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Stateside with Rosalea: Bubble Nation

One of the most popular soft drinks in the US is Snapple, a juice drink. It's labelled "all natural" and one popular variety contains "Kiwi and Strawberry Juices from Concentrate and Natural Flavors". All this on the front part of the label along with an illustration of the hairy berry, its strawberry mate, and what appears to be strawberry flowers growing up a tree with a koala perched in it. Oh well. I guess that serves New Zealand right for stealing Chinese gooseberry cuttings from their natural homeland and re-branding the fruit as its own.

That label pretty much sums up just how little the US public knows about New Zealand. A kiwi isn't a bird or a word for a nationality - it's a fruit and a flavouring used extensively in sweets as well as in hard and soft drinks. And New Zealand has absolutely no existence apart from being near - and many people think, part of - Australia. If they've even heard of it. Well, if they're interested in sailboat racing they might have heard of it. In the U.S. the word "yacht" is commonly used to refer to a large, usually motor-driven, craft used for pleasure cruising, and since not many of the common people go pleasure cruising they don't have much interest in a yacht race.

Imagine my delight then when I was recently shown a cutting from the San Francisco Chronicle dated December 1989, wherein a columnist was theorizing about who would be the next bogeyman, and New Zealand was suggested. It was a tongue-in-cheek take on the ailing 1980s US economy, pointing out that the only thing that got it out of its hole fifty years earlier was a war. New Zealand, the columnist said, had a strong anti-nuclear stance and had banned US Navy ships from its ports. So let's pick a fight with them and rev up the economy.

It seems that individuality and strength of conviction is what sets that little nation down at the bottom of the world apart.

Aotearoa (hell, if no-one knows where New Zealand is anyway, let's re-brand with something meaningful to our place on the planet) is an individual at a very basic level. Like Madagascar it separated from the large land masses it was once part of long enough ago for it to have unique flora and fauna. And it is far enough away from those large land masses to remain biologically insular if it chooses to do so. I think that would be a wise choice. Already in the US scientists are creating repositories of plants whose DNA has not been altered, as a hedge against total loss as genetically engineered strains take over.

At the risk of giving the phrase "South Sea Bubble" a good name, Aotearoa could become like one of those children who live in a bubble because they have no immunity. It could simply refuse to grow GE crops or do research on them or genetically tamper with other food sources such as bovines and fish. Furthermore, under strict biosecurity guidelines, it could become a living ark and botanical museum, renting out to other nations the space and technological expertise to keep alive genetically original strains of their food sources. At the same time, the horticultural industry could benefit from the hankering after "heritage" fruits and vegetables that is building momentum here in the US.

Make no mistake, consumers in the States DO worry about where their food comes from and what goes into it. There are calls from even the most conservative of media commentators for the term "all natural" to mean something instead of just being an immensely popular marketing slogan. Because of the size of the US market there are supermarket chains that sell ONLY organically grown food, and while the US government could find ways of protecting its own organic farmers against inroads made by organic farmers from other parts of the world, there is no way it could stop another nation providing a biological "clean room", so to speak, where naturally occurring strains of plants are kept in isolation. Bubble nation, right?

Besides, there is absolutely no point whatsoever in trying to compete with the commitment to biotechnology that exists in the US. The community college up the road from me has a two-semester course designed to get people into entry-level jobs in the East Bay's biotechnology companies as fast as possible. Those same companies have donated to the college - which is the equivalent of a polytech - equipment that even the University of California's research laboratories can't afford. So says my biology teacher at that community college, who is also a research professor at UC, so I guess he knows.

Aotearoa, thankfully, does not have the kind of political or educational environment that means learning is driven by commercial imperatives as it is here in the US. By political environment I mean the likes of Tommy Thompson, cabinet member and former Governor of Wisconsin, persuading President Bush that only the existing lines of embryonic stem cells should be used for research, thereby giving the University of Wisconsin, which owns those lines, a license to print money.

Think long. Think hard. Ask what will be scarce - and therefore immensely valuable - in 50 years time. The answer is baseline genetic material that has NOT been engineered.
Lea Barker

Sunday 2 September 2001

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