New GE legislation: corrupted at its foundations
Peter R Wills
Theoretical Biologist Department of Physics, University of Auckland
1 The Report of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification (RCGM) is corrupted by bias in favour of pro-GE industry.
2 The RCGM failed to uphold proper norms of conduct at its hearings.
3 Potentially false claims made by the Report of the RCGM must be clarified.
4 The Commission established an inappropriately close and permissive relationship with counsel for pro-GE groups.
5 The Commission accepted false representation from the pro-GE Life Sciences Network (LSN) lobby group.
6 There should be a formal inquiry into the matter of whom the LSN falsely claimed to represent to the RCGM. 7 The government’s reliance on the findings of the RCGM has led New Zealand down a path that represents neither a balanced scientific understanding of genetic engineering (GE) nor the best interests of the majority.
8 The government should act immediately to ensure that the unique scientific resource of GE sheep in the Waikato is not destroyed.
Now that the government has passed into law its confidence in the perceived completeness and fairness of the Report of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification (RCGM), it is time to take a close look at the background to its decisions.
In this essay I draw on my personal experience with the Royal Commission and other governmental processes in order concretely to illustrate my claims. This should not be interpreted as personal pleading, rather that I have extensive knowledge of the politics and regulation of genetic engineering (GE) in New Zealand since I first took on the role as a critical commentator more than fifteen years ago.
Bias in the Report
Nowhere in the Report of the RCGM is the general bias toward pro-GE industry so evident as in the short “special topic” discussions that are sprinkled through it (in green shaded boxes). Topics covered include (i) poisoning with GE-derived L-tryptophan, (ii) rice engineered to produce vitamin A (“yellow rice”) and (iii) the effect of GE pollen on bees. The uniform tone of these discussions in the Report is that critics of GE have made claims of deleterious effects, but these have been exaggerated and, on balance, no harm has ever been proven. The Commission felt a special need to rebut claims from GE critics and went so far as to make unsourced assertions that no-one can substantiate concerning the alleged safe GE production of L-tryptophan in the 1980s. The claims of the Commission appear to be fabricated. At the very least, important norms for the presentation of evidence were not adhered to. The potentially false claims of the RCGM must be clarified.
If the RCGM Report had been balanced it would have had at least one special discussion of disputed claims by proponents, rather than opponents, of GE. For example: was there any truth to the criticisms made to the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) opposing the application of PPL Therapeutics (the “Dolly” makers) to breed thousands of GE sheep in New Zealand?
PPL is now closing up shop because it has gone bust. In 1998 it was on the crest of a stock-market wave and its executives showed ERMA pictures of cute little girls with blond hair. PPL would help to save their lives by breeding GE sheep in the Waikato. A small group of scientists, including myself, tried to persuade ERMA that it was a commercial racket, that there was no real prospect of a genuine medicine being produced and that PPL’s claims were highly exaggerated. ERMA did not take our advice and newspapers have since refused to publish our account of what occurred. It is now confirmed that we were correct. PPL has gone under because German giant Bayer has pulled out of a deal to develop and market the protein from the Whakamaru sheep as a pharmaceutical product. It is not worth trying, just as we said five years ago. The thousands of transgenic sheep are expected to be slaughtered.
In relation to L-tryptophan the Commission was interested in answering critics on behalf of proponents of genetic engineering and may have fabricated evidence to support its case. However it displayed no reciprocal obligation to rebuff pro-GE exaggeration about transgenic sheep and did not even discuss allegations that have since been proven to be true. Like ERMA, it accepted the industry point of view almost without question and then regurgitated it as truth.
Relationship between RCGM and pro-GE lobby
The relationship between the Commission and the pro-GE lobby was so cosy that when I testified to the Commission on behalf of seven groups critical of many applications of GE I was not even informed who it was that the lawyer cross-examining me represented. I knew he was being paid, at least in part, by the Life Sciences Network (LSN), but for all I knew he could also have had the backing of the University Vice Chancellors’ Committee, a body that had apparently formed a loose association with the LSN for the purposes of their representation before the RCGM. I wonder if the Commissioners knew or even cared which “Interested Persons” LSN counsel Mark Christensen actually represented that day when I was cross-examined. I doubt that he even knew himself. If he had known he would probably have been committing an act akin to perjury, because on other occasions the Life Sciences Network declared to the Royal Commission that it was making submissions on behalf of the University of Auckland when it was not. The same may have been true of other groups it claimed to represent. An inquiry into the matter should be instituted immediately.
Failure of RCGM processes
The status of Interested Person was very important to the RCGM and it was very selective in according that status. Many bodies that were said to be members of the Life Sciences Network were given Interested Person status and Mr Chistensen appeared to be representing them. Thus, when he spent more than an hour attempting to undermine the credibility of my testimony it was a matter of some concern to me that he seemed to be representing the University of Auckland, my employer. The Commissioners showed no compunction about their processes being used by an employer indirectly to attack an employee. Not even ex-Chief Justice Eichelbaum seemed to think that ordinary principles of fairness would be needed to set limits on the proceedings he chaired. As things turned out what occurred that day soured my relationship with my employer for a considerable period and it has improved only recently since I have accepted that the University of Auckland is genuinely prepared to defend the academic freedom of its staff even when expression of that freedom may conflict with the university’s commercial interests.
Mr Christensen approached me after his cross-examination and said that he hoped I had not taken his attack on my credibility personally, adding that it was “all part of the game”. He had taken up the Commission’s time parading comments of mine about the Security Intelligence Service and suggesting that my primary concern in relation to GM is that it promotes the globally dominant economic ideology. I considered these antics, allowed by Chairman Eichelbaum, to be a waste of time, especially in terms of the aims of the Commission, but it was obviously not a waste of time for the LSN. Their web site now says that the Commission considered what I had to say but discounted it. While the RCGM did not discount altogether what I said, there is very little evidence in their Report to suggest that they made any serious attempt to come to terms with the scientific arguments about the complexity of biological systems that formed the main body of my scientific testimony.
Importance of credibility
In the final analysis the RCGM had to decide which points of view had greater credibility than others and they had to make those judgements on the basis of the expert clout that competing claimants could muster. The question of whether the Life Sciences Network represented the University of Auckland, the country’s largest and perhaps most prestigious academic institution, is an important one. If the LSN had the weight of the University of Auckland behind it then the claims that it made and the substance of what it sought to establish in cross-examination would have to be given considerable weight. As it happens, the RCGM made its judgements believing that what the LSN had achieved at hearings had the weight of the University of Auckland’s approval when it did not. Submissions filed by the LSN claimed falsely to have been made on behalf of the University of Auckland (* References to documents are supplied below).
Conflation of interests
One of the people who could perhaps have detected the falsehood of the Life Science Network’s representation to the Royal Commission was Brendan Brown, a Queen’s Counsel from the Crown Law Office. He vetted bodies who requested Interested Person status and he gave advice to the Royal Commission concerning whom they should accept. It appears that the Life Sciences Network was not required to substantiate that its list of member bodies was true and correct, in spite of the enormous weight it claimed should be given to its point of view, representing a consensus of academic, governmental and industrial institutions. It was perhaps my characterisation of this grouping of biotech interests as reminiscent of the “military-industrial complex” and nuclear interests that gave Mark Christensen the chance to try and brand me as an idealogue who should not be taken seriously.
I found it curious later to be cross-examined by Brendan Brown, acting for the Crown, when I testified to the Waitangi Tribunal on behalf of the Wai262 claimants for whom I had testified to the RCGM. Much of my testimony to the Waitangi Tribunal concerning the relationship between scientific ideas and matauranga Maori was identical to that which I had presented to the RCGM and the Crown’s cross-examination of me went down a similar path, culminating in my being asked about a report from the Times of London stating some of my views about MI6, the covert, illegal operation of Britain’s secret service in foreign countries. While it is not surprising that Brendan Brown was familiar with the outcome of my testimony to the RCGM, a body he had served, it seemed extraordinary that a person representing the Crown could align with interests and display a style of cross-examination so close to those of the Life Sciences Network, a private pro-GE lobby group. Both the LSN and the Crown introduced matters to do with intelligence agencies into discussions of national importance about genetic engineering, simply as a way of trying to discredit my testimony.
Continued government cosiness with pro-GE interests
The conflation of pro-GE and Crown interests is so profound that the government can no longer be considered to be capable of recognising how independence and balance should be achieved in the debate about genetic engineering. Nevertheless, it has proceeded to legislate as if the Royal Commission’s rhetoric of “proceeding with caution” and “preserving opportunities” reflected a scientifically sound, balanced and fair appraisal of what there was to be known about genetic engineering two years ago. What the government has done is simply continue with the RCGM’s bias toward pro-GE interests. I have it on authority that I take to be impeccable that pro-GE industry groups like Biotenz, the Siamese twin of the Life Sciences Network, have virtually daily access to Ministers and their departments. At the same time groups who are critical of applications of genetic engineering are routinely sneered at as “Luddite” whether or not they are scientifically competent. The government has set up a revolving door that swivels even faster than the one that became an icon when, during the Viet Nam war, advisers could move between the Pentagon and industry without raising an eyelid.
In 2000 Bill Falconer was the chairman of the Environmental Risk Management Authority, the country’s main regulatory body for genetic engineering. When he left that body he became the chairman of Biotenz, the biotech industry’s leading association. In that role, and others, he headed the government’s Biotechnology Taskforce that has just presented its report to government. In the space of three years Bill Falconer has served as head regulator of GE, chief industry representative and principal adviser to government on biotechnology. The third sentence of the Taskforce’s 64-page report to Pete Hodgson explains how the body talked “to industry, arms of government and international observers” but there is no mention of the 68% of the public who would prefer a continuation of the moratorium on the release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment.
Failure to support scientific approach
The usual claim of the government is that the great unwashed public have believed the fear-mongering propaganda of the anti-GE crowd who simply do not understand what is involved. The government on the other hand, or so we are supposed to believe, is committed to a rigorous scientific approach. We cannot make sensible decisions about applications of GE unless we put scientific investigation in front of emotion, politics and economics. However, when it comes to a globally unique opportunity to investigate possible effects of GE the government willingly squanders it, claiming its hands are tied. It is more important for Marian Hobbs to respect the rights of ownership of a firm that has driven itself cynically to the brink of bankruptcy than it is to ensure that we do not lose the chance to gather some of the most valuable data that could ever be collected about the effects of GE.
The government is standing by, and Marian Hobbs has written saying that she simply cannot do anything, while thousands of genetically engineered sheep are sent to destruction because PPL has gone under and can no longer pay to keep them. These are sheep, bred in New Zealand with ERMA’s approval, that have been genetically engineered to produce a human protein in their milk. In humans, the protein is produced in the liver and transported through the circulatory system to the lung. Serious questions have been raised, to the extent that Bill Falconer has telephoned me at my home to clarify my views on the issue, as to whether there could potentially be some potential link between the production of a human protein in sheep and the occurrence of prion-like disease, of which scrapie in sheep or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans are examples. I gave Bill Falconer an honest answer. The connection is possible, but a very long shot. What should we do when the outcome is potentially horrendous but we may have misapprehended its likelihood due to ignorance?
Any person with the power of a Minister of the Crown seriously interested in the scientific investigation of the effects of genetic engineering would never allow the destruction of a major resource such as the thousands of transgenic sheep at Whakamaru. Samples of the liver, blood, lung and brain of every sheep should be preserved for future investigation. It is doubtful whether there will be another opportunity in the next decade to obtain samples from such a large sample of individuals from the same transgenic population. The large population size allows the possibility of obtaining results and making comparisons at a level of statistical significance that has only been dreamed of by scientists engaged in researching the non-obvious effects of genetic engineering. The waste of this opportunity is a national scandal.
The Life Sciences Network, supposedly dedicated to a scientific understanding of genetic engineering, has remained silent. Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics wrote to Marian Hobbs but was rebuffed. Perhaps she would change her mind and do something if she heard from the government’s friends in the pro-GE lobby.
In New Zealand the investigation, regulation and legislation of matters concerned with genetic engineering is corrupt to the core. The celebrated Report of the RCGM on which the government raised its standard and has now passed a law is biased in favour of GE industry. The processes of the Commission were perverted by its acceptance of false representation from the pro-GE lobby with which it established far too much sympathy and to whose point of view it gave far too much weight. The government should look to its declared principles and ensure that some good comes from the failed PPL experiment in human-ovine transgenesis that ERMA approved. None of the government’s investigations into genetic engineering have reached the heart of what a large percentage of the population actually cares about.
The documents containing false claims made by the Life
Sciences Network to the Royal Commission on Genetic
Modification have been exhibited at: http://www.gmcommission.govt.nz/pronto_pdf/nzlsn/New%20Zealand%20Life%20Sciences%20Network%20Inc%20_Sub%20IP0024_.pdf