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Mark Peck Said the 'M' Word

Despite his reluctance to now admit it, Labour's biotechnology spokesperson Mark Peck said the 'M' word last week. And in doing so he has heralded a major, and rather embarrassing U-turn for Labour's policy on genetic engineering.

The 'M' word is moratorium.

Just two months after voting down Phillida Bunkle's genetic engineering bill because they could not support a moratorium, the Labour Party are now advocating pretty much just that - a moratorium on genetically engineered field trials and commercial plantings to coincide with a Royal Commission Of Inquiry.

Phillida Bunkle's genetic engineering bill called for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into genetic engineering to assess the risks, and a moratorium on field trials and commercial planting of engineered crops until the inquiry reported back. Despite desperate top level negotiations between Labour and the Alliance, the bill was eventually defeated by Labour who supported the inquiry but not the moratorium.

As a result, no further bills along similar lines can now be introduced for one year. It may now be too late, but the Labour Party have certainly changed their tune.

The revelation that Labour's position had changed came last week when Labour's biotechnology spokesperson Mark Peck told a public meeting that Labour now supported a moratorium. He said it. The 'M' word.

Peck now seems distinctly uncomfortable with the term. "Its not quite a moratorium," he said of Labour's policy when contacted by Scoop. "There are some differences between what Phillida Bunkle was proposing," he said.

But these differences are petty and could almost certainly have been overcome at the time the bill was debated. Peck said Labour support a moratorium on the release of new organisms into the environment but do not wish to halt current laboratory research and medicinal use of genetic engineering technology.

This however, is somewhat of a red herring. When the Bunkle bill was being debated in the House, Phillida Bunkle was surprisingly flexible in trying to accommodate Labours concerns. She said she was prepared to accept a moratorium while still allowing medical and laboratory research and gave the Labour Party every opportunity to reach a compromise that, it now seems, could certainly have satisfied them.

The conciliatory tone of Bunkle in the House showed how important this legislation, particularly the moratorium, is to her. With Monsanto's application to plant New Zealand's first commercial genetically engineered crops expected any time now, New Zealand is fast approaching a cross road. If New Zealand was to accept an environmental release of a genetically engineered crop, it would be next to impossible for the country to get back the GE-free label it currently has.

To many New Zealanders such a label is getting more important with each passing day. It seems Labour has only just realised that.

When pressed on the differences between what Bunkle was proposing and what Labour now supports, Peck conceded the differences were minor. He said the Bunkle moratorium was retrospective and that universities had told him they would have to take their research off shore if the bill were passed.

However Bunkle dismisses this outright, saying she “made it perfectly clear to Labour, both during negotiations and in the House”,that she was prepared to negotiate that ground to get her bill passed

Even Peck admits the differences between the two positions "may seem semantic".

Meanwhile Phillida Bunkle can barely believe Labour's change of heart. "It's just incredible," she said. "We argued over this bill at the highest level, leader to leader, and the moratorium was the grounds on which they defeated it.

"It's terrible really because [Mark Peck] just gave away the one chance New Zealand had of getting a public inquiry and moratorium into genetic engineering," she said.

Labour are now proposing a Royal Commission of Inquiry within 100 days of taking office with a moratorium on field trials and commercial plantings until the inquiry reports back. The inquiry will be given one year to conclude its investigation.

Green Party Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons said the one year deadline on the Royal Commission was a concern to her. "If the Commission is to do its job properly, consider all the science and give all New Zealanders the opportunity to make personal submissions, then I fear one year will be woefully inadequate.

"The Inquiry into nuclear power took two years and I believe the issues with genetic engineering are much more complex."

Fitzsimons said she welcomed the change in Labour's position, which she saw as a good step forward, but said it did little to reassure the public. "The public know Labour's policy has changed weekly over the last two months and they need some time now to establish some credibility," she said.

Phillida Bunkle said the policy shift was a resounding victory for the anti-genetic engineering lobby. "Labour has finally recognised the huge popular concern on this issue and want to make sure it doesn't become an election issue."

Bunkle also suggested that Labour's last poll rating may have alerted them to public displeasure over their handling of the genetic engineering issue.

Labour are doubtless worried over the last poll which showed the gap between National and Labour closing fast. They now seem to have become acutely aware of the groundswell public opposition to genetic engineering, and perhaps fear they may have given away what could become a key election issue to the Green Party and the Alliance.

With the margins tightening Labour know they can scarcely afford to do this.

Labour however, will be hoping the public have short memories because they have handled the politics of genetic engineering slowly and indecisively. They defeated a bill which had wide ranging popular support and have, in essence, now adopted the policy which only two months ago they voted resoundingly against.

If Labour fail to become the next government, the only obstacle to commercial genetically engineered crops in this country lies with our regulatory bodies. And people concerned about genetic engineering have little confidence in them.

Whether Mark Peck and Labour like it or not they are now basically backing a moratorium. Had they been thinking like they are now two months ago this country could have a great deal more confidence in New Zealand's ability to make a rational, sensible and considered decision on gene technology.

Thanks to Labour the element of chance is now a key player.


ENDS

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