NZ should lead in biotech solutions to food race - scientist

Timid political will is stopping New Zealand becoming a global leader in biotechnology, according to farming leader and scientist Dr William Rolleston.

As scientists worked to feed billions more people, opportunities existed for the country to show leadership in biotechnology without causing environmental degradation.

"By any measure New Zealand ought to be a leader. No, it should be the leader. The fact we are not comes back to a timid political will," Rolleston told an international conference on agricultural biotechnology in Rotorua.

"It is time for rational and informed debate about all tools and options, including genetic modification, which is now becoming the fastest-adopted agricultural technology in history."

There could be an extra three billion people to feed by 2050.

"This need to feed the planet could best be described as the ‘food race'. It is as important as anything we have done in our history as a species but hinges on a second green revolution."

That meant maximising the full potential of the biological sciences, the South Canterbury farmer and scientist said.

Biotechnologists were striving to discover ways to maximise the productive potential of livestock, plants and crops to feed extra people but consume the same, if not fewer, resources than used today.

"Science, including biotechnology, can provide us with the tools to achieve these seemingly impossible and contradictory goals," Rolleston said.

Dr Clive James, founder of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, told the conference there were major challenges in feeding the world of tomorrow, and conventional technology alone would not allow food production to be doubled.

Technologies such as genetic modification and biotechnology provided opportunities to feed the population.

There had been a very rapid uptake of genetically modified crops around the world, increasing from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 160 million hectares in 2011. "That's six times the total land mass of New Zealand," James said.

US State Department senior adviser for biotechnology Jack Bobo said about 70 per cent more food was needed to meet population projections by 2050.

This had to be done using less land, water, fertiliser and pesticides.

"We have to do everything better than what we do today and we have to do twice as much of it."

The widespread adaptation of biotechnology and genetically modified technology in agriculture was a clear indication that farmers were getting benefits from biotechnology.

There was also evidence consumers were prepared to buy food produced from biotechnology because it was cheaper.

Policies should be related to what people do rather than what people say they do, he said.

"Science and technology are not the enemy."

But these arguments were rejected by GE Free New Zealand spokesman Jon Carapiet. He contested delegates' claims that genetically engineered crops had improved the lives of farmers in developing countries.

A United Nations report had suggested that small-scale, diverse farming practices and free access to seeds was the way to help improve the lives of farmers in developing countries, he said.

Allowing GE products into New Zealand was a race to the bottom globally in the production of the most contaminated and least pure products, Carapiet said, and New Zealand's products currently were in direct contrast to this.

"What we are talking about is protecting New Zealand's brand identity and protecting New Zealand's exports to the world. People want clean, green GE-free products."