Sutton - Speech to Animal Health & Crop Protection
Hon Jim Sutton
Labour Spokesperson on Agriculture
New Zealand Association for Animal Health and Crop Protection (AGCARM)
Wednesday 21 July
James Cook Centra, Wellington
The fundamental assumption underlying agriculture is that we humans can improve upon nature, for our own benefit.
So far, that assumption has been justified.
Before our ancestors started interfering with natural processes by burying seeds and selectively cultivating atypical and mutant plants, there were probably a few hundred thousand human beings. Not many of them lived beyond the age of 30.
Now, we are six billion, up from 5 billion in a mere 12 years. Our life expectancy is rising. We are eating better. Perhaps for the first time, most people have bigger problems than ensuring they always have enough to eat.
This is due to agriculture – our interference with natural processes.
It is true that we have made somewhat of a hash of some things. We have fouled our own nests, ruined some of our soils, polluted our water and our atmosphere.
We may be causing the climate to be warmer, when without us it would have been getting colder.
Surely, our ingenuity and enterprise contain the seeds of our own potential destruction. We create dangers for ourselves at every turn.
We do not want to die (although, perversely, many of us want to go to heaven). And for thousands of generations, especially those pre-dating agriculture, our ancestors survived long enough to reproduce the species by being cautious.
Being cautious is inbred.
Some elevate caution from an instinct to a virtue. They call it the precautionary principle. Only a fool would not retain caution as a necessary though not a sufficient condition of survival.
Caution involves imagining what could go wrong, before we try anything new. Some among us serve our species by calling the attention of the rest of us to the perils inherent in exploration and innovation. Rabbits like this are called neophobic and are very difficult to poison.
Thus, so we were taught, it was at one time required by law that a man with a red flag should precede every horseless carriage.
As new technology becomes familiar, we lose our fear of it. As in the case of the horseless carriage, this may not be because it is risk free – motor accidents are the number one cause of fatality among certain categories. Rather, it is because we now know enough to compare the risks with the benefits, and make informed decisions accordingly.
What we eat is just about as radically different from what our prehistoric ancestors ate as our modern means of travel is from theirs.
When we first modified food by cooking it, to make it more digestible, safe and more enjoyable, I expect some ancestor of Susan Kedgley warned us all that this was unnatural, and who knew what harm it would do.
Some thousands of years after we adopted the similarly unnatural practice of cultivating the soil in order to cover wild grass seed and thereby produce a more reliable harvest, plants like modern maize and wheat appeared. These are certainly not natural. They are aberrant or mutant plants which would not survive for long in the wild without us.
And we, of course, would not survive without them.
Modern maize has resulted from the crossing of two different genera of grasses. The wheat genome comprises the chromosome sets and genes of three species of wild grasses.
Canola is a type of rape, which comes from crosses between plants as different as cabbages and turnips, and has all the chromosomes and genes of both parent species. Indeed, until the Canadian government funded a focussed breeding programme to deal with the issue by genetic manipulation, rape seed contained so much erucic acid and isothiocyanates that it was poisonous.
Canola oil may indeed be safer and healthier than the animal fats it replaces in our diet, but it is certainly not ‘natural’.
The way we grow these crops as yield-maximising monocultures, is not natural, either. We initially maintained monocultures by physically or mechanically removing other species (weeds), but imagine hand weeding a hundred acre crop.
Agricultural chemicals made it all more practicable and affordable, and released the energies of countless people to produce the vast variety of goods and services which contribute to our modern way of life.
There has of course been the problem that because so many of our crop plants are descended from the same ancestors as weeds, it is often not easy to kill the latter without also damaging the former. Hence the modern plant breeders ploy of genetically manipulating the crop variety to make it resistant to chemicals with which we can control weeds.
Or, indeed, to make the crop plants resistant to natural threats such as insects or diseases.
This is not such a surprising development. After all, there is usually a range of susceptibility to these various types of threat, and selecting the most resistant individuals is a time-honoured technique for manipulating the genes. What is still relatively novel – and thus alarming to Ms Kedgley and others – is that plant breeders have been learning to identify the appropriate DNA sequences, isolate them, and then place them precisely where they want them. Previously they had to search out spontaneous mutations, in order to achieve the desired result, and often get all kinds of unwanted characteristics at the same time.
The new techniques are known as genetic engineering.
Even more alarming, these DNA sequences may be most conveniently accessed from plants or animals only distantly related to the relevant crop plant or domestic animal. This then becomes ‘transgenic’. Famously, scientists have apparently introduced DNA sourced from Arctic salmon into strawberries, from African toads into potatoes, from humans into sheep, and also into bacterium, for various purposes.
This starts to get really frightening, unless we accept that life on earth is all related. That all DNA is a language written with but four characters – which is two more than morse code or the digital language of information technology.
Everything is related to everything else. Life on earth is a lego set, but assembled in a breathtaking variety of ways. Genes are not ‘human’ or ‘toad’ or ‘wheat’ genes; but genes which serve specific purposes. They should be judged not by where they come from, but by what they do.
Now I am not suggesting that because this is how I see genetic technology, plant and animal breeding, herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers, that I believe we should dismiss the concerns of Ms Kedgley or even those of the ‘Wild Greens’. Their response is part of the survival mechanism of our species.
And there are some techniques and suggestions that frighten and repel me too, although my background is farming, particularly animal breeding, and because owing to the pursuits of my scientifically educated brother thirty-odd years ago, genetic engineering has often been a topic of conversation in our family.
So what does Labour propose? Firstly, that we seek appropriate balance between the instinct to innovate and instinctive caution.
That we take seriously the genuine concerns of the people. But that we also avoid handicapping ourselves unnecessarily, or condemning ourselves to backwardness, by repudiating science and innovation.
I believe we are at serious risk of this. In Parliament, we came within a whisker of voting at the second reading stage for Phillida Bunkle’s bill, which proposed a moratorium on genetic engineering technology.
Although there was never much likelihood of the bill surviving the select committee process unaltered – it would if passed as introduced have effectively denied insulin to diabetics – it would not have completed select committee before the election. It would not have suited the National Party for it to have done so.
On the other hand, it was strongly represented to us that an apparent endorsement by Labour would have sent a powerful message of New Zealand hostility to science that would have instantly affected the willingness of scientists’ and science investors’ willingness to commit themselves to New Zealand.
I repeat. New Zealand cannot afford to fall off the pace, in terms of agricultural technology. Nor can we afford to be too far off the pace in terms of science.
As a tiny nation we can’t hope to be at the leading edge of everything, but we should try to ensure that we maintain world class standards in key fields.
I have a sense that we are not trying hard enough, and that it is not simply a matter of government or the private sector not spending enough on research. It is also a question of creating a science-friendly regulatory environment. ERMA seems to operate reasonably well in respect of new organisms, but why have we been so slow to get its hazardous substances role up and running? Why has New Zealand been so hesitant to confirm data protection rights under the TRIPS agreement?
Why is New Zealand virtually the only significant plant breeding nation that still does not confirm to the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants?
The public have been rattled by successive campaigns against agricultural chemicals and genetic engineering. The flood of scare stories seem beyond the capacity of the scientific community to counter.
Yet it is vital that we do so. If we are to have access to technology that increases food supply, reduces its cost, keeps our environment cleaner, prevents disease and saves lives, we must restore public confidence in the capacity of our institutions and regulations to identify and avoid genuinely damaging or unsafe proposals.
That confidence is easy to damage and hard to repair. It has been damaged by nuclear accidents, by DDT, by mad cow disease, and by many other practices or products which turned out to be less safe than had been claimed.
The casualty list from all these together doesn’t, of course, come near to the numbers who perish each year from the familiar consequences of poverty, but the fear of the unknown is a powerful motivator.
We have ground to be made up.
Labour supports a royal commission into genetic engineering. It will play an important role in getting information out to people. It will, hopefully, raise the level of public debate, which up to now has generated more heat than light. The genuine concerns of the people will, hopefully, be identified, explored, and effectively addressed.
We cannot fight fire with fire. The antidote for ignorance is truth. The antidote for deliberate misinformation and scare tactics is still more truth.
Surely, science is about the search for truth. As important members of the science community, I am confident that you will play a constructive role in the proceedings of the royal commission, and by so doing ensure that public confidence in the safety and integrity of science is restored.