New Zealand to Resume Transgenic Crop Trials

By Bob Burton

WELLINGTON, New Zealand, October 31, 2001 (ENS) - The New Zealand Labor Government has decided to allow the resumption of field trials of genetically modified organisms. The move, announced by Prime Minister Helen Clark on Tuesday, has been welcomed by biotech lobby groups and rejected by environmental and indigenous Maori groups.

The decision to allow the resumption of field trials of genetically modified crops was made after the Cabinet reviewed the recommendations of the final report of a 14 month long Royal Commission on Genetic Modification.


New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark (Photo courtesy Office of the Prime Minister)
"We cannot afford to turn our back on science, which has the potential to inform our medical, biotechnology and industry strategies, but nor can we ignore the concerns raised about aspects of genetic modification," Clark said announcing the decision.

The government announced it will legislate a two year ban on the commercial release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) "except those that provide direct benefits to human or animal health" to allow further research to be undertaken on ethical, social and environmental concerns.

The decision has been embraced the Federated Farmers of New Zealand as a "pragmatic" decision.

The peak genetic engineering lobby group, the Life Sciences Network said that none of the changes the government would require of the Environment Risk Management Agency (ERMA), which regulates applications for GMOs, were "outside the range of conditions which have previously been considered by ERMA."

The pro-biotech lobby supports the plan to have ERMA conduct a case by case assessment of new applications for field trials, but Greenpeace is sceptical of the planned system.

"We have no faith in ERMA, who have approved every application for a field trial they have received and are really a very weak regulatory agency," said Greenpeace genetic engineering (GE) campaigner, Annette Cotter.

"There should be no distinction between field trials and commercial releases, because once genetic material has been released you can't just recall it," she said.


A rally of 10,000 people turned out in the rain in early September to protest the release into the environment of transgenic organisms. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace New Zealand)
The country's organic food producers are not happy with the decision. They have pressed for New Zealand to lead the world by adopting a "GE free" policy. But now their efforts to convince the government to impose a strict liability regime so that the costs of any contamination is carried by the users of transgenic organisms have been blocked.

"The liability system for GM related issues will be further investigated during the constraint period [the two year ban on commercial releases]," the government stated in a background paper. The government would only go as far as suggesting the minister responsible for law reform matters would be "invited" to consider the issue for future assessment.

"Any GM contamination of our products will be disastrous for New Zealand's organic industry," said the chief executive of the organics lobby group, Bio-Gro, Seager Mason.

The decision has also provoked a backlash from the indigenous Maori community, which has fundamental objections to the release of the technology into the environment. All nine Maori Labor Party members walked out of the government caucus meeting called on Tuesday to ratify the Cabinet decision.

"We have particular concerns about ensuring that nature is not manipulated. The release of genetically modified organisms into the environment is not acceptable. We are not opposed to science. We are concerned about the dangers of compromising the social, cultural and environmental integrity of our country for short-term commercial gain," they wrote.

Calls by a broad range of Maori organizations to ban the transfer of genes across species, which they argue is inappropriate interference with life forces, were rejected by both the Royal Commission and the government. Instead the government has recommended the establishment of a Bioethics Council to review the issue.


GE Free stickers declare zones free of transgenic organisms. (Photo courtesy GE Free Net New Zealand )
In reaction to the government decision, a new direct action protest group called Green Gloves announced its plans to uproot any crops that are moved from the labs into the field trial stage. Boasting support from 3,000 people, including celebrities, spokesperson for the group, Fergus Wheeler, promised that the removal of field trial crops "will not be secretive activities, but rather open, colourful and unstoppable."

It is a prospect that infuriates the Life Sciences Network. "While we look forward to the resumption of field trials, the threats from activists promising to destroy trial sites are a major concern. This means the interests of the country are at greater risk from the actions of a fundamentalist fringe than from GM technology," said the chairman of the network, Dr. William Rolleston.

Wheeler disagrees. "Some New Zealanders might think these plans are irresponsible, however we believe we are acting to defend our country. If the first boatload of possums was arriving in New Zealand tomorrow, and we could still stop them, we would do the same. Keeping the New Zealand environment GE free, before something goes horribly wrong, is a socially and environmentally responsible act."