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GM: Protecting NZ’s Interests

Wednesday, 03 July 2002, 10am
Hon Pete Hodgson
Speech Notes

Thank you for the opportunity. I’m told the organisers want this meeting to be informative rather than combative, and I’m happy to oblige.

The CTU has asked us to debate whether the legal and other processes in place to govern GM are adequate to protect our interests. It’s an excellent question because it’s the real question.

It is in our interests to ensure our food is safe and our environment is safe. It is in our interests to ensure that we do not turn our backs on the benefits of new technology. And we must have legal and other processes that let us pursue both safety and progress, without sacrificing one to the other.

What I will do in this opening twenty minutes is give a brief history of how we’ve got to where we are now, then lay out Labour’s position and finally explain why we oppose the position taken by the Greens.

To the history. GE or GM, it’s the same thing, has been around for about 25 years now. Every day in New Zealand research is underway that uses the technology in one form or another. No GE or GM organism has been released into the New Zealand environment as a result of this research. However, live GM vaccines already exist elsewhere in the world, so strictly speaking, those GM viruses exist in New Zealand now, because they are continually introduced by air travellers.

Food containing GM or GE ingredients has been around for about 10 years. We don’t know how common these ingredients are in our food chain, because throughout the nineties there was no requirement for labelling.

Since December last year, all food with GM ingredients must be labelled. There is 12 months’ grace for stock in trade, so from December this year there should be nothing on the shelves that is not appropriately labelled.

GM food in New Zealand must also comply with international standards set by the World Health Organisation. Over the next year, at least 1000 foods will be tested for GM content using the latest technology. And the standard currently in place will be reviewed in 18 months’ to ensure it keeps up with scientific advances and best practice.

In the mid nineties legislation was introduced to set up the regulatory structures for managing genetically modified organisms, in the lab, in contained field tests and in the environment. Before that the regulatory systems were voluntary, managed by scientists themselves.

The legislation established a body called the Environmental Risk Management Authority, or ERMA. The ERMA handles all aspects of GM research from low risk to high risk. It has not yet received any applications for release and probably won’t for a few years yet.

The legislation is written in a precautionary way. Very roughly, for an application to succeed it must meet three tests.

First, the benefits must exceed risks.

Second, if the benefits are very high but the risks are themselves significant, then ERMA must decline, even though the benefits exceed the risks. That is, there is an environmental and human health bottom line that can’t be crossed no matter how high the benefits.

Third, if there is scientific uncertainty then ERMA can decline for that reason alone. So, for example, the benefits may be well known but there may be uncertainty in characterising the risks, or some part of the risks. If the uncertainty is sufficient, ERMA must decline. In other cases, ERMA might choose to minimise the risks by making the approval conditional.

To date ERMA has declined no applications because all the requests have been for research in containment and have been of a sufficiently high standard. The conditions ERMA has placed on its approvals are typically very strict.

One of the ironies of this debate is that as Minister of Science I hear researchers complaining about the costs and the toughness of ERMA and its legislation at the same time as I hear anti-GM campaigners deriding ERMA as a rubber stamp.

In 2000, the new Government said it was time to look at the GM or GE issue afresh and in particular to look beyond the strictly technical issues to strategic, cultural, consumer and international issues. We set up a Royal Commission and the Green Party was closely involved in that process. They had a full say in the terms of reference and they gave their full support.

After a year of so the Royal Commission reported. They made about 40 recommendations.

The Commission said we need to improve the processes in some ways especially as they affected Maori. They said that the low risk end of ERMAs work was too highly regulated and too costly. They said that further work was needed to see whether any GE release would harm the organics industry. They suggested a new category of application called a conditional release.

Then towards the end of their report they said that society needed to reflect on further technologies coming down the pipeline such as xenotransplantation and stem cell research and various gene therapies and so on. Ethical and cultural issues will arise from these technologies, as well as GM, and they said a standing Bioethics Council was needed. Sir Paul Reeves will head that council.

The Royal Commission did other things too.

It examined the regulatory system we already have, suggested some improvements, but declared it to be fundamentally sound and effective and said it had integrity.

The commission also polled the attitudes of New Zealanders extensively and found a discerning population. Kiwis supported the technology where benefits clearly outweighed the risks, especially in medical areas, but were unsupportive where the benefits were less obvious and/or where the risks were greater. Maori and non-Maori viewpoints were very similar.

Regrettably the Greens have sought to discredit the Royal Commission and its findings ever since.

By contrast, the Government decided to accept almost all of them. We saw that we would need time to change the law, to establish research programmes into this and that, to set up the Bio Ethics council and so on. We put a moratorium on applications for release in the meantime, so that work could get under way. The moratorium expires in October 2003.

That’s the potted history. Now let me be more specific about Labour’s position.

It is very close to the position of the Royal Commission. It is to proceed with caution. It is to use the technology selectively. It is to make full use of the ERMA process because that is the most precautionary, transparent and participatory regime of its type in the world.

It is precautionary for reasons I’ve explained, namely the three tests that must be met. It is transparent because all the information is public and if an applicant reckons that some information is commercially sensitive or will destroy intellectual property then ultimately the Ombudsman decides. It is participatory because anyone can demand a public hearing. Anyone.

Our position of proceeding with caution, of using the technology selectively sits in a wider context. That context is the growth and innovation framework that Helen Clark released when Parliament opened in February. It is a framework which is future orientated, which embraces technology, which is outward focussed, export orientated, and which has as its goal moving New Zealand back into the top half of the OECD so that the living standards of New Zealanders can be returned to the relative position they once had.

Labour says it would be strange, even perverse, for us to turn our back on GM and pretend it doesn’t exist. New Zealand is a nation that is already very good at biotechnology. We are poised to take full advantage of what has been dubbed the biotechnology century, for the benefit of all New Zealanders. We are exceptionally good at growing things, at the science of growing things, and at processing what we grow with skill, efficiency and innovation.

The selective precautionary use of GM is already part of our innovation system. It offers high value opportunities, if we continue to use it intelligently and safely.

Like the Royal Commission, Labour specifically rejects any unregulated, wholesale use of GM technology and we specifically reject the other extreme of an outright ban. Like all technologies GM has its place. Like all technologies it needs to be controlled well.

So now I want to explain why we do not support the policy the Greens have adopted, or the policy we think they have adopted.

Our first major concern is with the rigid fundamentalism of the Green position. The Greens have said that if the moratorium lifts, as it will in October next year, they will vote the Government down, if they are able to. They will not support any confidence motion or Budget from that point on. It is for this reason that Helen Clark has said stated that our goal must now be to govern in coalition with Jim Anderton’s party alone.

It need not have been that way. In this Parliament it hasn’t been. We needed the Greens for a majority: they pledged their confidence for the term of the Government. They extracted concessions and required involvement in processes in return. They did so properly. Negotiations have sometimes been easy, sometimes not. But that is that how MMP works and how it should work.

No longer. Now the tactic is to draw a line on one issue and say that it is non-negotiable. So if the Greens get six, seven or eight percent of the vote they will use that leverage to get more than six, seven or eight percent of the say. Indeed they will force the other 90-odd percent of voters back to the ballot box.

I do not say that the Greens position on GE is itself cynical. I believe their concerns are genuine and heartfelt. But the tactics they are now deploying are cynical. MMP was conceived to assure minority voices would be heard and would exert influence. It was not designed to let the tail wag the dog.

Another reason we oppose the Greens’ position is environmental, and it has two aspects.

On the one hand we are bemused that the Greens would seek to withdraw confidence from a Government with a green record as good as ours. Jeanette and I, for example, have worked well together on issues such as the Kyoto Protocol and energy efficiency. I have enjoyed her support and advice on a range of issues, from West Coast logging to Hectors dolphins, from transport issues to sea lions.

On the other hand, the Greens seem to be wilfully blind to the possibility that many of the smart uses of genetic modification will offer big environmental gains.

Imagine if we can grow GM carrots that, when used as bait, reduce fertility in possums, or bacteria that cause disease in wasps. Imagine producing GM pine trees that are sterile and therefore don’t spread beyond plantation boundaries, don’t release pollen into allergic noses and put all their energy into wood production instead of seed production. Imagine that we reduce, using GM techniques, the lignin content in wood fibre so that fewer chemicals and less energy are needed to produce paper. Or that we increase resistance to sapstain and rot using GM techniques so we don’t can use fewer chemicals in timber processing.

Many, but not all, of the examples I have given above are now under research in New Zealand.

A third reason for opposing the Greens’ position is that it is riddled with inconsistencies and meaningless slogans.

Let’s take a quick look at three of the slogans.

The first says GE is coming to dinner. The second says GE should be kept in the lab. The third says New Zealand should be GE-free.

The first resonates with many people for whom GE is primarily a food issue. They do not like being told GE is coming to dinner. We all like to choose what we eat.

But as I have explained, GE has been coming to dinner, uninvited, for about 10 years. We are about to fix that, not make it happen for the first time. Labelling will let people be more discriminating about what is on their plates, not less.

What about the injunction to keep GE “in the lab”?

This ignores the simple fact that it is harder to contain a virus in a laboratory than to contain a sheep in a paddock. One requires a precision engineered space with filtered air, negative air pressure and extensive precautions by researchers. The other requires a fence and a sheepdog.

Saying “keep it in the lab” as if that is a meaningful policy principle is just muddled thinking. The objective is safety. The best means to that will differ widely, according to the kind of organism concerned.

And what about keeping New Zealand GE-free?

Well New Zealand is not GE-free and hasn’t been for years. And although they rally behind this slogan, even the Greens’ support for it is paper-thin.

They don’t mind medical uses of GE technology, or at least they don’t mind now. And Jeanette has said recently that the Greens would have no problem with the use of GE plants to produce a bait that makes possums sterile. So GE seems to be OK for some non-medical purposes as well.

Field testing seems to be something the Greens can now live with too. Extending the current moratorium, the Greens’ bottom line demand, would enable research in containment – field tests – to continue. The whole point of field tests is, of course, to answer questions that Jeanette and others legitimately raise.

So there you have three Green slogans on GM, all meaningless under any serious examination. Three false commandments, if you like, of the anti-GE campaign.

What happens when you look hard at the Greens’ position on GE is that it totters under the weight of its internal contradictions, and the contradictions with its objectives on other crucial environmental issues.

There are some possible applications for GM that the Greens could not in all conscience forgo. And every time they avoid saying no to those applications, they move closer to the only reasonable position on GM, which is to look at each case on its merits.

That is Labour’s approach and it is the approach enshrined in the law. The challenge for the Greens is to say why that law is inadequate, if that is what they want to assert.

To date the only significant breaches of the law have occurred at the hands of those who choose to break into glasshouses or field sites and dig up genetically modified plants. There is rich irony there.

Here’s a conclusion. The choice is to use the technology selectively, or to draw a line in the sand that isn’t real. It is to proceed with caution and deploy the most precautionary, transparent and participatory regulatory system in the world, or to refuse most uses of a technology that may bring health, economic and environmental benefits if used wisely.

Ends

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