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The Shifting Sands Of the GE Debate

News Summary - The Shifting Sands Of the Genetic Engineering Debate.

It is hard to remember when a single issue last captured such public interest and concern over such a short period as the debate over genetic engineering of food.

While not to the satisfaction of all, the government’s decision made through this weeks ANZFA Health Minister’s meeting to support mandatory labelling of genetically engineered foods is a clear victory for a groundswell of public and political pressure.

From our government being out-voted at an earlier ANZFA meeting in its opposition to labelling, the government’s change of heart epitomises how rapidly the ground has shifted on this issue. An issue characterised by the ranging opinions, the changing policy, the backroom deals and political farce. While essentially an issue of absolute simplicity – that New Zealanders want to know what they are eating – the issues have become complicated and intensified with trade threats and revelations that we have been eating engineered foods without our consent for a number of years.

The threat of unpopular and untrustworthy agrichemical companies wishing to plant commercial genetically engineered crops in this country has upped the stakes, further concerning the public and increasing the pressure on parliament.

The Australian and New Zealand governments have taken a big first step this week. Of course the final policy will be what ANZFA will eventually be judged upon, but the New Zealand public should be under no illusions of the victory they have won.

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The United States will be furious with the New Zealand decision. The US has committed itself one hundred per cent to genetic engineering and now is struggling to maintain exports to markets such as the European Union which are suspicious of genetically engineered foods. They must now realise that they have gone too far too fast, however the number one downside of engineering commercial crops is that once it is done, it is impossible to go back.

The numerous threats from American Ambassador Josiah Beeman that a labelling regime could lead to difficulties in the bilateral trading relationship between the US and New Zealand show the level of concern the US are feeling over the widespread rejection of their engineered exports. These threats were deadly serious, and for New Zealand to defy these threats - despite our governments acute awareness of a spiralling trade deficit - shows that public pressure has triumphed over heavy handed international trade threats.

Josiah Beeman is currently out of the country. It will be interesting to see his reaction to this decision upon his return.

One could be forgiven for having a degree of cynicism over our government’s change of stance on this issue, given that its election year and recent polls suggest it looks set to be a close thing. However, given the groundswell opposition to genetic engineering, anything less from the government would have been very poor politcs.

The Green Party and the Alliance have led the charge on this issue and have been crucial in bringing public concern into parliament. Green Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons has conducted a national speaking tour on the issue and has a petition calling for a Royal Commission of Inquiry and moratorium on genetic engineering. She has spoken at over 60 meetings across the country and over 100,000 New Zealanders have signed her petition.

The Alliance’s Phillida Bunkle has had two bills on genetic engineering defeated in the House. The first was a bill on labelling which was narrowly defeated. The second was a bill calling for a Royal Commission of Inquiry and moratorium. This second bill was defeated as Labour voted against it, saying they could not support a moratorium.

The defeat of these bills explicitly illustrates the shifting ground of the debate. The government has now come out backing a labelling proposal with more commitment than most expected and Labour has basically adopted as policy what Bunkle was offering in terms of a moratorium. See… Mark Peck Said the 'M' Word.

Both Labour and National have recognised they risked giving what could become a major election issue to the Greens and the Alliance and, while their shifting positions ultimately benefit consumers, it gives neither party much credibility on the issue.

However there are significant issues on labelling that still need to be sorted out, such as what will be labelled and what labels will be used. The government have surprised many in their tentative support for labelling of refined oils, sugars and starches which are derived from genetically engineered crops. The argument has been made that these ingredients are so highly processed that they contain no genetically engineered DNA. However to exclude these ingredients from labelling would leave most foods with these ingredients unlabelled, which would be unacceptable to most consumers.

The key issue which is expected to be resolved at another ANZFA meeting later in the year is what type of labels to use. Most controversial is the ‘May Contain’ label which the Greens, the Alliance and consumer groups desribe as the ‘neither confirm or deny policy’. Such a label would offer consumers no protection and would basically give lazy food producers a way out of avoiding some hard work.

And it will be hard work for food producers to trace all their ingredients in order to determine their status. It certainly will cost money but, quite simply, that is their responsibility and therefore their problem. The Grocery Marketers Association have been quick to say that these enormous costs will have to be passed onto consumers through higher food prices. However, throughout the whole debate it is perhaps the the Grocery Associations who have ended up with the least respect and credibility.

The Grocery Industry Council have come out firmly in favour of genetic engineering, rehashing many of the myths as fact, misrepresenting many of the issues and hailing as safe something they know very little about. Their position can be perfectly illustrated through their brochure which is in most supermarkets and is placed unrequested in shoppers bags. The brochure claims to be an objective look at the issues associated with genetic engineering. However the brochure is written by Professor John Scott of the Royal Society, who is one of New Zealand’s leading advocates of genetic engineering.

The brochure doesn’t once mention any possible risks or that so little is known about gene technology. It doesn’t mention who profits from the technology, who tests it (the companies who produce it) or how consumers can avoid it. Whether you support or oppose genetic engineering of food this brochure insults the intelligence of all consumers with propaganda posing as fact.

The Green Party have taken the brochure to the Advertising Standards Complaints Authority on the grounds that it is largely incorrect and a decision on it is expected soon.

This week police decided that no charges would be laid against a group of activists who destroyed a trial crop of genetically engineered potatoes earlier this year, despite the fact that their actions were clearly in breach of the law. Their actions follow numerous similar protests in Europe, India and the UK in which commercial and trial crops have been destroyed.

New Zealand has taken a significant first step in backing labelling of engineered foods. However the commitment to their words will be seen in the attention to detail in the final policy. Consumers and one or two well focussed politicians and lobby groups have wrested significant changes in government position, however the issue doesn’t end at labelling.

Monsanto have promised to soon apply to plant genetically engineered commercial crops in New Zealand. If this happens the ability of New Zealand to call itself free of genetically engineered crops will have been lost forever, and this is becoming extremely important to many New Zealanders.

It is clear that New Zealand cannot compete in volume with the likes of the US and the flourishing organics market is an incredibly lucrative and largely untapped market which a GE-free New Zealand could exploit fully.

That said, Kiwis like brave decisions from their governments and like to be unique and independent. Rejecting genetic engineering would sit well beside our nuclear free policy and reinforce our clean green image which we already trade heavily on. It would increase demand for our agricultural exports and perhaps go a long way towards reviving a poorly performing rural sector.

It would be a brave government that shut our doors to Monsanto and genetically engineered crops, however I suspect it would also be a very popular government.

We have taken good first steps on labelling, however the most significant issue associated with genetic engineering has yet to be addressed. And it is crucial: Do we release genetically engineered organisms into our environment or do we go GE-free and make it policy to shut them out.

This decision is one which must be addressed very soon. It is largely a decision on the future direction of New Zealand.


See also… The Pressure On NZ To Accept Genetic Engineering.

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