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GM Precautions in Place

For immediate release 23 October 2003
Announcement from the Royal Society of New Zealand

GM Precautions in Place

Two years ago, the Royal Society of New Zealand, this country's science and technology society, took a long hard look at the science and social science of Genetic Modification. The results of what the Society thought then, and summaries of what other groups said to the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, can be found at At that time we said that more safeguards were needed before any release of a genetically modified organism should be contemplated. We didn't give any time frame to put them in place, but subsequently the government announced a two-year moratorium, due to finish at the end of October.

New Zealand's Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act requires the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) to take the need for caution into account. When it comes to questions on risk and uncertainty, there is no doubt we need to be careful, but HOW careful? Views expressed around the country seem to imply that caution lies anywhere from the emergency brake to second gear. A review of the conditions laid down by the Royal Society and what has been done to date is given below.

1. Overall, the Royal Society wanted to see a stronger consultation, control and administrative framework. What we see now is that the changes coming through the New Organisms Bill (now going through parliament), combined with the recent review of ERMA, do provide a stronger process of consultation, control and administration. In particular ERMA can impose a wide range of conditions on release into the environment, including post-release monitoring.

2. We asked that legislation and/or regulations should include not just scientific risk assessment, but also include cultural, ethical and social issues and concerns at both the research and field trial levels. We do now find that the requirements on both ERMA and the Minister to consider such issues have been strengthened. In particular the Government established the Bioethics Council specifically to advise the Minister on spiritual, cultural and ethical issues. The degree to which that advisory role has an impact on decisions by ERMA and the Government is of course yet to be tested.

3. We wanted to reduce red tape on the construction and importation into containment of low-risk GMOs, more clearly prescribe the steps needed for research and field trials, and establish a science panel to advise ERMA and research institutions on questions of containment. The red tape is being reduced, and a science panel now turns out not to be needed, as containment conditions are already in line with internationally agreed standards.

4. We wanted a good monitoring system in place before any GMOs were released. With the changes in legislation, the New Organisms and Other Matters Bill ensures that ERMA will be able to require effective monitoring and reporting of results to the appropriate authorities.

5. We thought that those benefiting from the use of GM technologies should have to meet the costs of any adverse consequences of commercial release. The Law Commission was asked to look at this, and concluded that current laws are adequate. In fact, ERMA's penalty provisions also ensure that there is an incentive to comply with release conditions.

6. We noted that, inherent in the concerns expressed by Maori is the question of who decides on GM matters. Where non-negotiable beliefs were held, we wanted them to be heard. We are satisfied that the ERMA process now provides opportunities for all views to be taken into account, however, no one group should have the power to either veto or force the release of GMOs into the environment.

7. We noted a sense of disenfranchisement in respect to intellectual property rights. In particular, Maori are concerned that rights (both spiritual and financial) to customary knowledge about native flora and fauna could be lost through the use of intellectual property law. We also noted that, where ownership of the genetic resource is asserted, ownership must be resolved. Two years later we do see some progress on the Wai262 claim on Maori ownership of indigenous flora and fauna, and accept that this complex issue will take time to resolve.

8. Lastly, we asked that, where risks are apparent, both the probabilities and the individual/group perceptions of risk must be weighed. It is important that in making its decisions ERMA should use comprehensive understandings of risk and take account of a diversity of cultural and ethical understandings among New Zealanders. This remains a subjective area, however, where statistical assessments of risk must be supplemented by methods for dealing low probability catastrophic events. Risk must also include the dimension of public trust in the system and institutions entrusted with the decisions. Assessment of economic risk will entail the development of transparent and defendable criteria by which ERMA can assess the economic costs and benefits.

One last thing we suggested was that the Act at some stage be split into two parts, to deal separately with Hazardous Substances and New Organisms. That wasn't done, and wouldn't affect the conditions we set, but over the longer term it would make administration of this complex area simpler to understand and operate. As it stands, the revised Act contains a number of patches which make it difficult to follow.

Overall, the Royal Society welcomes the improvements in the conditions it wanted to see met before release of GMOs. Many scientists do not see any significant science problems yet with GMOs, but that doesn't mean that there won't be any. The Society sees no scientific need to continue with a blanket ban of release, but we continue to see a need for careful case-by-case assessment. We welcome the increased attention to safeguards against adverse effects and we recognise the need to attend, not just to the science issues in this field, but also the social, economic, cultural and ethical aspects of the use of GMOs.


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