Guest Opinion: Let's Be World Leaders
by Christiaan Briggs
"Did an iceberg sink the Titanic or unfounded technological optimism, over-confidence and pride?" Key Lessons from the History of Science and Technology, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment 2001.
New Zealand is widely known as being nuclear free, yet we use nuclear materials in cancer treatment, in radiotherapy. We use them in the laboratory and diagnostics and tracer techniques. We use them in smoke alarms. We use them out in the community in small-scale safe ways. And yet we are nuclear free because we banned power stations and ships.
Just like we are Nuclear-Free, we can be GE-Free. This does not mean turning our backs on the positive things the understanding of genetics can do for our medicine, our research, our understanding of life and commercial opportunities. It simply means we do not release genetically engineered organisms into our environment, our agriculture.
It's this potentially irreversible and unpredictable release of genetically engineered organisms that New Zealanders are rightly concerned about, along with many eminent scientists.
We are being told that we should be guinea pigs, that we should accept the risks of releasing genetically engineered organisms into our environment.
We are being told this by the same people who told us the Titanic could not be sunk, the same people who told us global warming does not exist, the same people who now concede that global warming exists but deny that humans have a major part to play, the same people who told us CFCs do not deplete the ozone layer, the same people who told us it was safe to pump pregnant mothers full of Thalidomide, the same people who assured us BSE wasn't a threat, the same people who told us Atmospheric Nuclear testing was safe, the same people who told us that the problem of safely storing radioactive wastes was just a technical question. I could go on and on but for sake of readability I'm not.
I believe that the risks of releasing genetically engineered organisms into the environment far outweigh the supposed projected benefits, and that is all they are "supposed" and "projected."
I note that one of the concerns, should we fail to go the bio-tech way, is that we would have a mass exodus of scientific minds. Really? How about creating an environment in which New Zealand scientists become leaders in the development of ecologically benign and sustainable science? I believe that were we to create such an environment we would see an influx of scientists which would probably outweigh the departure of the bio-tech enthusiasts. Furthermore we would have developed a very valuable knowledge base which would be sought after beyond New Zealand.
And to those that say genetically engineered food has the potential to improve life for the malnourished and sick, assuming for a minute, against current evidence, that GE does eventually create better yields, I say the pesticide/fertilzer revolution has already proven this to be a false assumption. The problem of malnourishment is not a production problem, it is a distribution problem. All the pesticide/fertilzer revolution did for the third world was to increase its population and create a devastating dependence on first world technology. Many of these communities are now trying to find ways of going back to traditional organic agriculture.
I believe that the arguments for and against the release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment have been adequately canvassed. The concern now is that the best decision is made giving attention to the risks involved.
It would appear that in making decisions too often we tend to feel an urgency to jump on the bandwagon. This may be relevant for economics much larger than New Zealand. However for a small economy we have the opportunity to create a vision which goes beyond the "bandwagon" mentality and find a direction which has the potential to make us leaders.
I believe that in a world environment where it can be expected that bio-technology will become increasingly practiced, the case for maintaining the New Zealand environment as a sanctuary of non modified genetic material becomes a very rational proposition. We have the geographic isolation to be able to establish what could virtually be regarded as an Ark of original life forms. We could be the control for this massive experiment. I believe that such an environment could ultimately become the worlds most precious possession.
Let's not follow the crowd. Let's be world leaders.