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ERMA Conference "Opportunities and Outcomes"

Hon Marian Hobbs
29 June 2000 Speech Notes

Embargoed against delivery 0930 29 June 2000

ERMA New Zealand Conference "Opportunities and Outcomes"
Avon River Centra Hotel Christchurch

I am very pleased to address this the third ERMA New Zealand Conference.

ERMA stands for the Environmental Risk Management Authority so it is appropriate that
today I look at the ideas of risk management from three perspectives. These are:

 first, to touch briefly on the Government’s priorities in environmental management
 second, the means by which this Government intends that we as a nation examine genetic modification and the arrangements for this; and
 third, to look at the consequential expectations for the operation of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms and for the ERMA itself.

I have been in this job long enough now to have sorted out some areas where I believe we do need to get a move on and actively work to manage the risks.

New Zealand is an island ecology. One consequence of this fact and of our history is we sit at the beginning of a new century at the centre of a potentially destructive conflict between the unique species of plant, bird, fish, insect, and so on that are our heritage, and one of the highest loadings of introduced species of any set of islands anywhere. Some of this is bad (ask anyone who has to deal with the introduced pests and weeds that originate both from a harsher climate and from places where they had sets of inbuilt natural enemies) and some is good (ask practically any farmer or plantation forester about sheep cattle, pine trees, kiwifruit, apples, or apricots).

In dealing with this issue, I am determined that we will be more effective in managing our biodiversity. The recently released Biodiversity Strategy is a step along the road in setting up a workable and effective set of policies and practices which will turn the tide towards stable and sustainable management of our biodiversity.

However the reality is that we are an urban society. This means we need to focus on things like waste management and air quality.

Air quality is something we need to improve, something that here in Christchurch you are only too familiar with. I intend to set about providing the means to help communities act to improve air quality.

And what about the bigger air picture, climate change? The Government has announced that New Zealand will ratify the Kyoto Protocol within the next two years. This means we have a big job ahead of us turning around an upward trend in greenhouse gas emissions – a job that’s on the top of my agenda.

Focusing on waste, New Zealand’s urban society is regrettably creating more and more waste. We need to reverse this trend. It's not high science or elegant government policies that will achieve this, it's on the ground action by real people. We all need to learn to do things like having a compost bin at home, taking our own bags to the supermarket, or getting things repaired, or reuse things rather than throwing them in the bin. Really what needs to happen here is that we live our lives in a way that uses resources better in the first place.

I consider that this area is a priority and have increased budgets in this area. Over the next year there will be a number of initiatives including the development of programmes in partnership with Local Government. I am keen that action in these areas be on the basis of agreement with all sectors of the community. Possible actions being considered include: setting targets for waste stream reduction, programmes to promote awareness of what we as individuals can do, awards for outstanding achievement as part of the annual Green Ribbon Awards programme. If necessary I will also contemplate legislative change.

We also need to manage our hazardous wastes better. Most of these are not dealt with directly by the HSNO Act. As you will know, the Ministry has a programme on hazardous waste management and I have asked that it be accelerated. I expect significant results from this project over the next 12 months. This will have implications for both the HSNO Act and the Resource Management Act.

I said that I wanted to discuss some aspects of managing risks to our environment on a narrower focus. One of these areas the need for us to have a comprehensive debate in an independent forum about the risks and benefits of genetic modification. This was something this Government promised, and we are now at the point where the Royal Commission set up to do that job is getting itself started.

I would like to emphasise that word independent. The Royal Commission will determine its own procedures and will choose how it will communicate with the public. There is not much, therefore, that I can say about what the Commission intends to do and when it will hold its hearings etc. This is for the Royal Commission to announce.

However I did meet with the Royal Commission members last Wednesday and was pleased with the way in which the Commissioners are approaching the inquiry.

I would like to say a few words about the composition of the Commission. As you may know the Royal Commission was appointed in April. The Commission is headed by former Chief Justice, Sir Thomas Eichelbaum. It has three other members, Dr Jean Fleming who is a biochemist and who brings an understanding of the science of genetic modification to the inquiry. There is the Rt Rev Richard Randerson, an Anglican Bishop, who has a solid understanding of ethical issues. The last member is Dr Jaqueline Allan who is a GP. Her tribal affiliation is Ngai Tahu and she has a background in Maori health issues and is also a qualified teacher.

I have been asked on several occasions why this or that appointment wasn’t made. Some wanted to see the agricultural industry represented, others wanted an environmental advocate or an ecologist. Some have called for more scientists, or greater Maori representation.

I want to make clear that the Commission is not intended to be representative of any particular interests. The Commissioners who have been selected are highly skilled individuals who bring independence and complementary areas of expertise to the inquiry. It is not expected, however, that any single commissioner will bring knowledge of all the issues to the inquiry.

The Warrant establishing the inquiry into genetic modification makes it clear that the Commission must address a wide range of issues. These range right from the international trade implications – hardly the day to day business of laboratory scientists, right through the hard science topics to ethical issues raised by the application of these technologies.

The areas to be investigated are comprehensive and I believe they capture all the key concerns that have been raised about genetic modification in recent times. It is quite a list. But the focus for the Commission is not on the detailed science, it is on the strategic choices that are open for New Zealand to make. This is where the Commission’s findings will be of most use to the Government. It is somehow distilling from the mix of risk and opportunity the best ways forward for this country.

That is the product. But I would like to also emphasise what I believe the Royal Commission can achieve along the way.

This can be summed up as participation and education.

First, participation. There is a fear that ordinary people won’t be heard and that their voice will somehow be drowned out by the expositions of experts. This is a fear of “court room” procedures. While we do need rigour in the Commission’s investigations, the procedures can still be “user friendly”. It can be a people’s, not a lawyers’ inquiry. It is the Government’s expectation that the procedures will be open and as informal as possible and this is expressly stated in the warrant which establishes the Royal Commission. It directs the Commission adopt procedures that allows people to clearly express their views. In addition the Commission must consult and engage with Maori in a manner that specifically provides for their needs.

Second, education. I would like New Zealand as a whole to learn more about the technology through this inquiry. It is my hope that ordinary people (and I include myself in this category) will increase their understanding about genetic modification. If we can all begin to understand the concepts and become familiar with the language then we can begin to talk to each other rather than past each other on this controversial issue. I hope the Royal commission, through this year long process will establish a common language and provide a mechanism that allows everyone to learn more about the issues raised by genetic modification.

Many of you should also look at the opportunity presented by the Royal Commission to host events that help both specialist and lay audiences understand and consider the implications of this technology. I would commend the ERMA in taking the initiative by hosting the recent event at Te Papa as a valuable contribution to starting off discussion on the whole issue.

I also want to talk briefly about the voluntary moratorium on applications to release or field test genetically modified organisms that has been put in place for the period of the Royal Commission and a time afterwards.

The purpose of the voluntary moratorium is to ensure that none of these organisms are released into the New Zealand environment while the Royal Commission undertakes its inquiry. This will ensure that New Zealand preserves its options about how to address genetic modification until after the Royal Commission has completed its report and made its recommendations.

It is the Government’s view that the controls already imposed by ERMA on approved field tests, the voluntary moratorium, and the proposed additional monitoring to be undertaken by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry will ensure that there is minimal risk to the environment from these organisms during the course of the inquiry.

Not all genetic modification work is subject to the voluntary moratorium, and I refer you to a guide that has been prepared for detail on this. In this sense, the moratorium provides a balance between the benefits of maintaining research on genetic modification, the risks associated with the work and public concerns about it.

Some of you may be interested in undertaking genetic modification work during the next 12 months or more, so I will talk about what the moratorium covers. There are three aspects to it:

First, it says that in order to comply with the moratorium no person will make an application to ERMA to release a GMO into the New Zealand environment. This includes all applications to import a GMO for release, and all applications to release a GMO from containment. There are no exemptions under this aspect of the moratorium.

Second, it says no person will make an application to ERMA to field test a GMO, unless the application meets exemption criteria set out in the moratorium.

Third, and this is where the operation of the moratorium is important, it sets out the criteria under which a person may get an exemption from the moratorium in order to make an application to ERMA to field test a GMO. To get an exemption, you will need to approach me, as Minister for the Environment, for my agreement to the request. Your request will need to demonstrate how the proposed application meets all of the exemption criteria.

It is difficult to give much detail about the operation of the moratorium at this point, but a few general comments can be made.

The moratorium does not preclude anyone from approaching ERMA in the pre-application stage to talk about a proposed field test of a GMO. This would be a continuation of business-as-usual for ERMA. ERMA is not a party to the moratorium, but will have information on hand about it. You should approach the Ministry for the Environment about getting an exemption.

The Ministry can provide you with details of the various ways you might stage the process, and information sheets available at this conference will provide you with the necessary details and contact information.

Where sufficient information has been provided to me, I will endeavour to reach a decision on whether a request meets the exemption criteria and containment provisions within 20 working days. If I agree that an exemption should be granted, a finalised application can be lodged with ERMA and the normal HSNO Act processes will apply. If I consider that an exemption should not be granted you will be asked not to proceed with the application to ERMA.

The content of the moratorium was published in the Gazette on 22 June 2000, and I encourage anyone wishing to undertake genetic modification work to read the Gazette notice and the guide on it to see whether the proposed work is subject to the moratorium.

I emphasise that this is a voluntary process and relies on the goodwill and cooperation of all parties. I think it is in everyone’s interest that it operates in that way. However the Government reserves the right to legislate a moratorium if somebody proceeds to openly disregard the moratorium, and make an application in earnest to field test a GMO to the ERMA without an exemption from the moratorium.

This I think leads me neatly to what the Government’s expectations are for the operation of the HSNO Act in general and the ERMA in particular.

Clearly we expect the ERMA to continue to operate to the high standards that it has set in dealing with applications for development and field testing of genetically modified organisms, and of course for other new organisms. However, I do expect there will be less business in the genetic modification area for some time to come. The allocations of funding in the recent budget reflect this expectation.

The Government also expects to proceed with commencing the Act for hazardous substances as soon as we can put all the necessary machinery in place. This machinery includes not just the regulations that have been the subject of comment and criticism of the time they have taken, but also the other machinery to ensure that the Act is complied with.

The Government does not wish to see any further delay in commencement of the act and it is my intention to commence the Act as soon as possible in the 4th quarter of this year – which is likely to mean some time in October.

Regulations, which do incorporate changes to address issues earlier raised during consultation with local government and industry, are in the final stages of drafting.

There are some issues relating to the inspection and enforcement arrangements proposed under the act which have been drawn to my attention and I am investigating these.

Given the arrangements that will apply during the early stages of the transitional period I do not see further delay in commencement as being either necessary or helpful in resolving these issues.

I will however be ensuring, as a matter of urgency, that open and pragmatic consultation continues to occur between all parties involved in the future processes of the Act. As minister I expect to be assured that the arrangements for inspection and enforcement that emerge from these consultations meet two criteria.

First, that safety of the public and protection of the natural environment is ensured.

And second that the arrangements embody effective use of resources so that costs to industry are fair and reasonable.

In particular the Act envisages that agencies involved in inspection and enforcement (including both central and local government) cooperate. I am determined to see that this cooperation happens in reality.

The Act also recognises that inspection and enforcement must occur in conjunction with responsibilities under other Acts such as those for Resource Management, worker safety and public health. I strongly encourage all those with any enforcement responsibility to recognise this fact and build it in to their forward planning now.

The current inspection arrangements being carried out under the scope of the present Acts including the Dangerous Goods Act and Toxic Substances Act have been performed with a high level of commitment by those agencies and individuals charged with that responsibility.

The scope of the HSNO act is, however, much wider in its philosophy and in the things it incorporates to ensure safe management of hazardous substances. It is essential that those at the coal face, particularly industry and inspection personnel, understand their obligations under the new act. A lot of work has been done and needs to be continued to ensure that this happens.

I intend to maintain a high level of interest, in the establishment of arrangements between all agencies involved in future enforcement to ensure that this process proceeds smoothly, sensibly, and quickly.

I would like to conclude my remarks where I began this morning. New Zealand is an island ecology. Taking care of it and of our own health and safety often comes down to deciding on and managing risks. I would like to think that over the next two days you are able to advance our understanding of how to do this and help move us all more towards the overall goal of sustainably managing our environment and particularly how managing hazardous substances and new organisms fits into this.

Thank you again, I wish you all the best in your deliberations.

ENDS

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