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Q+A Panel: In response to Metiria Turei interview

Q+A 29 September, 2013


Hosted by SUSAN WOOD

In response to METIRIA TUREI interview

SUSAN Welcome back, and welcome to the panel this morning: political scientist Dr Bryce Edwards from Otago University; Heather Roy, former ACT MP and minister and now head of the pharmaceuticals lobby group Medicines New Zealand; and Simon Wilson, who’s the editor of Metro Magazine. Good morning to you all. Did you know – quick question, because I certainly didn’t until we started to do the research around this – Simon, 57 varieties of GM food permitted in New Zealand and Australia?

SIMON That’s right. It’s quite a lot, isn’t it?

SUSAN Did you know it was that many?

SIMON I didn’t know it was that many.

SUSAN Heather, did you?

HEATHER No, no, I didn’t.

SUSAN No. Bryce?

BRYCE No, and I think it’s because the heat’s gone out of the issue and people aren’t that worried about it anymore. So we buy it in the supermarkets. We don’t necessarily grow it much here, but, yeah—

SUSAN What's the coffee—? We don’t grow it at all here. What's the coffee cup about? I know you’ve got a prop there you’re gripping on to.

BRYCE It’s a soy latte I just bought on the way to the show. It’s got no labelling on it about whether it has GM in it, but I did check and Starbucks told me no, there's no GM in this. But this is one of the gripes of the Greens – takeaway products don’t have to be labelled with GM. I wouldn’t care anyhow. I’ll drink it quite happily anyway.

SUSAN Well, that is a point, too. Because, Heather, there is no science. Most of the science seems to be no evidence of any health risks, but then how conclusive is that science?

HEATHER Well, look, I’m with the science, and I think that MPI will be cognisant of those factors. And interesting – Metiria just dismissed the science. “There might be science to support it,” she said, “but we don’t really care about that.” Actually, I do care about the science. If it’s safe, it does set our minds at rest. If it’s not safe, then yes, it is something we need to worry about. So the science is hugely important.

SUSAN I think the argument, Simon, is a right to know what's in your food argument that Metiria was putting up.

SIMON Yes, it is, and it is hard to argue that we don’t have a right to know what we’re eating. Of course that’s true. It’s really interesting listening to Metiria, though, because she didn’t go to the science at all. Heather’s right. She said there might be some. But, you know, you would have expected somewhere in that whole process she would have said, “Look, here’s some evidence that we need to take account of.” Unfortunately, it’s very hard to talk about this issue without talking about Agent Orange or without showing scary photos of dark corn growing in the field, as if something’s going to jump out of them. The science— Heather’s quite right about this. The science isn’t up in the air. The science is very conclusive. There are no reputable bodies anywhere in the world who think this is still something that we need to be investigating. The science is done and dusted. What we’re talking about is that right to know as a principle, but in practice, GMO is not a significant issue. And when Metiria said that, you know, they’d been told by the health authorities that monitoring isn’t on their priority list, it shouldn’t be on their priority list. There are far more important things to do about food safety in this country than GMO.

SUSAN Yeah, but, I mean, when you look at this stuff – and interesting – it’s processed, they’ve removed the DNA, they’ve removed the protein from the food. Why are we even eating it would be one of the things I’d be wondering. Heather.

HEATHER Well, the body breaks down compounds anyway, and so she talked about meat, but the animals are breaking down those compounds too. And, look, I think less than 1% something doesn’t have to be labelled more than it does, and it’s very hard to catch absolutely everything. You know, we can't see, we can’t predict where birds are going to fly and where the winds are going to blow. I mean, that might have an effect on the products that we’re eating. I think MPI have got it about right. I think consumers to have a right to know. MPI have put in place mandatory labelling to a certain level. Below that, where the safety exists, it isn’t necessary. And I think that New Zealanders are broadly in line with that. There's not a public outroar.

SIMON But I think if you're trying to imply that the GM process strips out the nutrient value of food, that isn’t true. The meat we eat that might have been raised on feed that is GM-modified – that meat is still full of nutrient value, and so on.

SUSAN I was talking about processed food, actually, with that comment. That’s the stuff that’s added to processed food.

SIMON It’s obvious that processed is healthier than processed food, but it doesn’t follow that processed food has no nutrient value.

SUSAN Any concerns about the TPP, Bryce, and – the trade agreement – the US saying, “Hey, we’re not in favour of GM labelling at all.”

BRYCE Mm, I mean, politics is a big factor in this, so it’s not just a scientific issue. I mean, that’s important, absolutely. It’s actually a political issue here, and that’s why the Greens are running with this at the moment, regardless of the TPP issue, which they are really pushing on. They are in trouble at the moment, the Greens, because we’ve got a new dynamic Labour Party that’s, at least in rhetoric, shifting leftwards, and that’s squeezing the Greens, so they have to find a new way to—

SUSAN You really think they’re shifting leftwards when you look at that economic team, which is a pretty right-looking economic team.

BRYCE Yeah, I think that’s a valid—

SUSAN David Cunliffe, David Parker, Shane Jones.

BRYCE I think, at least from the surface, David Cunliffe is a bit more left wing than Shearer was, and so this is a worry for the Greens, because the Greens have been to the left of the Labour Party. Now that’s going to squeeze them out, and so therefore they’re bringing back these reheated sort of policies from 10 years ago to try and get a unique selling point to say, “Well, this is an environmental issue.” So I think we’ll see the Greens moving a bit more back to sort of middle of the spectrum food-safety issues over the next year.

SUSAN I think it’s good politics for them, isn’t it?

HEATHER Yes, it is, and, look, Sue Kedgley was the go-to person on food, and when Sue left Parliament at the end of 2011, there's been nobody from the Greens who’s really picked up and run with those issues. But it is an issue that is a constituency issue for them.

SUSAN Because we do care about our food.

SIMON Yes, we do, and it’s good politics in the sense that we do care about them, but I don’t really think it helps the Greens’ cause long-term to be arguing positions that are not based on the science, because generally their ability to grow as a political party is going to be based around things that make sense to a lot of people. There are a lot of bigger issues that they could—

SUSAN I’ll pick you up on that, though, because I think they’re arguing a right to know, and I think that we have a right to know.

SIMON Yeah, they’re arguing the right to know about it in a very small corner of the issues where we have a right to know on.

HEATHER And, look, Kiwis want the right to know, and I agree with information being easily available. They also care about cost, and when things are imposed by a regulation that will hugely increase costs—

SUSAN Well, is there evidence that it will increase costs? That’s what MPI says. The MPI says if we have to report all of this, it will push the price of food up.

HEATHER It will push the price up, and, look, these things always hit those who are least able to support the increased cost.

BRYCE And the problem with the Greens is also that, kind of, this issue I don’t think does resonate with the public in a huge way, and instead it gives some of their detractors the opportunity to say, “Well, here’s the Greens again, banging on about, you know, what's in our food and telling the state to intervene—“

SUSAN But people do care. I mean, look at all the—

BRYCE They do, but—

SUSAN Look at the news cycle we’ve had with the food scares in China with our exports. People are very attuned to what's in our food.

BRYCE Yes, but when it comes to GM, the heat has gone out of the issue. I don’t think there's going to be people in the streets. Instead it’s going to be...

SUSAN But maybe that’s— We don’t know.

BRYCE The Greens are accused of scaremongering.

HEATHER And I think the Greens know that— Metiria would not say that this was a deal-breaker for them.

BRYCE Yeah, so that was very interesting.

HEATHER It was very clear that there are much high priorities for them than this.

BRYCE This is point-scoring.

HEATHER Today this might be a topic that people will listen to carefully, but will they change their vote on it? I doubt it.


SUSAN Alright, we’ll leave it there, panel, thank you.

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