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Science has a vital role in a GE-Free NZ

The debate over the moratorium on GM field trials is as much about ethics as it is science and commerce, and is reflected in The Royal Commission report which decided a ban on GM would not be in the national interest. Instead the Commission proposes a cautious approach to introducing genetic technologies, highlighting areas of scientific uncertainty, legal and regulatory change, and progress on Treaty of Waitangi issues needed to guide the process. The Commission's rejection of a ban on GM has disappointed some supporters of the GE-Free campaign, but it demands the broader community define how GM can be acceptably applied.

It is ironic that New Zealand's reliance on agriculture, forestry and tourism are the concerns cited by promoters of GM field tests as well as by GE-Free supporters opposing such trials. Major differences in perspective centre on three areas: their vision of science's role in the knowledge economy; shaping a regulatory system that finds an ethical balance between competing interests; and maintaining the rights of consumers to choose.

Fears that extending the GM moratorium will drive away scientist may be real, but only if government and business fail to reassure the scientific community with a vision of how science fits with our clean-green marketing image. The Royal Commission recommended the development of a long-term strategy for science and technology, and this must be integrated within an overall vision for a New Zealand that increasingly operates as a "brand" in the global marketplace. Incidents such as the threat of a 'Kiwi boycott' by Ansett employees, and the rumblings reported from New York about our opposition to terrorism, have shown how vulnerable our international image is to negative sentiment. As a food-producer, market signals from around the world must be recognised and guide the application of science as it does other activities.

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The preference for non-GM food, whether conventionally produced or organic, is a market signal that Fonterra and other manufacturers ignore at their peril. Even the Rosalin Institute, originators of Dolly the cloned sheep, have announced a move away from GM agricultural research to focus on biomedical applications, because of consumer rejection of the technology in food. This may change in coming decades, but gambling on field trials for applications that currently have no demand, and risking irreversible contamination, is hardly "preserving our opportunities". This is true for forestry as it is for food: Japanese buyers have already warned that timber from GM trees such as those with copies of a human gene being tested in New Zealand, will be 'culturally' unacceptable.

But this is not the dawn of the new dark-age feared by pro-GM industries. Rather it is a challenge to all of us to identify the ethical uses of a powerful technology that in our search for benefits, must not harm or deny the choice of others. Scientific expertise is vital to develop uses that can be ethically applied in containment and to enhance our knowledge of natural systems. New Zealand must take the opportunity to clearly differentiate itself as a producer of sustainable and "clean" technological solutions.

Identifying sheep genetically resistant to facial eczema is one example of benefits that do not require transgenic animals or an environmental release. Multi-million dollar companies like Genesis Research are proof that successful enterprise can be based on knowledge and applications inside the lab. Growers applying IPM (Integrated Pest Management) systems, and the organic industry are calling out for more scientific research as recommended by the Royal Commission.

The Commission has also recommended a new Bioethics Council and identifies the lack of research on risks from horizontal gene transfer as an area demanding work before the trial or release of GM trees. But it is unclear about how that research can be ethically conducted. There is scientific concern that field trials cannot be prevented from contaminating the soil and environment. A breach of containment with GM fruit trees has already required test-fields to be sterilised. Though much of this research is publicly-funded the financial benefits from patenting genes moves the field-trial issue into the commercial arena. Ethical debate about what is a 'reasonable' risk from trials must be understood in the context that some moderating influences on business are absent, particularly the requirement for commercial insurance to cover strict liability for damage from GM.

The issue is one of collective versus individual responsibility. Scientific uncertainty about the impact of GM is viewed by commercial insurers as incalculable, rather than 'high' or 'low' risk. There are parallel issues in the difference between individual patients who themselves accept the risk of a medicine, and the more contentious use of GM in the mainstream supply of food that everyone must eat.

The question of co-existence of GM releases with conventional and organic production is central to the system suggested by the Royal Commission requiring MAF to develop a strategy for each region and each crop to impose separation distances and limit cross-contamination. Disputes between farmers choosing different systems will be hard to resolve, but for many consumers the more fundamental issue is the right to choose. The accidental spread through the US food system of Starlink GM corn, (approved only for animal feed because of concerns about allergies in people), shows that no system is perfect. With industry promising more powerful GM uses to create 'nutriceuticals' such as bananas with a built-in vaccine, questions need to be answered about how such foods can be controlled so they don't end up in the wrong country, or on the wrong plate at the wrong dinner table.

Even supporters of GM admit contamination will occur and have suggested all consumers accept a level of up to 1% GM in both conventionally-produced and organic food. This would effectively deny consumers the right to choose not to eat GM food. Is it really any wonder that market resistance is growing?

- Jon Carapiet is a Researcher and Brand consultant. He was a witness and spokesperson for GE-Free NZ at the Royal Commission on GM.

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