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Are GMOs New Zealand’s Agricultural Future?

Sunday, February 21, 2016, Chris Perley's Blog

The debate about the future of GMOs in Hawke's Bay (and NZ agriculture) is heating up.  A number of opinion pieces are reacting to the this government's attempts to take legislative decision making out of the region's hands.  It is plainly supportive of big business over small local enterprise and democracy.  It's extraordinary cessation of democracy in Canterbury to suit irrigation industrialists is just one case in point.  There have been calls for local National Party MPs to support Hawke's Bay's potential as a high value food producer, but that will fall on deaf ears.  The catch phrase that he is "backing the Bay" is empty rhetoric.  Hawke's Bay has the closest climate, topography and soils comparable to the Mediterranean within New Zealand.  We could be another Tuscany.  Mr Foss MP is effectively supporting the industrial Mordor model. 

Get big or get out
"Get big or get out." "Plant fenceline to fenceline"  Earl Butz.  US Dept of Ag

The heat is more intense because some local government in Hawke's Bay understand the strategic important of positioning Hawke's Bay as a quality food producer.  They are backed by Pure Hawke's Bay, a group of farmers who are not interested in grinding their life and businesses down in pursuit of commodity dross to the detriment of our community, our economy and our environment, and to the benefit of faceless mega-corporates.

The Regional Council - who support the Nebraska Inc. approach to land use - i.e. more energy intensive corporate irrigation models of industrial commodity production at the expense of our local owners, communities and environment - does NOT support being GMO free.  

Therefore these are the clear alternatives we face - between those:

  1.  who support the idea of a quality economy/environment/community, and 
  2. those who support continued industrialism of our landscapes and people (all 'cogs' and 'resources' as inputs into the factory they call life) at the expense of the environment.

One group sees the potential of an integrated systems approach for a "Creative Economy."  The other is locked into the "Extractive Economy" of our exploitative colonial past, now overlain with the rise in mega-corporate ideals that are effectively the same - in that they treat the life-support functions of our society and our planet as reducible to 'units' with a dollar attached, thereby ensuring their destruction.  

Our local paper, Hawke's Bay Today, ran a double page spread on the voices for and against GMO.  The pro-GMO brigade argued 'choice' and 'opportunity' for what would actually mean the loss of choice and opportunity for the benefit of our common wealth.

I submitted the response below to those voices of unreason.

The agricultural advocates of GMO are locked into an agronomic mindset, the narrow technology of production. That focus is making us poorer, degrading our communities, and diminishing the environmental commons upon which we all rely, including a healthy resilient economy. Agronomy is a focus on our feet rather than looking up and around at the world within which we live.

As a people, we are not good at strategy. We follow short-term finance and the often-illusory promise of technocrats. We walk blind and naked into the traffic of the world economy thinking ‘the market will provide’. Some think we don’t need national strategy, though they will listen to the large corporates who clearly do. Our primary sector strategy is particularly bad, as we witness each time our commodity prices slide lower in real terms. GMOs will lock us in to the commodity track. It represents an appalling strategy.

With a poor sellers’ position in the marketplace, a focus on ever-higher production of commodities is nothing more than short-term industrial thinking – Gandhi’s nine-day wonder – ultimately unsustainable. We produce more, we cut our costs, the buyers clap their hands in glee and then use their power to discount the price. We may get a year of so of margin increase before the price drives down to something slim for a big producer, or something negative for a small grower. The big producer then buys the land of the small grower and gets bigger still.

The big growers remain enamoured with bulk production of dross, because the fact is that they can still win under that model. These industrial thinkers are also the strongest advocates for big-ticket production-orientated investments such as the Ruataniwha dam. Think of it as a land deal.

We should have shifted our strategic focus decades ago from gross production to price position – the creation and retention of value, not volume. That focus requires a different way of looking at ownership (it matters who owns and where they live), how we can redesign our landscapes and soils for economic opportunity (there is more to see out there than 1000 acres of ryegrass), a quality focus with the multiplication and retention of value. And with that focus, we get a better environment and a better society as well. In fact, they are critical to that value creation.

GMOs lock us into the opposite. It is economic madness. Short or non-existent value chains of commodity owned by the few, more and more absentee, with a poorer ethic toward community and place, using less and less cheaper and cheaper labour. That is a clear recipe for decline.

Why there are still advocates for more failed commoditisation and reduction in what quality position we have, is fascinating. Production was our colonial legacy – produce more to feed Britain. When Britain joined the European Union in 1973, we no longer had a relatively fair price for our produce. Rather than daring to think we might need a change in strategic focus, we decided not to change, to stay within our old paradigm of cheap production. The agricultural universities are some of the worst in advocating the gross production line because that is what they know and that is what they think.

Decades after we needed a change in direction, the dominant teaching of Massey and Lincoln was still the agronomic techniques of maximising production. Far less important was integrated land use systems, diversity, price position, risk, or the dominant environmental, social and economic trends. We were taught to stay on what Willard Cochrane called the “technology treadmill,” running faster and faster, going inexorably backwards. When margins squeeze, we demand the next technology, and the next, each creating a new problem and a new margin squeeze. We weren’t taught about Cochrane’s thinking. That might have opened a few eyes to the Moby Dick madness of it all – perfectly rational activities toward a bonkers end. We weren’t taught to get off the treadmill.

We were taught the very opposite; to hold as a sacred creed the ideals of 1970s US Department of Agriculture chief Earl Butz’s – the advocate of the anti-farmer, agri-business corporations. He argued famously that farmers should “get big or get out” and to “plant fencerow to fencerow.” Those “inevitable” sentiments were accorded the status of gospel. They were not inevitable, but they taught us to make them so.

Look deep in this background when listening to someone from Massey or Lincoln, and ask what they like to measure the most. If it is levels of production, then move on quickly. If they have nothing to say about quality market position to retain price, commodity trends, or the health of the environment or the local community, then run.

Because this is the legacy of that thinking: the big get bigger and tend more to be absentee, so both the profits and the expenditure is exported out of province. Processing is centralised (somewhere else) and so we lose more money flows. Less people are employed on lower conditions. The small towns wither through lack of funds and opportunities, and the hamlets die. Look to the US for the evidence of this, 40 years after Butz. The countryside becomes a factory, more homogeneous, and our environment is treated as a toilet for those who claim they have a ‘right’ to ‘choose’ to use it so.

GMO advocates claims of ‘choice’ are empty. That is the argument for the choice to pollute and degrade others’ opportunities, or the choice of the technologist to work within the thought confines of their petrie dish and white coat. Their choice to act without wider consideration does not give them the right to do so. That is pure anti-social arrogance.

We do not need to follow this future. The alternative strategy can create a Tuscany with layers of value creating yet more layers of value (a virtuous circle) rather than a vicious circle heading for Mordor, for the benefit of fewer and fewer.

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Disclaimer: Personal views expressed in this blog are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent those of the NZ Farm Forestry Association.

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