Trade MinisterTodd McClay

National’s announcement yesterday of support for genetic engineering is the prelude to today’s unveiling of its farm emissions policy.

The GE policy announcement also signals a remarkable rehabilitation of former leader Judith Collins.

Since she overwhelmingly lost the leadership in November 2021, she has put her head down and worked away on what is usually the relatively low-key portfolio of science and innovation.

And now, by getting the caucus to agree to relax the restrictions on genetic engineering, she has paved the way for agriculture spokesperson Todd McClay to develop a replacement for the He Waka Eke Noa (HWEN) proposal on pricing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

She is now back as a force to be reckoned with in National and has allowed McClay to develop a critical policy which will differentiate National from Labour and possibly more importantly, ACT.

POLITIK understands that the centrepiece of McClay’s proposal will be a price to be paid by farmers for emissions.

But, critically, the price will be set by an independent body, not, as is currently the proposal, by the Cabinet.

That body will allow farmers to take into account offsetting factors such as vegetation and also, because of the potential relaxation of GE, the future use of the GE-modified ryegrass developed by AgResearch, which has been shown to reduce methane emissions by cows.

However, that grass cannot be grown in New Zealand, and AgResearch has been forced to continue its field trials in the United States.

Essentially, the National policy will be a carrot-and-stick approach.

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Farmers who reduce or offset their emissions are likely to pay less than those who do nothing.

National began its debate on GE in early 2019 at its annual Blue Greens Forum.

The former Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, Sir Peter Gluckman, said that he could not see a way that agriculture in New Zealand would be sustainable in the long run without using gene editing.

He said gene editing, unlike genetic modification, did not change the gene structure, only the way the genes worked.

“Do we need gene editing?” he asked. “Well, we certainly need to talk about it and have an adaptive approach to knowledge which has come from scientists all around the world to find whether it fits our needs.

“I’ll go as far as to say that I cannot see a way that agriculture in New Zealand will be sustainable over the long run in the face of environmental change and consumer preferences without using gene editing.

“There is no way that we will get a reduction in methane production, and I can see no way that we will see an economic advantage for farmers as we shift to more plant-based foods without using gene editing.”

Also speaking at the Forum was the chair of the Life Sciences Network and a former president of Federated Farmers, Dr William Rolleston.

He was quick to support National’s change in policy yesterday.

“New Zealand farmers and conservationists have been facing their challenges with one hand tied behind their backs,” he said.

“National is offering a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring the GM legislation up to the modern age, and we hope that Labour will also rethink its current settings and enable a bipartisan approach to GM regulation based on science rather than fear.”

But National’s move is not just about science.

It has been bleeding farmer support to ACT, which was underlined last month when Federated Farmers President, Andrew Hoggard, was confirmed as an ACT candidate at this year’s election.

Hoggard has been a critic of HWEN, and one of his key criticisms, that the methane targets in the Zero Carbon Act were unrealistic, was reinforced by the Feds last week with the release of their election “wish list”, which included a review of the targets.

Meanwhile, ACT’s agricultural spokesperson, Mark Cameron, says the party’s policy is to ensure that farmers pay no more for emissions than the average of our major trading partners.

Farmers in our largest dairy market, China, do not pay for emissions at all.

ACT has been courting the votes of farmers who support Groundswell, which opposes any levy on agricultural emissions at all.

National, realising it might form the next Government, has not had the luxury of being able to go along with Groundswell and so has had to develop a policy which commits to reducing emissions by having farmers pay for them.

POLITIK understands it has consulted across the sector widely, and whilst it may not have the complete endorsement of all the various parties, it seems to have got to a point where none are opposed to its proposals.

And in a move likely to win widespread support from many in the farming sector, it has also been talking about developing a new policy to deal with the rapid transformation of often highly productive farmland into forestry.

All of this comes as another poll shows a National/ACT government slightly ahead of a Labour/Greens/Maori grouping in Parliament.

The Taxpayers’ Union Curia poll shows National and ACT would have 62 seats against 58 for Labour, the Greens and the Maori Party.

Though the margin is small, almost within the margin of error, there is beginning to be a consistency across all the polls showing National and ACT ahead.

National will not win votes off Labour with farming policy; its strategy is clearly to try and reduce ACT’s vote and, therefore, their influence in a potential National-ACT government.