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Reflections on the first 2 weeks of GM Commission

Reflections on the first two weeks of a Royal Commission

Francis Wevers, Executive Director, NZ LSN
29 October 2000

Our perception is that the greatest moments of history are recorded on glorious battlefields or in vaulted majestic halls and courtrooms. The founding moments of nations and the discovery or enunciation of great ideas should happen in an appropriately grand place.

But the reality of often more tawdry and the rooms in which momentous history is made are often non-descript and unremarkable, giving no physical signposts to the importance of the issues being determined. This is often particularly true of the great discoveries in science.

So it is with the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification in New Zealand.

Meeting in a Spartan space on the 11th floor of a weary office building the greatest issue of the new millennium is being deliberated upon by two men and two women who are expected to exercise the judgement of Solomon for a country, if not for the whole globe.

For two weeks now Sir Thomas Eichelbaum and his fellow Royal Commissioners have been listening to, and occasionally questioning, some of the best scientists in New Zealand about the mysteries, the moral dilemmas and the mythology of modern biotechnology; in particular genetic modification.

The Commissioners responsibility is to advise the Government of New Zealand on the strategic options for this small island nation, which derives 65% of its Gross National Product from growing plants and animals. In other words to make a choice, either to use the new tools which science has developed or, to adopt a basis for economic development which excludes techniques many are opposed to or fearful of.

But, is this a popularity poll where the views of the majority determine the outcome?

The Royal Commission’s Terms of Reference make it clear it is not; though the views of the public are important in coming to an informed opinion, which will have some prospect of political implementation following the presentation of the final report.

So it is about the choices we make and the basis on which we make them.

As these first two weeks have played out it has been hard not to be excited by the scope and the complexity of the science which is being undertaken in New Zealand. It has also been hard not to be impressed by the dedication of scientists and institutions who are trying to compete in a global knowledge race with frugal financial resources which is made even harder by a regulatory regime which appears to assume all biotech research is inherently harmful.

Impressed by the use of GM technology for everything from finding new species of rare and endangered native species of fish and frogs, to providing hope of eradication of introduced pests.

Impressed by the use of GM technology to

· Identify a possible cure for stomach cancer in Maori;

· Make pine trees which are more ecologically friendly

· Produce better grass varieties to reduce greenhouse gases

· Identify twinning genes with all sorts of implications for human health developments

· Make human insulin and hepatitis B vaccines to solve major Maori health issues

And impressed by the way the list goes on.

But New Zealand is still some distance from commercialising the work of its scientists.

And then there are those who doubt (or are opposed). While Greenpeace, the Green Party, the organics industry, Friends of the Earth and others have not had to make their case in opposition yet they have had the opportunity to test the basis of the assertions of benefit made by scientists.

Some themes are emerging.

The organics people have held, and will probably continue to hold, that their growing niche industry is seriously threatened by any release of GMOs into the environment.

Thus far their concerns about GMOs seem to be based on a single proposition; that possible pollen drift and horizontal gene flow has the potential to “contaminate” organic produce or the soil. This contamination will result in destruction of an organic farmers business.

In addition they argue that international markets for organic produce hold much greater potential while markets for GM produce are shrinking, particularly in Europe.

The countervailing point of view, expressed by many witnesses so far, has been that organics and other agricultural and horticultural production methods can co-exist in New Zealand as they do elsewhere in the world. In addition, gene technology is essential for identifying and developing new strains of organic plants, which are pest resistant, thereby improving organic yields.

The line of questions now appearing from Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission suggests a willingness of the part of the Commissioners to consider how different farming activities might co-exist and what management techniques are available to ensure all interests are protected. Refugia protocols, buffer zones and the agreed separation distances for certified seed cropping may well provide that guidance.

Despite their best efforts the organics groups and other critics have not been able to show that horizontal gene transfer is something of concern to knowledgeable scientists. While the phenomenon is acknowledged all the available science holds it to be very rare and unlikely to present problems.

Something tells me, despite the scientists being consistent in their analysis, that this issue will not go away. The possible risks, remote though they be, are fundamental to the paradigm within which opponents of the science are working. Therefore to concede this point would be to critically wound their case. Better to try to get a concession from the scientists by piling hypothesis on hypothesis (after all no scientist will assert 100% certainty on anything) than to give even a millimetre.

And from these little concessions a mountain will be made.

That paradigm is very persistent and not to share it is to be a disbeliever in the true faith. It acts in a way to exclude ideas that may challenge the underlying creed.

As an example, when the Life Sciences Network first established it website we were contacted, almost immediately, by GE Free New Zealand proposing that we provide links to each other’s websites. The Network readily agreed and established the link, which remains to this day. GE Free NZ, after a brief listing, removed the link to the Network. It’s obviously too dangerous to allow the arguments which run counter to be accessed directly.

Interesting too that the Green Party, as a party in Parliament, is participating daily in the work of the Royal Commission. They will have to debate the outcome and deliberate on implementation when it finally comes to Parliament. The constitutional propriety of this appears to stretch several existing boundaries about the interpretation of conflict of interest.

The Green Party, extremely sensitive to accusations that GE Free New Zealand means a New Zealand free of any sort of GE, is seeking to draw a line where “ GM in containment in a laboratory is okay; in the environment is not”. It has been hard to argue against the very real benefits identified by New Zealand scientists for New Zealand people.

Acknowledging that spurning GM technology for medicines and health benefits is politically dangerous has led to a conundrum for the Green politicians. “How do we find a way to stay true to the cause, yet not lose too many votes in the process?”

So they are concentrating their attacks on uses in agriculture and in food – the two areas most important to New Zealand’s future economic well being.

So the outward agenda has been to try to find some compromise position. What they will find however is that compromises have to have some internal logic and while logic is not necessarily part of politics it is the basis on which the public makes choices.

And this Royal Commission is about choice. Everyone recognises that and we also recognise the inescapable fact that ultimately it is the choice of consumers which will determine how fast, or slowly, we adopt genetic modification as a technology.

The opponents are saying the consumers don’t want GMOs. They may well be right because most market surveys and opinion polls appear to show GM technology is not a preference.

But that consumer reaction does not make the science or the technology wrong. It merely makes it less preferred at the present time because consumers have not derived direct or indirect personal benefit from the application of the technology.

The task for the Royal Commission is to determine whether or not choice should continue to be available or we should exclude an avenue of choice on non-scientific grounds.

The religious and Maori opponents have not participated in the formal hearings to date. For Maori this may be because they have an alternative through their hui where, unfortunately, the ideas expressed will not be subject to the scrutiny which cross-examination affords.

With 2 weeks gone and 12 weeks of hearings to go it is too early to predict the outcome but we can feel comfortable about the process and the opportunity it has provided for a structured and rational debate.

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