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Lifting the GE Moratorium

Lifting the GE Moratorium

On 29 October this year the moratorium on applications for the commercial release of genetically modified organisms will automatically expire. United Future supports this development because we believe that allowing the practical application and development of genetic science in New Zealand (subject to robust safeguards) is the best course for securing future opportunities and prosperity for New Zealanders and their families.

An economy such as New Zealand's that relies on land based industries such as agriculture cannot afford to ignore the innovations and advances in the biological sciences that genetic engineering offers. The benefits of being at the leading edge of this technological revolution could be huge for New Zealand. Conversely, lagging behind in the application of such technology could see us lose many of our export markets to more enlightened, innovative and productive competitors and lead to a long term economic decline with all the adverse social and environmental consequences that brings.

United Future's support for the lifting of the GM moratorium is not a case of throwing caution to the wind and opting for the helter skelter adoption of GM technology at the exclusion of all other considerations. We agree with the Royal Commission that New Zealand should proceed "with caution", and our support for the lifting of the moratorium has always being conditional on legislative changes based on the Royal Commission's recommendations being implemented first. Our top priority has always been to ensure the health and safety of the New Zealand public and the integrity of the New Zealand environment.

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After close examination of the legislative and regulatory developments made by the Government in this area, United Future's conclusion is that the already existing environmental regulations - in combination with the New Organisms and Other Matters Bill currently before parliament and the Government's response to the independent review of the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) - are more than up to the job of safeguarding public health and environmental wellbeing. We are also satisfied the safeguards will ensure there is little or no damage to New Zealand's clean green image and our export markets.

Our confidence in the Government's legislative and regulatory efforts regarding GM is not simply a matter of faith. The impetus behind the New Organisms and Other Matters Bill currently making its way through parliament is the 49 recommendations made by the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification.

After an exhaustive process including more than 10,000 written submissions, 13 weeks of formal hearings involving more than 100 stakeholders and nearly 300 witnesses, and following terms of reference that even the Green Party agreed to, the Royal Commission made 49 recommendations for ensuring the regulatory processes governing the use of GM technology are as robust as possible. Following the release of the report containing these recommendations, the Government instigated a moratorium to allow sufficient time for these recommendations to be developed into legislation and implemented. This moratorium was imposed purely in the interests of caution - the Royal Commission itself never suggested the need for a moratorium.

It is United Future's view that much of the debate over whether the GE moratorium should be lifted on 29 October is based on misinformation and political opportunism. The efforts by Dr Nick Smith and Jeanette Fitzsimons to whip up controversy over the Corngate Inquiry are a case in point.

It is interesting to note that a large proportion of those directly affected by the lifting of the moratorium support it. Federated Farmers, for example, fully and explicitly supports the lifting of the moratorium. They favour the principle and application of gene technology within agriculture as long as there are suitable safeguards in place to protect human health and the environment. The dairy giant Fonterra is also strongly supportive and has in the past threatened to take its own biotechnology research operations to Australia if permanent restrictions are imposed on GM here.

One argument against lifting the moratorium is the claim that GM has adverse affects for organic farmers. These claims have not diminished even in the face of complex case-by-case measures for ensuring the secure coexistence of GM and non-GM crops. It is a simple fact, however, that GM and organics are not mutually exclusive. Many GM crops are engineered for their resistance to pesticides, insecticides, insects or diseases, resulting in less use of chemical sprays and less incidence of disease and parasites - something organic farmers should favour. For example, in the cotton growing areas on the Queensland / New South Wales border, innovative organic production systems lie side by side with GM cotton production. The significant reduction in sprays associated with good pest control makes neighbouring a GM cotton farm a preferable option for the organic farmers.

The reason for these kinds of claims is a basic misconception in what GM actually is. Just because something has been genetically modified does not mean it has any particular characteristics that are inherent only to GMOs. A GMO is effectively a new strain or species of an existing organism. Thousands of closely related organisms already exist in nature and more are being created all the time due to subtle, random accidents of birth. GMOs just increase this number, but rather than these changes being random as in nature they are specifically chosen for their beneficial characteristics.

GM is, in effect, properly a biosecurity issue - complex and in need of stringent monitoring but nothing more than that. The key lies in what an organism has been genetically modified to actually do - and checking this out is what field trials are for.

Another claim often made by GM opponents is that GM products have been widely rejected overseas. Claims like those made by Jeanette Fitzsimons that "The wheels are falling off the genetic modification bandwagon...All over the world, the industry promoting this ill-understood and poorly researched technology is falling apart...Monsanto last year lost $1.7 billion on sales of $4.7 billion" are shameful misrepresentations of the big-picture. In fact, if you look at Monsanto's six-month result to July 2003 you can see that their quarterly sales figures, net income and US acreage for Monsanto's biotech traits have actually improved markedly.

Likewise, the European Union is moving ever closer to allowing widespread adoption of GM technology. In the absence of hard scientific evidence that GM can have actual real world adverse effects on human health or the environment, the European Commission is refusing to allow EU member states to put up permanent legislative barriers to the adoption of GM in agriculture. Just recently the European Commission blocked an attempt by a region in Austria to turn itself into a statutory GM-free zone. And although there has been a EU moratorium on GM crop approvals since 1998, it is expected to be lifted this year once rules on safety and labelling come into force.

Africa is another example. At last year's Earth Day summit in Johannesburg most of the people protesting against genetic modification were reportedly from well-fed European/Western nations. It is interesting to note that at the same time there were counter protests being held by poor African farmers pleading for the world not to deny third-world nations the opportunity to adopt the latest technologies and enjoy the benefits of GM agriculture if they so choose. A shameful footnote to this is recent examples of some African governments refusing to allow the distribution of donated grain to help alleviate famine because of claims by some NGOs that it could be GM and is therefore dangerous. As dangerous as starving to death?

No new technology comes without risk - but what in life does? United Future believes that the new and existing regulations governing the use of GM technology in New Zealand are sufficiently robust to manage that risk and to enable New Zealanders to move forward and embrace the opportunities it might bring.

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