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Marion Hobbs Speech To GE Seminar

Saturday May 6


6-7 MAY 2000

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to address the opening of this important seminar on gene technology in New Zealand. First of all I welcome all of you who come from a broad cross section of interested communities. Over the next two days this significant group of scientists, sector groups, Maori, educators, NGOs, community groups and students will have the opportunity to listen to each other on issues relating to modern gene technology. I am confident that the matters discussed will be informative and interesting. No doubt aspects of the programme will also be challenging to you.

The Environmental Risk Management Authority – that is, ERMA – organised this event as part of its function to promote awareness of the effects of new organisms (including obviously genetically modified organisms) as well as awareness of how to manage those effects.

I acknowledge the hard work that has gone on in preparation for this seminar, and for the contribution it will make to the debate on the complex issues surrounding modern gene technology. I also thank Te Papa for their assistance in preparing this seminar.

Royal Commission into genetic modification
This event is extremely topical given the Government’s recent announcement of the Royal Commission into genetic modification. I’d like to take this time to speak briefly about the Royal Commission and the proposed moratorium on field tests.

It is being recommended to the Governor General that former Chief Justice, Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, head the Royal Commission. The other members of the Commission being recommended for appointment are:
 Dr Jean Fleming. Dr Fleming is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Anatomy and Structural Biology, Otago Medical School. She is highly qualified in the field of Biochemistry, Physiology and Structural Biology.
 Rt Rev Richard Randerson, from Auckland, has an extensive academic background in religious studies and brings a solid understanding of ethical issues to the Commission.
 Dr Jacqueline Allan, an Auckland GP, has considerable experience in the area of Maori medical health. She brings an understanding of both medical and Maori issues to the Commission.

Of all forms of public inquiry, a Royal Commission has the highest status and greatest independence. Although the Royal Commission determines its own procedures for carrying out the inquiry, it will be required to consult widely and to adopt procedures that encourage a diverse range of people and groups to participate in the proceedings and present their views. We expect the Commission to hear from all of New Zealand’s communities including, but not limited to, researchers, industry the Maori community and public interest groups as well and ordinary citizens. . I hope that the Royal Commission will use its resources to gain a comprehensive insight into what the whole of the nation wants for the future with respect to genetic modification. This means not just hearing from the protagonists who have a particular viewpoint on genetic modification. We expect that, like this seminar, the Royal Commission will enhance people’s understanding of the complex issues surrounding genetic modification.

The Royal Commission will contribute to the Government’s overall goal of putting in place a long-term strategy for the management of genetic modification technology. The terms of reference for the Commission reflect this. For instance, the primary objective of the Royal Commission is to inquire into and report on the strategic options available to enable New Zealand to address genetic modification now and in the future. The Royal Commission is also directed to recommend changes in the current legislative, regulatory, policy or institutional arrangements for addressing genetic modification in New Zealand. Clearly the Government will need to look at any changes to reach the desired strategic direction for New Zealand.

To be clear, the Commission will look at genetic modification in a broad context which encompasses:
 modern genetic modification technologies
 genetically modified organisms and their offspring, and
 the products that are derived from GMOs like genetically modified food products.

This is of course broader than the area covered by the HSNO Act and ERMA, something that will need to be kept in mind for this seminar.

Broadly speaking we are asking the Royal Commission to consider the following matters:
 the extent to which genetic modification is being used in New Zealand at present
 information and the uncertainties about future application of genetic modification in New Zealand
 the risks and benefits from GMOs and their products
 the international obligations New Zealand faces with regard to genetic modification
 liability and intellectual property issues involving genetic modification
 the Crown's responsibilities under the Treaty of Waitangi in relation to genetic modification
 the global developments and issues that may influence New Zealand
 the opportunities that may be open to New Zealand from the use or avoidance of genetic modification technologies.

The Commission will also look into the areas of public interest including human health, environmental and economic issues, and cultural and ethical concerns. For the full detail of the terms of reference I encourage you to visit my or the Ministry for the Environment’s websites.

The Royal Commission will have 12 months to report on these matters, so I expect it will report in early June next year. This time period was selected carefully. In a rapidly moving area of research and development, an overly lengthy inquiry runs the risk of being overtaken by new developments in gene technology. At the same time, the ability for people to have their say is important, and this takes time to do properly. Further, the issues are large and complex and everyone, including the Commissioners, will need adequate time to think the issues through. Given these considerations, I believe that 12 months the Government has decided does provide the right balance. In this period, the Royal Commission will need to focus on the important high-level strategic issues facing New Zealand by genetic modification.

Throughout the time the Royal Commission is carrying out its inquiry and for three months after that time, the Government is asking all those who might be involved in field testing or seeking to release a GMO to agree to a voluntary moratorium. The moratorium represents a balancing act of responding to public concerns about risks from GMOs, ensuring that any risks are minimised, and not irreparably disturbing research in New Zealand. There is every indication that our research community will take a responsible attitude and comply with the moratorium. However, I would sound a warning that if someone does choose to be irresponsible and not comply the Government reserves the right to legislate.

This would be unfortunate, as legislation is quite a blunt instrument and takes time to enact.

In any event we will be very carefully monitoring the controls placed on any field tests.

Discussions between a number of Government agencies and those involved in possible field testing or release are in progress right now. When we are satisfied with the agreements the exact details of the moratorium will be publicly announced. This should be completed quite quickly and I think it will be possible to have the voluntary moratorium agreed and in place before the Commission begins work.

As I hope you can see, the issues that form the backdrop to this weekend’s seminar are many and complex. In fact, the knowledge required to get to grips with this issue seems vast. A casual glance at the programme shows the many strands that need to be brought to bear on the topic. So what can be done in these two days?

I think this seminar can make a significant contribution to the Royal Commission’s work. In particular, the objectives of finding out what is known about genetic modification and its effects, what is uncertain or unresolved, and what more we need to find out will provide valuable resources and starting points for the Commission.

These are big objectives and it is a large task to attempt to address them over a single weekend. To get through this challenging agenda, I urge you all to listen carefully to one another. If this meeting can contribute to compiling quality information resources for the Royal Commission, it will be well worthwhile.

I commend this exciting and challenging seminar programme to you, and wish you a very successful seminar.


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