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The Pressure On NZ To Accept Genetic Engineering

This article was originally published in Soil & Health Magazine - the GE Issue, published earlier this month. This magazine is available from certain bookstores and costs $9.95. Contact Valerie at valerie@mentora.co.nz for more information

The politics of pressure: how the US and the biotech industry are forcing the GE revolution

With corporations and governments investing billions of dollars into the science of genetic engineering, it is clear to see how international consumer uncertainty regarding this technology has placed investors between a rock and a hard place. The strength of such resistance to this food has been severely underestimated by the likes of Monsanto and the United States government who are now taking measures to ensure their investments are not wasted. The size of such investments are not insignificant: Monsanto have staked the company's future upon the success of biotechnology, and while a small fish compared with its US counterpart, even the New Zealand government has invested over $100 million dollars of taxpayer money into GE research in this country. Jonathan Hill looks at the pressure that is being exerted upon us by the key players in the GE game to accept genetic engineering of our food.

The United States pressure
New Zealanders pride themselves on their independence and strongly resent foreign powers, be that governments or corporations, interfering in our affairs. Our commitment to our stand-alone nuclear free policy shows that, above all, New Zealanders hate to be bullied or pressured. However, the debate over the genetic engineering of our food over the last two years has revealed that again New Zealand has worn the threats, the pressure and the bullying of the United States government. This time however, to reject labelling of genetically engineered food.

New Zealand cabinet papers, released in February last year under the Official Information Act clearly illustrate how pressure has been brought to bear on our highest level of government. The papers record discussions between the Minister of Health, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

The Cabinet minutes state: “The United States, and Canada to a lesser extent, are concerned in principle about the kind of approach advocated by ANZFA [the Australia New Zealand Food Association who now support labelling] and the demonstrated effect this may have on others, including the European Union.

“The United States have told us that such an approach could impact negatively on the bilateral trade relationship and potentially end any chance of a New Zealand-United States Free Trade Agreement.”

For a country anxious to be seen as supportive of the free trade agenda, as well as currently struggling to increase exports to reverse a skyrocketing trade deficit, the gravity of such threats to the future trading relationships with the US would not have been taken lightly.

US threats have also come directly from the Ambassador to New Zealand, Josiah Beeman. In numerous media interviews Beeman has reiterated the United States position and repeated his government's threats over proposals to label genetically engineered foods in New Zealand. On the Kim Hill Show and TV One’s Assignment Beeman has made it clear that were US imports to New Zealand to be compromised by a labelling regime, New Zealand could expect difficulties in the trading relationship between the two countries.

Independent MP Neil Kirton felt the pressure from the US first hand following his public comments supporting calls for labelling of genetically engineered food. Kirton claims he was visited twice by Ambassador Beeman in 1997 as a result of his comments. “It was the first time I had had a visit from a diplomat to see me,” he said. “I was struck dumb by the aggression showed by Beeman to my stance, and the bullying tactics he used.”

Beeman got heavy again when Suzanne Wuerthele, a toxicologist from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, spoke on the Kim Hill Show while holidaying in New Zealand earlier this year. Despite being clear that she was speaking as an individual and was not representing the views of the EPA, Wuerthele’s comments about her concerns over genetic engineering were deemed out of order by Ambassador Beeman, who promptly reported her to the US State Department. Wuerthele argued that she was exercising her constitutional right to free speech, however she says it took three months to clear her name and keep her job.

The United States have stuck their neck out over genetic engineering and stand to lose a fortune through growing consumer resistance. In particular the European Union, which is cautious about genetic engineering, is fast becoming a nightmare for the United States. Last year for example the United States shipped less than three million bushels of corn to Spain and Portugal, down from 70 million bushels in the 1996/97 marketing year as a result of European Union delays in approving genetically engineered varieties of US corn.

Given that in the US last year 25 per cent of the corn crop and 38 per cent of the soy bean crop was grown from genetically engineered seed varieties, it is basically too late for the US to turn their back on the GE revolution. Too much has been invested and too much is at stake. This unfortunate catch-22 situation is why the blunt force, the bullying and the
heavy political pressure is being applied to trading nations like New Zealand.

Unfortunately, a look at our own government’s track record over genetic engineering shows that these tactics are effective and can work.

Genetic engineering and New Zealand politics
The high level diplomatic and political pressure exerted on the New Zealand government could well be blamed for the government’s sluggish performance over calls for mandatory labelling of genetically engineered foods. Despite a groundswell of interest in the issues associated with genetic engineering the National government has resisted calls for labelling and has, in fact, gone to extreme measures to ensure it does not happen – both here in New Zealand and abroad.

The first of two Bills in New Zealand, calling for labelling of genetically engineered foods, was decisively defeated by the National-NZ First coalition government. A second identical Bill introduced the following year stood some chance of passing because the coalition had dissolved and not all those supporting the National minority government on confidence and supply agreed with their stance on food labelling. However, it was eventually defeated in a tense 60/60 vote. In parliament a tied vote means the status quo prevails.

Despite furious arguments with Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, National MP Christine Fletcher, who supported the Bill, was unable to take back her proxy vote from the government. Tukoroirangi Morgan, who also supported the Bill, was led from the debating chamber by Don McKinnon just before the vote and failed to return. As Morgan had not withdrawn his proxy in writing, the government whip exercised it for him against the Bill. We can only speculate over what happened to Morgan but it would be fair to say that, like Fletcher, he was heavied into submission by a government desperate to defeat the Bill. Anne Batten, who had also spoken strongly in favour of the consumer's right to make an informed decision, opposed the Bill by proxy in her absence.

A third Bill, introduced by Phillida Bunkle and based around Green MP Jeanette Fitzsimons' petition calling for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into genetic engineering and a moratorium on further approvals of commercial release or field trials, was a different affair which reflected the shifting political ground in parliament over the issue. The Bill was defeated, only this time the Labour Party voted it down with the government. Labour was prepared to support the Royal Commission but not the moratorium. In short they wished for a full and thorough investigation into the possible risks and benefits of genetic engineering but were not prepared to prevent large scale planting of GE crops in the New Zealand environment until the Commission had reported back.

Following comments made by Phillida Bunkle in support of her labelling Bill, Crop and Food wrote a lengthy refutation of her comments and asked the Speaker of the House to accept these arguments into the parliamentary record. Despite vigorous argument from Bunkle in support of her comments the request was granted and Crop and Food had their rebuttal accepted in Hansard and circulated through parliament. The rarity of such action shows the sensitivity of companies involved in genetic engineering to dissenting points of view.

Phillida Bunkle claims she filmed a piece for TV One news on American cows treated with genetically engineered bovine growth hormone but, following a phone call from Monsanto’s lawyers in Missouri at 5.30pm, the piece did not go to air. As an aside to that story the New Zealand Animal Remedies Board is currently considering an application to approve the use of these growth hormones in New Zealand. The recombinant bovine growth hormones (rBGH) in question have been banned in Canada and the European Union as the hormone leads to lameness in the cows, sores that will not heal and pus in their milk. There is also statistical evidence showing an increase in human breast and prostate cancer in people drinking milk produced using these hormones.

ANZFA has now voted to adopt some form of mandatory labelling of genetically engineered foods. However this is in spite of New Zealand's representative on the council, John Delamere, voting against the move.

Papers on the ANZFA decision obtained under the Official Information Act show that Delamere was instructed to vote against labelling. However if the ANZFA council appeared to support the call for labelling, Delamere was instructed to kick for touch and "support the matter being referred back to ANZFA for full assessment… to be reconsidered in six months and again in 12 months". While the New Zealand government was unsuccessful in preventing labelling they are now stalling the process and trying to water down the provisions.

Again despite Delamere's instructions to vote down labelling provisions in the ANZFA council, Jenny Shipley has since come out saying she now supports labelling. A Ministry of Health discussion document has attracted over 5000 submissions that are now being considered. The Ministry’s proposal exempted highly refined foods like sugar, starches and oils which were unlikely to contain any genetic material, and allowed three categories of labelling: contains GE, does not contain GE, and may contain GE. Most submissions are expected to reject any exemptions and to support only two labels so that lazy food manufacturers cannot hide behind a ‘neither confirm or deny’ policy.

Although our government has been lobbied hard by foreign governments, we can hardly criticise their tactics. When Japanese officials signalled an intention to label genetically engineered products, a joint letter was drafted to these officials stating that New Zealand, the United States, Canada and Australia were opposed to labelling. The letter stated that "imports of a large variety of food products could be adversely affected because labelling would imply a safety concern". The letter concluded by warning against raising the issue in public as this could "pre-empt the outcome". New Zealand was also involved in the development of a paper informing Japan of the "reasons behind our decision not to opt for mandatory labelling", despite the fact that New Zealand was not supposed to have made any such decision. Not only was the New Zealand government trying to prevent labelling of foods on our own shelves, they were also trying to do the same to the people of Japan.

Application of political pressure is not the sole domain of governments however, but is also utilised effectively by private companies in a number of ways. Co-leader of the Green Party Jeanette Fitzsimons is currently being sued by public relations company Communications Trumps for $150 000 after publicly criticising their advice to a client to keep their genetic engineering project secret.

The Green Party was leaked a document from Communications Trumps to their client King Salmon in Blenheim which they publicised in the media. King Salmon were conducting genetic engineering work to produce transgenic salmon that would grow much faster than standard fish. However the fish developed inexplicable deformities which Trumps advised King Salmon "should be kept under wraps" and "should not be mentioned to anyone outside…"

Communications Trumps have also launched legal proceedings against Radio New Zealand following Kim Hill’s comments about their advice to King Salmon. It is interesting to note that Communications Trumps also managed the pro-genetic engineering lobby group Genepool, which is partially funded by both Monsanto and the New Zealand taxpayer. However this contract between Trumps and Genepool was terminated shortly after the King Salmon revelations.

Genepool are promoted as an independent body set up to provide impartial advice to interested parties on gene technology. However this façade didn't prevent almost every meeting of their national speaking tour being picketed by protestors last year.

The good news
Given that so much money has been sunk into the promotion of genetic engineering, people should perhaps hardly be surprised at the lengths governments and corporations will go to protect their enormous investments. While the methods used are often aggressive and unethical, consumers and the public can take heart that those with vested interests feel so threatened as to make these methods necessary.

The truth is that the companies like Monsanto who promote this technology didn't expect a fraction of the public backlash, and they now must be extremely worried. Already giant companies like Nestle UK and Unilever have made commitments to source GE-free food for their products and, on a national level, both the New Zealand Kiwifruit Marketing Board and the New Zealand Apple and Pear Marketing Board have distanced themselves from genetic engineering and promised to market only GE-free fruit.

On top of that our Prime Minister has done a massive U-turn over consumers right to know what they eat and just last month an organic fish farm set itself up in the Marlborough area - in direct competition with King Salmon and their deformed transgenic fish. The battle lines are increasingly being drawn - organic, natural and proven safe or engineered, for profits with no guarantees.

Consumer resistance is paying off and, in the process, is proving more powerful than the combined might of governments, massive corporations and dodgy public relations firms. The public are seeing through the self-serving PR and recognising the threats that this technology may pose to our health and to our environment. There is no question that humans are rejecting the genetic engineering of their life source. The question is, are we too late?

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