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The vexed issue of genetic modification - Speech

2 November 2001 Media Statement

"The vexed issue of genetic modification"

Conservation Minister Sandra Lee on Genetic Modification

[From a speech in the Wednesday Parliamentary General Debate on 31 October 2001]

I want first to respond to my colleagues from the Greens who have said they are the only party that has continuing concerns about this issue, by reminding them that just because they chose to name themselves the "Green Party' does not give them an exclusive moral mortgage on the vexed issue of genetic engineering.

The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification was left in no doubt about the views of many Maori on this issue.

Submissions from Maori reflected a widely held view that mixing mauri, or life energies, of different species—such as mixing human genes with those of mice—to create transgenic organisms, was regarded as repugnant.

Maori have always been concerned about any research that involves the un-natural manipulation of nature itself. This should not be construed as being anti-scientific.

All Maori and indeed all New Zealanders want the benefits, and particularly the medical benefits, that accrue from well-managed scientific research.

But where genetic modification is used, Maori are asking: what is the price that we must pay?

Maori are concerned to ensure that questions of social and cultural integrity are adequately addressed during the life of the new legislated ban on the commercial release of GM organisms, whether that runs for just two years, or possibly longer as the Deputy Prime Minister indicated yesterday in this House.

The Alliance prefers that the ban should remain in place until genetically modified releases have been proven to be safe, and we make the point again today that this may well take longer than two years. Our coalition partner, Labour, obviously has a different view and we have agreed to disagree.
The Alliance will promote an amendment to the Moratorium Bill. The Alliance amendment will extend the ban if at the end of the two year period questions about health and environmental safety remain unanswered.

I do not think Maori concerns can be fobbed off with a glib "science beats culture" rationale, and my reading of the Royal Commission's report is that they agree. The Royal Commission was careful to identify Treaty of Waitangi principles that it suggested were particularly relevant to the debate on genetic modification. These principles included a duty by the Crown to actively protect Maori interests, and a requirement that the Crown consult with Maori so as to make informed decisions about matters of significance. These principles are consistent with the Royal Commission's notion of preserving opportunities. The worst outcome for Maori would be a regulatory authority that declares its support for bicultural values and holds hui and displays all of the requisite 'PC' trappings that consistently has little regard for Maori cultural values when decisions are made.

The new legislated ban on the commercial release of GM organisms will allow the government to consider many of the enhancements recommended by the Royal Commission. These include what the Royal Commission described as "a body to address the big picture issues where new forms of technology pose societal questions that go beyond individual choice". The task of this body, the Bioethics Council, would be to consult with the community on significant ethical issues and develop guidelines to help a range of ethics committees that already exist. The government's decision to accept this key recommendation, which the Alliance had pressed for, is critical in terms of addressing many Maori concerns on the vexed issue of genetic modification.

These concerns are not, as the Independent's editorial described them today, "Maori mumbo-jumbo". The Royal Commission envisaged that the Bioethics Council would develop policy guidelines when tackling issues like transgenic organisms. It would consult with Maori nationwide on broad issues, but leave ERMA—the Environmental Risk Management Authority—to take into account the views of local Maori on specific applications. It would also—the Royal Commission envisaged—"regularly consult with ethicists, and at times with religious leaders on spiritual issues".

I do not accept the contention in today's Independent, a cheerleader for the National Party in opposition, that there is no middle ground but that "spiritual objections either trump economic and scientific progress, or they count for nothing." Most Maori and indeed most New Zealanders are swayed by a host of factors, secular and spiritual, but we all tend to know what we don't like and what we don't trust.

The 30 October 2001 government announcement on genetic modification secures exactly the policy position that the Alliance advocated.
The Alliance insisted that there be no release of GM organisms into the environment and that there be even stricter containment of field trials than there has been in the past. The Alliance wants to ensure that the New Zealand environment and agriculture remain GM-free while we do more research on the economic, social and environmental risks and benefits of the technology.

There are stronger controls on field trials than under the previous moratorium. GM field trials have been taking place in New Zealand for more than a decade, including during the recent moratorium. That moratorium was voluntary, and did not prevent all new field trials from taking place. It provided specific exemptions for a range of applications for new field trials where the potential health, environmental or commercial benefits might be compromised.

At the insistence of the Alliance, and only the Alliance, all material associated with a field trial must now be removable from the trial site.
The previous moratorium required that only heritable materials be removed. We are also adding a compulsory requirement for inspection and monitoring.

Although they do not close the door on research, the latest government decisions ensue that any research in labs or in the field is contained in ways far stricter than ever before. The Alliance has vigorously argued for five years now that GM research must not contaminate our environment while so many risks remain unknown.We have argued for the safe and sensible containment of GM researcxh in the absence of certain safety.

My colleague Phillida Bunkle promoted three Member's Bills between 1997 and 1999 calling for GM food labelling, a moratorium and the Royal Commission of Inquiry. Her initiatives have helped to put this issue firmly on the political agenda.

Ultimately, how we preserve our opportunities is all about proper containment.
Strict containment and reversibility are the issues in field trials and in laboratory trials as well. The Royal Commission found that that existing regulations governing experiments could allow laboratories conducting experiments for example on wind borne fungal spores to have nothing more than fly screens over open windows thus allowing escape from the lab. That was under previous conditions.

The Alliance has argued and got agreement from our Labour colleagues for strict containment inside and outside of the laboratory. We still have a choice about our future.

We have adopted a precautionary approach to this complex issue. New Zealand still has its opportunities preserved in no small part because of the work on this issue by my colleagues in the Alliance, in terms of the negotiations during the Cabinet committee considerations.

ENDS

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