There have been calls to restart the conversation about Genetic Engineering with the public.
It’s a shame then, that the National Party’s policy to unleash Biotechnology begins the conversation by refusing to do what people want, which is to test and label gene edited food.
Wherever you sit in the GE debate, most people support the consumer’s right to choose.
Denying this right by exempting gene editing foods from regulation and labelling sets the National Party policy on a collision course with consumers at home and abroad.
In a world where the customer is king or queen, consumer choice, disclosure of ingredients on packaging and traceability have come to sit at the heart of the proposition.
Traceability is crucial to New Zealand’s primary industry and has allowed for effective action on contamination incidents in infant formula and disease outbreaks.
The public attitude to labelling of gene edited food is reflected in recent surveys of UK adults who are also facing the prospect of government exempting new products of gene editing from regulation. Part of the distrust of unlabelled gene edited food is that CRISPR-cas9 was only invented in 2012. That’s not so long in terms of the evolutionary history that gene editing is designed to override.
In post-Brexit England the terms New Breeding Techniques (NBT) and Precision Breeding have become euphemisms for gene editing, but the mood of the consumer is clear.
Surveys by the Food Safety Authority and a YouGov poll in November 2022 found that:
*79% of adults in the UK think that precision bred crops, animals and foods should be clearly labelled on the food package
* 83% think precision bred organisms should undergo safety testing before being put on sale
* 80% think they should undergo environmental safety testing
* 79% think they should be traceable through the farming and food system.
Aware of the risk of losing consumer and farmer trust in the new technology Corteva Agriscience, the world’s second largest seed company, has committed to label all seeds developed using gene editing or “new genomic techniques” (NGTs).
A report in Politico (Politico (Morning Agri). Corteva to label NGT seeds. 5 May 2023) says Corteva “are committed to voluntarily disclosing the breeding methods…Farmers will know what they’re buying and what they’re putting in the soil for cultivation.”
New technologies are also being developed to detect gene edited products and maintain integrity in the food system.
The EU’s Horizon research for their Farm2Fork strategy is finding new detection methods for products derived from new genomic techniques. It is funded by The Research Council of Norway and The German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation with partners in Austria, France, Germany, Lebanon and Brazil.
One of the strategy´s main priorities is “to ensure traceability and authenticity, and to enhance transparency.”
So what do people do if the government wont label gene edited food?
Consumers look to the brands of manufacturers and supermarkets that they trust. Such is the mis-match between consumer expectations and government plans for labelling that supermarkets have been dragged into the argument. The Co-Op is the first of the UK supermarkets to commit to voluntary labelling of Gene Edited food.
Supermarkets have been dragged into the fray before.
In the 2000’s, public demand for labelling of GE food resulted in mass protests in New Zealand. The supermarkets were caught in the middle of the debate and the public demand for labelling of GE ingredients on packaging.
Prime Minster Helen Clark was followed around by someone dressed as a can of Wattie’s corn demanding the consumer right to choose and protection of GE-food production. A pregnant woman and man in a wheelchair were amongst three protesters arrested for going into supermarkets and sticking labels saying ‘may contain GE ingredients’ on a tomato sauce bottle and other products.
The advertising campaign for Pam’s which featured chef Jamie Oliver, was spoofed by protesters dressed as ‘Naked Chefs’ outside Pak’NSave. Some wag painted the sign for Foodtown (now Countdown) so its tagline read ‘For GE-food’.
Both supermarket chains listened to their customers and today Pams, Countdown, Macro, and Odd Bunch all maintain a GM-free policy.
Most of the big brands manufactured in New Zealand also exclude GE ingredients. Contrary to what is claimed, the ‘soy milk in your coffee’ in New Zealand is actually most likely to be GE-free, and in the better cafes, Fair Trade and organic too. Check the label on the products in your fridge.
Even the makers of the Impossible Burger stopped using GMO soy as their main ingredient when they launched the product here. They made the call to respond to kiwi consumer rejection of unsustainable GE soy and avoided having to disclose it. Today they use ‘Identity Preserved’ soy certified to be non-GMO and test every imported batch of the Impossible Burger for contamination.
Shoppers must not be left to ‘count on Countdown’ to label gene edited food voluntarily, as the UK Co-Op has promised to do.
The National Party must not deny consumer choice by exempting gene editing from labelling. The consumer expectation for disclosure of GE ingredients runs deep.
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
Corteva to Label Gene Edited Seeds https://www.gmwatch.org/en/106-news/latest-news/20225-corteva-says-it-will-label-new-gm-seeds
Impossible Burger /MPI documents https://www.gefree.org.nz/official-information-act-requests/