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HARD NEWS 31/08/01 - How Green Was My Rally

Approved: Kiwifruit
Subject: HARD NEWS 31/08/01 - How Green Was My Rally

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GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... well, it's a while since I saw a protest action this smoothly networked. The GE Free New Zealand bumper sticker is everywhere. I'm getting emails and being handed flyers in the street. You can expect this weekend's anti-GE rally to put green issues on next year's election agenda in big, bold letters.

And of course, to put further pressure on the government at a time when the Green Party is polling something like 30 per cent amongst youth voters. Even National, if it wants to regain the reins of power, will have to confront that.

The current government can rightly feel aggrieved at being blamed by the green lobby for the findings of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, before it has even made a response. After all, it established the commission at the urging of the Green Party, which didn't see fit to protest until the result went the wrong way.

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The Prime Minister - who, typically, sat at home last weekend and read the commission's four-volume report - is also entitled to feel annoyed that the commission kicked for touch on the big questions; proposing a theme of "preserving choice" and developing both organic and biotech crop industries in tandem. If ever there was a case of having your cake and eating it ...

I can understand why some people would want to press on with GE on the farm. About the only research in which we've consistently invested over the decades is agri-science. Putting away the plank on which we could plausibly surf the Knowledge Wave is a big call.

But every time I hear the arguments they seem to be about yield, about producing yet more commodities. If GE agriculture has the potential to damage a growing, high-value, non-commodified business in organic produce - and it really doesn't matter whether it happens through actual harm or consumer sentiment - then we ought to proceed very carefully indeed.

I don't really understand the principles of genetic drift - and neither, frankly, do a lot of the people who talk about it - but given that if contamination does occur, it will be difficult or impossible to back out of, extreme caution seems a sensible attitude.

I can see some GE science eventually taking its place in the picture - plants that produce cellulose that could take the place of conventional plastics sound pretty nice. But I'm dubious about the pressing need to rip into this and get crops in the ground. This stuff is going to be with us for the rest of human history - and, having reported on the Internet industry, I am wary of preposterous urgency in new sectors. It will only take one bad food scandal somewhere in the world to set this thing back a decade or more.

Thus, the likely response of a government itself divided on the issue - to kick for touch itself with a five-year moratorium on any serious deployment - is quite valid.

I could do without some of the hysterical claims that have been made lately. Fact is, food made from organisms that have been genetically manipulated for certain desirable traits isn't necessarily bad for you. It might be quite benign - even beneficial if, say, it's been tweaked for nutritional content.

But I have seen nothing that assures me that every new organism is entirely safe either. Indeed, I have read the testimony of qualified people who believe that is a guarantee that can not yet be made. I don't trust an agency as compromised as the US Food and Drug Administration to safeguard my interests. I deeply dislike the business models implicit in most of the GE crops so far - why should I have to eat crops created by Monsanto purely to sell more RoundUp?

Well, I don't. And that's what a Herald editorial seemed to utterly fail to grasp. This week's John Roughan Looney Thursday Special offered the view that Tegel's decision to stop feeding its chickens meal from GE soy was somehow "sinister". Excuse me? Food company consults its customers about what they want they want in its product, and makes changes accordingly. That's "sinister"?

Look, consumers don't damn well have to offer excuses for their choices. That's what a market means.

I hope Tegel keeps on consulting its customers about the way they want their chicken, actually. I try not to eat battery chicken myself. I don't like the way it's produced, but mainly, I don't like the way it tastes - or rather, fails to taste. I'm fortunate, of course: I live in Auckland's inner West, amongst the biggest concentration of rich hippies in the nation. I can visit the best organic butcher in the country, yarn about football and buy free range chicken that tastes resoundingly of chicken.

I like food. I like cooking it and I like eating it. I'm not fanatical about buying organic produce, but I will when the price is right, largely because it's just better food. In season, I buy nice organic tomatoes, or good market garden produce at Avondale market. I basically don't buy supermarket tomatoes any more.

Why should I buy a product designed not to taste good to me but just to survive the retailer's distribution network? Screw that. And every time I make one of those choices I'm sending a little signal to the market, making good food more viable. Like I said - earth calling the Herald - that's the point of a market.

There was a green flavour to the week's other big protest, of course: the couple of hundred West Coasters who marched on parliament to demand their right to a foreign-owned open-cast gold mine in a conservation park were met by greenies who thought that was not a good idea at all.

Apart from a couple of brief physical altercations, the two sides stood behind barriers and shouted at each other. Bringing the debate out into the sunlight like this is, I think, a good thing. And I can only admire Sandra Lee for fronting up and saying, sorry, but no change, and then meeting with a delegation that emerged apparently somewhat charmed.

The government spin machine was at work here too, of course. Inside the Parliament, it was gleefully pointed out that the Crown Minerals Act, under which Lee acted to reject the Macraes application, was passed by National in 1991. The PM then read from National's 1990 election manifesto, in which it proposed that mining on conservation land be banned. Ho, ho.

A little more mud stuck with the Opposition's brandishing this week of a letter circulated amongst Army chiefs in 1998 in which they plotted to influence government thinking on the slice of the defence dollar that went to their needs.

Well, it plainly didn't work with the last government - but was this government part of the campaign? It's hard to separate from the simple fact that the Army so desperately needed some investment that the coalition was always going to send money anyway.

David Dickens, director of the Centre of Strategic Studies and no friend of government policy on military spending, was blamed under Parliamentary privilege for stealing and leaking the letter. Whether he did it or not, I have little sympathy for Dickens' own recent and sudden loss of funding from three government agencies.

He was a political appointment himself, succeeding Terence O'Brien, who was internationally respected but held views regarded as undesirable by National. Not long after he took the job, everything O'Brien had written disappeared from the Centre's website. So, like I said, no sympathy.

Hey! Guess what! I got my own Treasury leak! The email wound up with me by accident rather than malice, but it's an intriguing little look in on the Air New Zealand business. It'll be Singapore Airlines up to 49 per cent by the look of it. The aim was Tuesday morning before the markets open for an announcement - but, obviously, they hadn't talked to the Air NZ board at that point.

Anyway, the public of New Zealand was right. An All Black team remodelled basically along the lines that every man and his dog had been demanding played tough, smart football to beat the Boks. Now, it remains only to down Australia in Sydney and spoil John Eales' retirement.

They'll do so without the motivating influence of a mock haka from the Australians, which has been withdrawn from proceedings. Good job too. But the New Zealand union's plundering of the haka is nearly as tacky too. I expect to see the All Blacks perform it: I could do without repeated video renditions for the benefit of the sponsors. Show some respect, alright?

Yet there is something strange about a society that thought a mock haka was a good idea in the first place. The ugliness in the collective Australian psyche - no, that's unfair; in part of Australian society - has been further on display in the way Australia has flouted its international commitments to seize that ship full of Afghan refugees and drive them back out into the ocean.

What is happening out there is shameful. I am glad that our government has stepped forward an offered to take some of those people. Jenny Shipley's attempt to make political capital out of that decent and responsible move is quite lamentable.

But let's finish happy: It was good to see Dimmer and SJD go so thoroughly off on Friday. It's been well nice listening to the new Nurture Recordings compilation. And how lovely to hear that the Prime Minister will be joining us at the B-Net New Zealand Music Awards. Do we have any 'Other radio stations are shit' t-shirts left, then? G'bye!


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