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Sustainability Council Update May 04

Sustainability Council Update May 04

During a fortnight in which GM matters were again in the headlines, the Sustainability Council ’s acting Chair, Professor Garth Cooper, formally opened its new Wellington offices last Thursday. Dr Cooper told those gathered for the function that after two years in operation, the Council was now well established and would continue to provide high quality research on GM matters.

Monsanto’s announcement early last week that it had pulled the plug on plans to release GM wheat in North America1 reinforced the lack of market support for GM foods. The development of GM wheat was a six-year research project designed to bring forward a major new variety for Monsanto, but it encountered severe market resistance when major purchasers were surveyed. Later in the week, Monsanto also announced that it was closing down its work on GM canola in Australia.

Each of the Australian states that grow canola have banned its cultivation on the basis of economic and marketing concerns. A further recent retrenchment – this time in New Zealand - was the announcement by Francis Wevers that the successor to the Life Sciences Network, the Bioscience Policy Institute, was to close its doors due to a lack of financial support. Launched late last year, the institute was Chaired by Jim Bolger and the governing board included Margaret Austin, Ken Douglas, Dr Jean Fleming, Sir Tipene O’Regan and Dr James Watson.

Last week also brought news of the discovery that a US lab accredited by MAF to vet seeds for GM content had passed at least two batches of maize seed that were GM contaminated.

This raised again the risk of food exports being affected via contaminated seeds entering the country. Suggestions from some players that a tolerance limit for contamination be introduced ignored the fact that it is markets, not government that ultimately set contamination standards. In premium markets that standard is zero.

A local company, that had made every effort to produce to a GM free standard, confirmed this to its $500,000 cost last year when routine testing by a Japanese fastfood producer revealed trace GM presence in one of its products.

Recent news also highlighted that GM contamination could in future mean something very different. The development of food crops genetically modified to produce pharmaceuticals and other materials has brought forward regulatory concerns on a quite different level where the risk is inadvertent consumption of drugs through cross contamination.

A director of The US Department of Agriculture stated that pollen flow and accidental co-mingling remain major challenges to segregating crops intended for food uses from those designated for pharmaceutical or industrial use.4

The ultimate risk bearers of the outdoor use of GM are the communities that host any release. The Sustainability Council recently presented to the regional council governing the Bay of Plenty noting that the currently regulatory regime left local authorities and their communities exposed on certain matters, including liability for damages should harm result from a GM release.

Environment Bay of Plenty has subsequently announced that it wishes to “find out what role regional councils can take in regulating the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment” (see full statement below). It is approaching other regional councils to support it in obtaining a legal opinion on this question.


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