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Guest Opinion: Let It Loose ?

Most Kiwis favour the status quo on genetic manipulation
First Published National Business Review June 7 2002 p 17
By Robert Mann*

With one exception, no genetically manipulated organisms (GMOs) have been released in New Zealand - no plant, animal, fungus, or bacterium.

It is prudent to continue this precaution, at least until a thorough inquiry has informed an act of parliament to specify some statutory procedure which might permit irretrievable release of a self-multiplying GMO. The one known exception, illegal at the time: the shrewdly chosen oral vaccine containing live GM cholera bacteria. Depending on the details, this might have been a reasonable GMO release - but only after more rigorous scrutiny than it received.

However, the main question is whether New Zealand should allow genetically manipulated crops such as have been grown for several years on a large scale in the US, Canada, China & Argentina.

In those soybean, potato, maize & cotton mutants, foreign genes for either herbicide-resistance or a systemic insecticide have been inserted by radically novel methods - modified infectious agents, or synthetic genes coated on to 'micro-birdshot' heavy-metal pellets.

The minority of plant cells that survive such abuse generally show unforeseen traits such as unexpected new proteins or metabolic imbalances.

An amendment to the Hazardous Substances & New Organisms Act will permit from October next year uncontrolled releases of GMOs. The Green party then announced it would never agree to open releases of GMOs.

No suggestion was mentioned that when the new law expires the status quo might be continued, pending researched answers to the few questions the royal commission on GM agreed to be unanswered and potentially troublesome.

The Greens' annual conference then unanimously empowered their leaders to negotiate with the Labour party in the event a coalition government should have to be formed. The Green party thus continues its modus operandi of demanding attention in the media and in private negotiations but not having to answer for actual decisions.

The former Dairy Board [I wrote of course 'The NZ Dairy Board'] gave $150M (largely overseas) for a half-decade of gene-tampering. Some of that money has now, after a couple of years, ended up with a corporation, ViaLactia, controlled by Peter Gluckman & Kevin Marshall.

If that money produces a GM cow or GM pasture plants, will they be tested for years in high-quality containment, or will commercial release be hastened by the desire for a product, at last, after all the years of hype and hundreds of millions of public dollars?

To the extent the HSNO amendment has received any coverage, it was the outrageous tack-on by the Director-General of Health, Karen Poutasi, of a special retroactive ban on a promising therapeutic development not involving GM or new organisms.

[new para - sic] Professor Bob Elliott's retrievable "teabag" in the peritoneal liquid, containing cultured, coated pig islet cells, has relieved some grateful diabetics, closely monitored for pig virus and required not to transfer bodily fluids.

This development, after 28 successes in nearly a decade, was being considered under existing law for a modest 24 more informed adult volunteers who otherwise may well face gangrene, amputation, or blindness.

This world-leading biotechnology has been gravely delayed and is now near retreat to a country where it has been approved (e.g. Switzerland, Sweden or the US).

Professor Roger Morris, a world-ranking expert who advises the British government on foot-&-mouth epidemics and the Hong Kong government on diseases jumping from birds into humans, said this particular diabetes treatment was less dangerous than a visit to the zoo.

Why then the blocking of this world-leading biotech development?

This retroactive victimisation in an amendment for control of gene-tampering was a sneaky trick but also distracted attention from the main parts of the legislation. Splicing microbial & viral genes into crop plants, and many other cross-kingdom insertions not thought to occur in nature, have become technically feasible just this past decade.

[new para - sic] Some dozens of the resulting mutants have indeed been let loose overseas by corporations eager to get some payback from the scores of billions expended on these weapons-grade but crude technologies.

The ecological effects are only just coming under study - and experts are not surprised they turn out to be unstable, emanating unforeseeable genetic properties into other plants.

Since the potential harm from mistakes is, in some credible scenarios, catastrophic, to maintain the status quo until that research has been properly done is sensible and favoured by most New Zealanders.


* - Dr Mann was senior lecturer in biochemistry and then in environmental studies, U of Auckland. In retirement he works for control of genetic manipulation.


This was heavily edited. Notably, the nature of Poutasi's blockade of Elliott was purged. I must also explicitly condemn the NBR's adoption of the 'NZ Herald' abolition of the capital initials in Royal Commission. RM

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