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Frequently asked questions about GM decisions

Frequently asked questions about genetic modification and the Government's Decisions


30 October, 2001

How can we make a decision on the future of GM in NZ when the overseas situation is not clear on the benefits and risks of GM?

We have made only the first of a number of decisions on the future of GM in New Zealand. We are keeping our options open and will use information from New Zealand and overseas to make future decisions.

What happens next?

The Government will introduce legislation to ensure no applications can be made to the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) to release a genetically modified organism.

The Government's response to the Royal Commission's report marks the beginning of much work. We will develop a biotechnology strategy and establish a Bioethics Council. Work will commence leading to the HSNO Act being amended. This includes a review of how issues affecting Maori are handled under the HSNO Act and streamlining the systems for laboratory work. Information about GM food labelling will be sent out, and research about the potential socio-economic and ecological impacts will continue.

What is the difference between a constraint period and a moratorium?

The moratorium that was in place was a voluntary one, agreed with industry. Applications for research projects will now be considered by ERMA, but there is a legislated prohibition on release.

Can the constraint period be extended?

As the information available to government emerges, there will be an opportunity to consider this. An extension would require a separate decision by Parliament.

If nobody is planning to release a genetically modified organism, why is the government insisting on a ban?

We think it is vital to ensure that the changes to the HSNO Act and other important measures, including research, are put in place before any application is made to release a GMO in New Zealand. We can only get this assurance if we legislate a constraint period.

Doesn't the constraint period contradict the recommendations of the RC report?

No. The Royal Commission favoured a strategy of preserving the opportunities for both GM and non-GM technologies and recommended New Zealand should proceed carefully to do this. The constraint period gives effect to this cautious approach.

Why are there exemptions to the constraint period? Doesn't this mean the possibility of the release of GMOs by default?

The exemptions are to ensure that New Zealanders continue to have access to the most effective medicines that are available. We are taking steps to ensure that only those medicines that are safe will be approved (e.g. any live GM vaccines will need to be assessed to make sure they do not remain viable outside the person (or animal) they are used to treat). Also, these medicines would all be subject to approval under the HSNO Act which means any possible environmental effects will be considered before a medicine of this type was approved.

Will the constraint period mean we can't take advantage of GM technology that might have immediate benefit for the environment, such as for possum control?

The constraint period will not restrict further research on this, but it will restrict releases for at least two years. However, much of this work is still at the experimental stage.

In the constraint period will ERMA be considering applications for commercial release?

No.

How can we be sure that there is no risk of GMOs escaping from field test?

ERMA undertakes a case-by-case analysis of every application. If it approves the application it applies controls to ensure material is contained. In the past ERMA has had some discretion as to what controls to apply. The decision by government sets out explicit controls that will be mandatory.

If GM research is (already) safe why is the government tightening controls on field tests?

The government is clarifying what it expects of ERMA in the exercise of the authority's powers. The changes proposed will simply ensure that specific controls are in place.

Do you still believe it is possible for organic farming to have a future now that field tests are going ahead?

Absolutely. We have the strictest controls on GM research anywhere in the world and we are making them stricter. Officials will explore the development of a strategy for the co-existence of GM and other kinds of agriculture.

How come it is too soon to allow releases, but field tests are ok?

Contained research has to meet strict criteria. It has been undertaken in New Zealand for GMOs. As well, the Government has indicated that stringent rules that now exist under HSNO be made even stronger. The Royal Commission recommended that some enhancements be made to the system for managing GM. The government has decided to make those enhancements while undertaking further research before considering releases.

How do we stop accidental releases e.g. the mistaken importation of GM seeds?

Given the strict controls on laboratories and field testing, the most likely place for an accidental release is at the border. Importers of seeds and the like must ensure they do not bring in viable GM material. A detailed testing system is currently being used for sweet corn seeds, but will soon be extended to other seeds.

Does the government's decision mean that the fresh produce and meat that we eat will now be genetically modified?

No, it doesn't. None of the fresh fruit, vegetables or meat currently grown for sale in New Zealand are, or will be genetically modified. Because of the constraint period, no genetically modified food crops or animals will be released from research containment or imported from overseas. But what about processed food? Some processed foods may have ingredients that are genetically modified. Before these processed foods can be sold, they must have been assessed by the Australia New Zealand Food Authority to ensure they are safe for human consumption and approved for sale by the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Council. The Minister of Health is a member of this Council.

What's happening with food labelling?

Any food that contains genetically modified material, manufactured on or after 7 December 2001, must be labelled identifying its GM status. Food sold at restaurants or takeaway bars doesn't have to be labelled, but consumers can ask about GM content.

Food that is already on shelves, or in 'the system' does not have to be labelled. There is a rapid turnover in most foods and the majority will be sold and consumed within one or two months. By 7 December 2002, any food with GM ingredients, must be labelled.

What GM goods could be affected by the two-year constraint?

The importation of any live viable genetically modified organisms even it is not intended to grow them (e.g. GM wheat used for flour or starch) is prohibited, and this will not change. Processed food and ingredients can be imported, provided they have ANZFA approval. All GM foods will be subject to the new food labelling scheme once it comes into affect.

What is going to change (with respect to GM) in two years?

In two years time, many of the enhancements that the Royal Commission recommended will have been put in place, such as the introduction of Bioethics Council.

Also, research is already underway into the environmental, economic and social effects of GMOs, both in New Zealand and internationally. More will be starting. Much of this research will produce results in the next 2 years, and this will enable the government to assess the risks more clearly. Contained research will continue in New Zealand, and this too will enable better understanding of the effects of GMOs.

What will the government do with the research information?

The information will be used to inform future decisions on GM. This is a rapidly evolving technology, and the research on its economic, social and environmental impacts will be important in increasing our understanding.

Is two years long enough to get any more useful information?

Yes, it is. There are a number of research projects underway or about to get underway. Of course we will not get every piece of information we need, but we will have made a significant start.

Why bother to have a Commission if you are going to take another two years to think about it?

The Commission itself indicated that further work was required to manage and understand the impacts of GM technology. The government has concluded, in accordance with the precautionary approach, that we need to start that work before ERMA makes decisions about applications for release.

Won't these changes add to the compliance costs of applicants?

The government is giving applicants some certainty as to what is required of them. They now must show that they have minimised risks and thoroughly investigated the possible impacts of their research. We would hope that this is simply building on what they would already do. It is worth pointing out that the Crown already meets over half the direct cost of an approval for research through ERMA. The Royal Commission's recommendations to streamline controls on laboratory work will be acted on, reducing compliance costs in this area.

What are the risks for NZ in stopping the clock on commercial release?

In the immediate future the main focus of GM work will continue to be in research. Commercial release in New Zealand is a long way off. There is a remote possibility that some GM organisms used overseas could be used in New Zealand, and the constraint period will prevent this. Are all our scientists now going to go overseas?

Important contained research is able to continue in New Zealand, so there is no need for scientists working in this area to move offshore for work.

How will you prevent unauthorised research taking place, and how will you know if it is occurring?

The vast majority of research on GM is carried out in facilities that are already regularly inspected by MAF. The science community has shown a high degree of responsibility during the period of the moratorium and we have every expectation that this will continue.

What does the Government expect the Biotechnology Strategy to achieve and will these decisions affect it?

The Biotechnology Strategy is aimed at providing New Zealand with a clear direction on how it approaches this new area of science. While GM is a part of biotechnology, it is only one part and we do not expect that anything decided today will change either the direction of the strategy or its purpose.

Why have you rejected the idea of a Parliamentary Commissioner on Biotechnology?

The proposal by the Commission does not meet the criteria set-up by Parliament for the establishment of a separate Parliamentary Commissioner. However, the Government believes the idea of effectively overseeing biotechnology in New Zealand is a sound one, and will be looking at ways as to how this function can be carried out - probably by extending the role of an existing body.

ENDS

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