O’Connor delivered good speech on NZ agriculture and GHG – but advice on GM deserved a mention, too

It’s a  long  way from  Westport  to Berlin   but  most  New Zealand farmers would probably  say  Agriculture  Minister  Damian  O’Connor  did pretty  well in his speech to the International Conference on Agricultural GHG Emissions and Food Security  this week.

He  told   his audience the global community needs more food of a higher quality and with less environmental impact than ever before, and NZ with its low population density and a temperate climate is ideal for agricultural production.

Through innovation and impressive productivity gains, helped by the removal of agricultural subsidies and tariffs in the 1980s, NZ can produce more food, more efficiently than ever before.

“We are not a large agricultural producer in global terms; our low population means we export a high proportion of our production. We’re the number 1 dairy exporter in the world, but produce only 3% of the world’s milk. We’re the number 6 beef exporter in the world, but  produce only 6% of the world’s beef.

“We live in the South-West Pacific, where our winters coincide with the North’s summers. This means NZ is in a position to supply food to the 90% of the global population who live in the Northern Hemisphere, outside of the North’s growing season”.

In the  drive to  reduce  agricultural  emissions, NZ is making a significant investment in research and development. O’Connor drew attention to this:

In the livestock sector we’ve found promising leads. Working with others, we’ve measured thousands of animals and have been able to identify some that emit lower levels of methane.

“We’ve screened hundreds of thousands of chemical compounds and isolated a handful that have large potential to reduce emissions. We’re undertaking world-leading research to try to develop a vaccine to reduce methane from livestock”.

O’Connor   continued by noting that the  Sustainable Land Management and Climate Change research programme was established

    • To help NZ meet international greenhouse gas reduction goals,
    • Maintain profitable and sustainable agriculture and forestry sectors, and
    • Address the lack of information on the impacts, implications and adaptations needed in the face of a changing climate.

In  the decade since its inception more than 150 projects have been funded with $50m from government– some with returns 10 times the original public investment.

Noting that he comes  from a farming family on the West Coast of the South Island, O’Connor told  his Berlin audience he knows first-hand it is farmers’ deep desire to be good stewards of their land – many with an inter-generational vision.

It is our job as governments to help equip them with the tools and information they need to achieve this – which then ensures we have strong resilient rural communities, something I have direct responsibility for in NZ as Minister for Rural Communities”.

He  referenced Charles Darwin  to make the point:

It is the long history of humankind (and animal-kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed,.

Darwin promoted collaboration as the key to success, and we will rely on collaboration to overcome the challenges we face”.

But another 2.3 billion people will join the global population by 2050. This means more food will have to be produced in the next 50 years than in the past 500.

If  NZ is to play its part  in boosting food production, it is  strange that O’Connor omitted  from his speech any reference  to  what  Sir Peter  Gluckman has been  telling the government.

In his final report as the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor, Sir  Peter contended NZ must revise its moratorium on genetic modification to access the most promising innovations to reduce agricultural emissions.

The July paper to the PM says farmers can take  immediate steps to start reducing agricultural emissions – but for NZ to make meaningful steps it will need to embrace technological innovations.

And  the most promising technologies rely on genetic engineering.

Those technologies include transgenic forage plants which reduce livestock emissions, transgenic endophytes which inhibit nitrogen, and GE forestry to accelerate tree growth for afforestation.

The  report noted social licence for these technologies does not exist in NZ.

However, given the progression of science on one hand and a broader understanding of the crisis of climate change on the other, not having a further discussion of these technologies at some point may limit our options.”

This raises a big question:  will the Labour-led  coalition  ignore the advice  of  someone as eminent as  Sir Peter  Gluckman  and sidestep the use of  GM  technologies,  when  clearly  they would  be the  most effective instruments to  reduce  agricultural emissions  while at the same  time expanding  production of  the  food the  world  so  urgently  will need?

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