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Legal opinion on genetically modified organisms

MEDIA RELEASE

Regional council seeks legal opinion on genetically modified organisms

For immediate release: Thursday 29 April 2004

Environment Bay of Plenty hopes to seek a legal opinion on whether it can have a say in the genetic future of its region.

It wants to find out what role regional councils can take in regulating the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment.

At national level, the use of genetically modified organisms is controlled by the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO). However, it is still not clear whether regional councils can set stricter standards within their own areas through the Resource Management Act.

In March, four Northland district councils gained a legal opinion from Dr Royden Somerville QC, which states the Resource Management Act gives “a firm foundation” for district councils to apply a precautionary approach to GMO release. This may include having exclusion zones, liability bonds and different rules for different types of genetically modified organisms. The report says “there is no legal barrier to councils setting higher standards” than the HSNO Act.

Environment Bay of Plenty will now be asking other regional councils to help fund an investigation specifically for regional councils.

Environment Bay of Plenty has been actively involved in the GMO debate since 2002. In February last year it published a 66-page report on the implications of GMOs for regional councils. Strategic policy chairperson Lorraine Brill says the report highlighted a number of serious issues, including liability risks and the lack of local input into decisions made at national level.

“We feel there are some very important but unresolved questions,” she says. “We are still unsure about the role local government might have in fixing up problems that arise.”

Last Thursday, the strategic policy committee meeting received an overview of the legal report from the executive director of the Sustainability Council of New Zealand, Simon Terry, who worked with Northland councils on its development. Mr Terry told the meeting the Sustainability Council of New Zealand was pro-science and recognised the importance of biological research in New Zealand. However, it was concerned about the risks to the economy and the environment of GMO release to the outdoors.

Many countries will not accept food products with even the lowest level of contamination, he said. Yet it is extremely difficult to prevent genetically modified products from causing trace contaminations with other crops. Brand integrity is key for companies like kiwifruit exporter Zespri, which is concerned about pollen from genetically modified pine trees contaminating kiwifruit.

Mr Terry said the environmental risks include unforeseen effects on non-target species, invasiveness, reduced biodiversity and uncertainty regarding the effects on soil ecosystems. The clean-up costs for unwanted organisms – like the painted apple moth - can run into millions of dollars. A single GM corn contamination incident in Gisborne cost nearly $500,000. “If the environment is harmed, local government is the first in line for damages when the bills start to hit.”

Mr Terry said the Government has given the impression that the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act and the processes surrounding it are extremely stringent. “However it has explicitly declined to set clear, enforceable standards. The result may be a significant gap between people’s expectations and the legal requirements. Local government can act to fill that gap.”

ENDS

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