a niche market,” he said.

-NZ Farmer

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