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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 October, 2003, 13:57 GMT
NZ split as GM freeze expires
By Kim Griggs
Wellington, New Zealand

New Zealand's debate over Genetic Modification (GM) has returned to centre stage as a moratorium on releasing GM organisms into the environment expires.

The New Zealand Government has said the moratorium's ending on Thursday would not mean a rash of GM releases.

Billboard by Mothers against Genetic Engineering (Madge)
GMOs have attracted some dramatic opposition
But in a nation dependent on agriculture and simultaneously proud of its green credentials, opposition is not fading away. Some protesters have gone to dramatic lengths to make their point.

Mothers against Genetic Engineering, led by one of the former Thompson Twins, Alannah Currie, has produced a dramatic billboard showing a woman with four breasts being milked.

Last month the group stripped off their shirts in parliament to bare pink bras and anti-GM banners.

For GM supporters, the rationale for a commodity trading nation such as New Zealand is clear: its economy could suffer if the country did not explore the potential uses of genetic modification.

"Genetic modification is a complex scientific process, a technology that is evolving all the time. That is why we are moving cautiously, but it is important that we do not close off New Zealand from the potential benefits it may bring in medicine, science and agriculture," said Environment Minister Marian Hobbs.

But those on the other side of the divide argue just as ardently that New Zealand should not squander its clean, green image, nor its clean green lifestyle.

"We need to demonstrate to the government that New Zealand is the people's land, God's own country. The people don't want genetic engineering," said Felicity Perry, a spokeswoman for the anti-GE activists outside parliament.

Marian Hobbs.
The dawning of 30 October will not see paddocks being planted for GM crops
Environment Minister Marian Hobbs

"We represent the views of over 70% of New Zealanders. And I think that if the law doesn't adhere to what the people want then the people have to do something about it," she said.

To allow all to have their say, the Labour Government established a Royal Commission - the highest form of independent advice available to a New Zealand government - on genetic modification.

Since the Commission was set up in 2000, there has been a moratorium on applications for the release of GMOs.

In 2001, the Royal Commission recommended that New Zealand should proceed, with caution, after the strengthening of legislative safeguards. That legislation, which the government argues puts those safeguards in place, passed last week.

The new legislation will be administered by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA). Central to the amended legislation is a new category of "conditional" release for GMOs.

"This will allow ERMA to attach controls on a case-by-case basis to any approval to release new organisms," Marian Hobbs said.

Felicity Perry
We do not want genetically modified organisms in our environment, because once they are out there, they are out there
Felicity Perry, anti-GE activist

"ERMA will be able to specify where and how organisms are used. It will do this on a case-by-case basis because each organism is different and the circumstances of each release will be different too."

ERMA expects, at most, two applications for the conditional release of GMOs within the next eight months.

The government's reassurances, however, have failed to placate the many opponents to the end of the moratorium.

In parliament, the two members of the Labour-led government's junior coalition member, Progressive, invoked their right to vote against their senior partner and sided with the legislation's opponents.

Just after the legislation was passed, a petition with 55,000 signatures, calling for a five-year extension to the moratorium, was presented to Green MPs, the most staunch parliamentary opponents of GM.

A recent opinion poll showed that 53% of those polled did not have confidence in ERMA, 34% did have confidence, and 13% were unsure.

Carefully regulated

Even contained field trials, which have continued under the government's moratorium, are coming under intense scrutiny.

An application by Colin Eady, a scientist with the government-owned research institute Crop and Food for a contained field trial of genetically modified onions, has received 1,900 submissions, with 427 asking to be heard at the application's public hearing.

"As scientists nowadays, we just live with society's feelings and angst and in some ways I think that's how it should be," said Mr Eady.

But he stressed that "society has to be careful not to shut down science. You've got to get the balance between scientific endeavour and society, and anti-science and no science."

William Rolleston, chairman of the GM-friendly Life Sciences Network, thinks that for field trials, at least, the country's regulations might be too tough.

"It's still extremely cautious, and around the field trial-area is where I think it is over cautious, but we are just thrilled that there is a sound science-based regulatory system that is going to take us forward."

But Research, Science and Technology Minister Pete Hodgson argued the public participation was a sign the system would work.

"We've got a regulatory system in New Zealand that is determinedly the most precautionary, the most transparent - I think - in the world."

For those opposing the expiry of the moratorium, the fight is not over.

"We are going to keep putting pressure on the government that we do not want genetically modified organisms in our environment, because once they are out there, they are out there. You can't take it back," said Felicity Perry.

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