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Fitzsimmons' Noom Bill 3rd reading speech

Noom Bill 3rd reading speech

Jeanette Fitzsimons MP, Green Party Co-Leader

This final debate on the New Organisms and Other Matters Bill is like the final act of an inexorably unfolding Greek Tragedy. The protagonists push ahead blindly on their predestined paths, deaf to the cries of the chorus and the forebodings of the consequences that could follow.

The audience can only watch and warn - having done everything possible to wake the characters from their sleep, to jolt them into awareness of the destiny awaiting them, to no avail. And the audience is angry, because it is their future, their children, their economy, health and environment that are being put at risk.

As I keep saying, this is the Bill that makes the lifting of the moratorium operational. Without this bill we wouldn't need a moratorium. There would be no release because the Government now knows that no GE organism could meet the minimum standards for release in the Act as it stands.

The warnings have continued and amplified ever since the curtain went up. The evidence accumulates that the risks are real. Since the Royal Commission ended there has been no good news for GE.

The Greek chorus includes scientists who warn that the process of genetic engineering is random, uncontrolled, and the organisms that result are likely to be unstable and are certainly unpredictable. We know from laboratory work that they are capable of producing new toxins and allergens. We know from the UK three-year field trials that they can have damaging effects on wildlife. We know from the few tests done on soil that the Bt toxin remains in soil for many months after the plant is dead. We know we need far more work on soil, as the Royal Commission itself said, before we will know what we are doing. We know that the Glyphosate herbicide without which the herbicide resistant crops won't grow has health risks and exposes crops to a much greater risk of fusarium mould.

But this Government hasn't listened to the independent scientists, only to those who work for industry.

There are economists in the Greek chorus too; more recently arrived than the scientists but with a warning we should heed. We have the BERL report that states clearly that reduction in market demand for our agricultural exports because of market resistance to GE will have a much greater impact on the NZ economy as a whole than any productivity increase that might be postulated for GE crops. You need a really huge productivity increase to outweigh a small reduction in market demand through consumer resistance. Yet we know that consumer resistance is real and productivity gains are still hypothetical.

We have the University of Otago Trust and Country report that warns that the prospect of genetically modified farm animals producing milk or meat for food, and the feeding of such animals on genetically modified pasture plants provokes an almost universal highly negative reaction.

But the Government is not listening to economists. The Treasury even changed the conclusions of the BERL and Lincoln reports to fit their story.

Another group to emerge from the audience is the media. Over recent weeks the Herald, the Dominion and the Sunday Star Times have editorialised that we should hold off on the release of GE. It is just too soon to be sure of its effects. We can wait, and learn from the mistakes of other countries. They are clearly persuaded more by the economists than by the scientists, but we should not forget that the economics of GE is only bad because the science is bad. Consumers know there are risks to health; markets know that consumers know; and economists know that markets know.

The HSNO Act is supposed to be about risk management. That is a dangerous approach to take when the risks you are supposed to be managing cannot be known and are unpredictable. But if we are to get involved in risk management we should listen to those who specialise in it, and whose money is on the line if they get it wrong.

The insurance industry has popped its head up in the chorus and said they will not insure against the risks of GE because it is not possible to do the actuarial calculations. It is up there with SARS, terrorism, and nuclear mishaps - the potential consequences are so large and the probability of them occurring so impossible to calculate that there is no way of setting a realistic premium. So they will not insure at all. The Minister said today they will change that position very soon once there is some operating experience. But there is seven years operating experience of some crops overseas and it hasn't changed the information we have about the likelihood of catastrophe at all.

Surrounding those expert voices in the chorus are the people of NZ. They have been telling the Government for years that they do not want GE released outside a contained laboratory. This is not a public reaction like yesterday's flash in the pan on the Supreme Court Bill, whipped up by a last minute campaign which couldn't even get a respectable number of signatures on a petition and had to resort to misinformation on a radio station to make the public angry. That storm will be gone as quickly as it arose.

No: on genetic engineering the public has been committed and vocal for years, and increasingly well informed. They were committed four years ago when 92,000 of them signed my petition for an enquiry and a moratorium. They were still committed three years ago when 11,000 of them made personal written submissions to the royal commission, 92% of them opposed to release outside the laboratory, which were simply ignored.

They were still committed in September 2001 when some 10,000 marched in the streets of Auckland in the rain. And again in November 2002 when a similar march in Auckland showed that people hadn't changed their minds. And now, last weekend, at least 15,000 - some say 25,000 - marched in Auckland again, as well as thousands in four other cities, determined that the blind and deaf players in the tragedy should hear their voices.

That was possibly the largest march ever in New Zealand's history. I am aware of none larger even in the days of Vietnam, the nuclear issue or the Springbok tour. Queen St was full from Customs St to Myers Park and still they came. They came with enormous creativity and hope that even at this stage the Government would listen. They came with banners, with costumes, with children and animals, they came to celebrate all that they hold dear and to plead with this Government not to put it at risk.

Maori are particularly aghast at the process of genetic engineering which is disrespectful of life, of whakapapa, of the living things to which we are all related. This bill throws them a crumb, by legislating for what already exists - Nga Kaihautu, the advisory committee to ERMA, which has no decision making power and is not even appointed on the nominations of Maori and cannot even elect its own chair. At one stage the committee favoured making at least those two small changes but in the end they were not supported by government members.

But the tragedy grinds on, impervious to the growing sense of the awful destiny that could be waiting for us.

There were many opportunities for the Government to listen and make changes without losing face. Amendments have been moved to extend the moratorium for five years; to strengthen the precautionary principle in the Act; to exempt food from the moratorium; to continue the cautious approach to living vaccines that might live in the soil when excreted by animals; to extend strict liability to cover cases where the law is not broken but the organism turns out to be dangerous; the Government in its arrogance has rejected all of them.

The only amendment of substance they accepted was my proposal to require ERMA to consider the economic costs as well as the benefits. That such an amendment should be necessary is a good illustration of how little was known about this technology when the Act was drafted in 1996. It was assumed that economic effects could only be positive. We know better now and I am glad that at least this amendment was accepted.

It was interesting to see the Progressives breaking ranks with their Labour coalition partner and voting to extend the moratorium. It is significant that Labour cannot get the support of its coalition partner on this and I commend the Progressives for taking a stand, though it was most disappointing they chose not to speak on any stage of the Bill, even to alert us to the existence of their amendments. But what is most interesting in the voting on this Bill is the Grand Coalition. It should be a warning to Labour how far they have moved that their position is now so close to National and Act and so far from the Greens and from their own coalition partner.

It has been a feature around the world that when there is a highly significant anti-Green issue, the right and the left close ranks to push it through. I had thought better of this Labour Government but I have been disappointed.

But I have news for them. Labour's big objective is to get GE off the political agenda and off the electoral agenda. The game is to pass all decisions to ERMA, an unelected quasi-judicial "expert" committee so that when they go wrong the Government will not be to blame. They will not succeed in that. Labour will be held accountable by the people for any harm that comes from the release of GE and it will haunt them for the rest of their political future.

In the meantime, I want to pay tribute to all the people who have raised public awareness and done everything they can to alert the Government to the risks they are taking. I want to thank everyone who has marched, who has made submissions, who has visited their MP, who has written letters and postcards, who has voted on the take5 website and on the numerous other petitions that are circulating.

I want to thank Greenpeace, GE Free NZ, the Sustainability Council, Friends of the Earth, Madge, Purefoodnz, Zespri, Enza, Sanitarium, the church groups, the organic farmers, and all those who made submissions on the Bill.

Contrary to what you might think tonight we have a lot to celebrate. We have made GE a front page issue. We have delayed release into the environment and the NZ food chain to the point where much more information is available and the mood of ERMA is more cautious. I don't believe they will ever allow the release of canola after the overseas experience of pollen spread for kilometres. Release of canola almost occurred in 1999 but Monsanto thought better of its application at the last minute. I believe that delay means canola is one crop we will never have to face here. The longer we can delay, the more overseas experience will help us.

This bill is not the end. There is a strong public movement that will not go away. We will oppose every release into the environment, while welcoming all that biotechnology can do for us in a contained lab. We will continue to tell the stories from overseas. We will continue to be a watchdog on ERMA. We will continue to challenge the Government. We will fight in Parliament, in the fields and on the streets until people stop messing with the fundamental processes of life itself.

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