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Responsibility Urged Over Terminator Tech Release

The New Zealand Institute of Gene Ecology urges the Government to act responsibly on issue of “terminator technology”

Environment Minister Marion Hobbs announced on 10 February New Zealand’s backing of a Canadian-led initiative to lift a moratorium on techniques that genetically modify seeds of important food crops to make them sterile. The Institute is concerned that the initiative is both unnecessary and inconsistent with New Zealand’s obligations under the Convention on Biodiversity and Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

Seed sterilizing technologies are variously referred to as GURTs, for genetic use restriction technology, and ‘terminator technology’, after the most famous example in which seeds are genetically programmed to become sterile through mutation. This prevents the seed from being recycled and would require farmers to buy seed each year.

In addition to concerns about the effects of such transgenes on biodiversity and human health, there is widespread concern about the economic impact of these kinds of genetic modifications, particularly on smallholder farmers and their communities. In supporting the Canadian initiative, New Zealand is rejecting the findings of the UN Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group report that recommended maintenance of the ban. The only parties to side with Canada at the meeting were New Zealand, Australia and a representative from the biotech industry.

New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the biotech industry are calling for an end to the international moratorium on testing GURTs outside of the laboratory. The 2001 Royal Commission on Genetic Modification suggested that such approaches might have a benefit for the environment and held open the possibility of their use in New Zealand. The Commission saw the potential for self-sterilization of GMOs as a way to prevent their spread in the environment. In the case of GURTs, however, the Royal Commission was presented with almost no independent research on the topic. In addition to creating the same risks as other types of genetic modifications, GURTs are unlikely to produce the benefits upon which the Royal Commission speculated. This is because the failure rate on sterilization may be too high to rely upon it as a way to prevent the escape of the GMO, but high enough to prevent poor farmers from relying upon recycled seed from year to year.

In the Institute’s view, there is insufficient testing of GURTs under controlled laboratory conditions to justify field testing at this time. In addition, the Institute considers that the potential impacts of the technology on farmer-controlled, locally adapted crop development must be taken into account, as must its impacts on the food security of the 1.4 billion people who rely on farm-saved seed.

The Minister said that in an “absence of consensus [on the likely impacts of GURTS] we find it to difficult to believe a ban is the right path to follow.” The Institute believes that the absence of a consensus requires New Zealand to support a ban. New Zealand is a Party to the Convention on Biodiversity and soon to be a Party to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, both of which make explicit the need to act with caution in the face of scientific uncertainty about harm, rather than, in this case, justifying lifting a moratorium because of scientific uncertainty.

Note: Like the Royal Commission, the NZIGE is dedicated to the development for the public good of all responsible biotechnologies. Unlike the Royal Commission, the NZIGE is cognizant of the latest research on biosafety, some of which is done in-house, and all of which is independent of any connection to commercial biotechnology.

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