Hey consumer – it’s up to you if you want to see a change in our farming systems.

I normally keep my head low and decided a long time ago to save my energy for the already converted. However, a recent article in The Spinoff, written by Bob Edlin headed “Super grass is here, and it’s a green breakthrough. Can Greens stomach it?” has brought me out of my hole.

The article implies that GMO grass is going to save New Zealand farming. In a nutshell, it would increase farm production, reduce water demand and decrease methane emissions. Oh, and as the icing on the cake, it will apparently increase GDP by $2 to $5 billion.

The article also states there is funding from the government and industry partners including Dairy NZ. None of this surprises me.

So, here’s my counter argument….


I want to shed some light for those outside of farming circles because without this background knowledge, it would be difficult to understand why it hasn’t been a simple switch from “conventional” farming systems to a “biological” or more “regenerative” system.

In short:

  • Government owned educational institutes teach conventional farming systems (using synthetic fertilisers i.e. NPK/urea) and the skills taught are all geared around industrialised farming practices.
  • NZ banks will not loan money to farmers who do not have a synthetic fertiliser programme.
  • There is no funding from Government or industry partners in New Zealand for research and development around “regenerative” farming practices that do not use synthetic fertilisers or urea.

You can see the odds are stacked against you if you want to move away from conventional farming here in New Zealand. And those farmers who are making – or considering – the move, find themselves isolated in their bid to research environmentally friendly farming practices while still making a profit. After all, contrary to popular belief, there are very few farmers who can purchase farms without financial support.

Here’s another myth buster

I often hear people say farmers are greedy and that is why meat and milk are so expensive in New Zealand. I am told Canada’s agricultural industry tracks in line with New Zealand and Australia, so if Darrin Qualman’s graph showing the revenue of Canadian farmers over 90 years is anything to go by, our farmers aren’t set to become millionaires any time soon.

The green-shaded area highlights periods of positive net farm income; the red-shaded area marks negative net income periods. Most importantly, the blue-shaded area between the gross revenue and net income lines, represents farmers’ expenses: the amount they pay to input manufacturers (Monsanto, Balance, Ravensdown, Deere, Shell, etc.) and service providers (banks, accountants, etc.). Note how the blue area has expanded over time to consume almost all of farmers’ revenues.

Another interesting point is in the 1960s production doubled and it doubled again around 2010. So, the farmer is working harder, producing more BUT making less profit than he did in 1926!

GMO grass vs regenerative farming practices

So, the New Zealand scientists want farmers to grow GMO grass to further increase production, yet production has increased massively over the past 90 years under a conventional farming system.

Unfortunately, unbeknown to most (including the scientists), that system has been detrimental to our environment, animal health and farmer profits. The only benefit, it seems, has been to those within the blue line of the graph (where the manufacturers and sellers of GMO grass seed would firmly sit).

But the question then is, if non-GMO grass has been proven to grow just fine in New Zealand, why are we not funding research into “regenerative farming” first, before sinking millions into GMOs?

Under a “regenerative” farming system, not only does grass grow just fine, but it is more resistant to drought (less demand on water), more resistant to disease (less agrichemical requirements) and richer in nutrients (improving flavour and animal health and therefore reducing vet bills).

Farmers who were selling fattened two-year-old stock under conventional farming systems are now finishing stock at 16 – 18mths at similar or heavier weights on a regenerative system.

And if that isn’t enough to sway you – regenerative farming practices on our farm have showed improvements in the environment with healthy waterways, healthy soil, and healthy animals.

There are many farmers throughout New Zealand who are turning their back on conventional farming. And what’s interesting – as well as exciting – is that if we were to put them together in one room you could mistake it for a grey power convention!

These are our last standing heroes in my mind. These are the farmers that have farmed both systems – conventional and regenerative. And the one thing all these farmers have in common is that not one of them would go back to farming conventionally after transitioning to regenerative farming.

Regenerative farming – the breakthrough waiting to happen

Imagine the vast amount of farming experience and knowledge that would be in that room. These are not people who have learnt farming through theory; these farmers have been doing their research every day 24/7 over a lifetime on the land. And, unlike the paid scientists, these farmers take on massive personal financial risk.

Here is another thing they have in common – they are tired of trying to convince the scientists and industry partners that “regenerative farming” is the way forward. But this is the breakthrough that holds great potential for New Zealand farmers, NOT GMO grass.

Why, when there is clearly a massive push all over the globe for humans to pick up their game and start protecting the environment, is New Zealand still so resistant to move into this new era? New Zealand could easily set up regenerative farming systems that could propel our products into unique and niche markets. Why are the very businesses that are supposed to be supporting the farming industry so hellbent on trying to keep us fighting the rest of the world on a commodity market?

A quick search on Google showed in 2017 more than 35 countries had banned GMO food crops and China returned a cargo ship they suspected had GMO food onboard. Yet, clean, green New Zealand is still wanting to push ahead with GMO grass research. It makes no sense.

If I was going to have a guess at answering my own question, it would be that unlike GMO grass, nature cannot be patented. This is the only reason that I can see as to why so many scientists in New Zealand heavily dispute the pros to regenerative farming, and why no business or the government (in New Zealand anyway) is willing to fund any research to support our findings.

New Zealand stood up as a nation to become nuclear free; being GMO free would only strengthen our image surely?

Imagine if little ole NZ were to lead the way with a little forward thinking in our farming practices. And why would we risk our reputation as being “pure” anyway, when we can, and already do, grow non-GMO grass just fine in NZ. We can also do it exceptionally well without synthetic inputs.

About the author:
I am not a farmer, just a farmer’s daughter with the love of the outdoors. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but at least we are asking the questions. I have never met one farmer (conventional or otherwise) that went into farming with the intention of destroying the environment. I doubt the scientists 100 years ago did either. Scientists now are just working out that what they thought they knew about the soil, is barely scratching the surface. They are just finding out now what some of our regenerative farmers have known for decades. I don’t have a lot of faith in industry partners to change from the chemical input systems; however, I do have hope that the New Zealand consumer will help give the farmers a voice and back regeneratively farmed produce.



  1. Linda Grammer September 4, 2018 at 2:26 am - Reply

    thanks for an excellent article, GE grasses would be a nightmare in NZ (they are one of the most promiscuous plants- impossible to keep GE grasses separate from convention, IPM and organic farmers/ other properties (vectors for GE contamination include wind, insects, pollen, seeds, machinery, soils, water, extreme weather events, human error/ stupidity etc!) Seriously, NZ CRI’s AgResearch and Plant and Food Research need to stop appropriating hard working tax payer dollars for research into GE grasses, this government needs to put more funding into important biological research that will actually benefit NZ. here’s an item sent to me by my sister who is currently living in Oregon, USA (she’s a biochemist and is highly aware of the harm GE crops have done in North America, and the lack of any GE labelling, undermining consumer right to know and traceability. Here in Taitokerau and Auckland, all councils from the Bombay hills north to Cape Reinga/ Far NOrth have strong precautionary and prohibitive GE/GMO provisions, policies and rules, the councils have taken action since then became aware of the risks of outdoor use of GE/GMOs to our biosecurity, unique biodiversity, wider environment, existing GM free primary producers, economy, food sovereignty, animal welfare, and the public health- hurrah! Cheers! Linda Grammer, member Rural Women NZ and chairperson, GE FREE Northland in food & environment

    Then two windstorms swept through the eastern Oregon fields in August of 2003, scattering flea-sized seeds well beyond the designated control area. Roundup-resistant pollen fertilized conventional bentgrass plants as far as 13 miles away. There was no calling it back.

    The escape didn’t surprise anyone, says Carol Mallory-Smith, a weed scientist at Oregon State University. She says she warned APHIS that permitting the seed fields was tantamount to deregulation; even without the storms, the grass’ biology practically guaranteed its spread. The decision to move ahead anyway reflected the agency’s somewhat cavalier approach to field trials at the time. A 2005 USDA audit found that it did not, for instance, keep track of field locations or review companies’ plans for containing their products. The audit warned that APHIS’ procedures did “not go far enough to ensure the safe introduction of agricultural biotechnology.”

  2. scarlett mcgrath May 14, 2019 at 1:11 am - Reply

    I’m an environmental and conservation science student about to finish my diploma and mannnn I want to be a part of this movement. Great article!! Now just to find ways to study and prove this scheme is the best and get it out there.

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