GM release a gamble not worth the candle (24/10/2003)

multiple items from New Zealand, including excellent letter (first item)
Joanna Goven: GM release a gamble not worth the candle
New Zealand HERALD, 24.10.2003

* Joanna Goven, a lecturer in political science at Canterbury University, is convenor of the Science and Technology Studies Network.

The Prime Minister, Helen Clark, consistently characterises her refusal to extend the moratorium on applications for the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment as "rational".

The Environment Minister, Marian Hobbs, derides those who oppose lifting the moratorium as Luddites who are anti-research. Decisions around GM need, she says, to be made with rational consideration.

But who is being irrational here? It is increasingly difficult to discern a rational argument for lifting the moratorium next Wednesday.

We have been told that lifting the moratorium is the only economically responsible path. But where is the evidence that pursuing a GM path will result in economic benefit?

We have spent millions building a clean, green image. Research carried out by Lincoln University for the Ministry for the Environment indicated that GM release would substantially devalue that brand.

It presented evidence that a significant proportion (25 to 37 per cent) of consumers in Australia, the United States and Britain (not even the most GM-hostile markets) would be less likely to buy our food products, even if the product in question were GM-free. Some would buy at a price discount, but most would not.

An even greater proportion of these consumers (about half) would be more likely to buy our food products if we decided not to release GMOs into the environment.

Is it rational to gamble away our existing market advantage, and forgo an even greater advantage, for the possibility of insect-resistant potatoes or herbicide-resistant onions - products that may not only be unwanted in our high-value target markets but that may devalue other products in those markets?

The arguments provided in favour of the economic benefits of GM rely heavily on hypothetical productivity gains. But even if these gains turn out to be real and long-term, productivity increases cannot be assumed to lead to higher overall returns on commodity markets, where increases in supply tend to produce lower prices.

When Monsanto, presumably rationally, withdrew from European cereals markets, an industry insider remarked: "If there's no market for something, you go elsewhere," and suggested the markets for GM food products lay in China, Southeast Asia and South America.

Is production for these markets a rational strategy for New Zealand to overcome its dependence on supply-vulnerable commodity prices?

The Government argues that lifting the moratorium is also essential to research in biotechnology.

It may be a way to enable some kinds of research into the effects of GMOs in the wider environment. But it is not essential to much other research - such as into important aspects of horizontal gene transfer, random-integration effects, and more precise and controllable insertion techniques - that is also necessary for understanding or mitigating the effects of GMOs in the environment. Nor is it essential to the wide range of other biotechnology applications that we could be pursuing in place of GM.

The Government has tried to justify its decision by referring to its funding of research, identified as necessary by the royal commission. But, as the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology has just acknowledged in its report on Government responses to the royal commission's recommendations, "the recent nature of the research ... makes it likely that the full results, and consequently their contribution to policy, will not be seen for some time".

Is it rational to lift the moratorium long before you have the results of research you have commissioned, which is relevant to decisions on whether to allow GMOs into the environment?

How will the Environmental Risk Management Authority's decisions be "robust" without this information? And is it rational to lift the moratorium before the authority's many deficiencies, identified in a Government-commissioned review, have been rectified?

Further, the Government's record of incorporating research findings into its decision-making in this area is poor. The Ministry of Research report notes Professor Brian Wynne's observation that, because of its size, New Zealand "appears to be capable of rapid assimilation of scientific research knowledge into policy thinking".

Yes, this assimilation can happen relatively readily, but it won't happen if the Government refuses to accept research findings that it does not like. And that has been its record.

For example, the Treasury's executive summary of the Lincoln report rejects or second-guesses the researchers' findings: it underplays projected gains from a no-release strategy and overplays projected gains from the commercial release of GMOs.

The Treasury's advice, embraced by the Cabinet, reflects only this reinterpretation of the evidence. Does this constitute rational consideration? Is it rational to discount potential risks as "unproven" but treat (unproven) potential benefits as money in the bank?

We are also told it is essential to our economic future that intellectual property in GM agriculture be developed here. But this has not been explained.

Intellectual property ownership is valuable only if there is a market for the products it generates - so, again, we are back to the absence of consumer demand for these products.

Development of intellectual property in other forms of biotechnology does not require environmental release.

Further, we have no evidence that intellectual property ownership - in a market characterised by takeovers of small intellectual property owners by larger ones - is likely to remain here.

Is it rational to sacrifice our existing agricultural and tourism market advantage for the advantage of intellectual property ownership that may well end up overseas? Where is the policy work to ensure that this does not happen?

We are told that extending the moratorium will lead to a drain in scientific expertise vital to a knowledge economy. Scientific expertise is diverse.

Expertise in GM is essential. But the vast majority of research using GMOs and commercial applications of GMOs never has to leave containment.

Only if the Government insists on a policy of directing funding towards research into development of GMOs intended for release does a moratorium threaten our scientific research capacity. And each public investment in GMO development has sacrificed expertise in other areas.

Where is the evidence that the expertise we may lose by extending the moratorium is any greater or more significant than the expertise we have been losing and will continue to lose by skewing funding towards those who develop GMOs for release?

Far from rational argument, what we have seen from the Government is an irrational failure to learn from mistakes.

It is not a comparison the Government welcomes. Its conduct recalls its British counterpart's handling of the risks of BSE: disregard unwelcome scientific advice; let emphasis on short-term economic "rationality" override early warnings of danger; exaggerate certainty and the ability to make "robust" decisions based on present knowledge; neglect the potential for societal and industry practices to generate risk; and vilify those who ask awkward questions or report inconvenient findings.

Perhaps it is time for the Government to stop characterising the public as irrational and start reflecting on the rationality of its own decisions.

* Joanna Goven, a lecturer in political science at Canterbury University, is convenor of the Science and Technology Studies Network.

Herald Feature: Genetic Engineering

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GM protesters end march

Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, who yesterday accepted a 55,000 signature petition calling for the genetic engineering moratorium to be extended, says she is heartened by continued opposition to GM release.

Her comments came after a protest march against the lifting of the GE moratorium ended at Parliament.

March spokesman Michael O'Donnell, from Hauraki, said about 24 protesters had left the Far North eight weeks ago and hundreds of people had joined them for part of the hikoi.

The marchers were not against genetic engineering outright, but they worried about the effect on native plants and the country as a whole.

The group spent an hour with Environment Minister Marian Hobbs explaining their position.


Herald Feature:
Biotech Companies Cause Havoc with GE contamination

New reports on GE contamination of the world's food system reveal that biotech companies are set on a path, which knowingly denies people the basic right to choose to avoid GE foods, despite their pretence to the contrary.

GE has contaminated Brazil to such a degree, that saved seed from the harvests and the land is polluted. The food industry's answer to the world's starving millions is to cut down the wonderful Amazon rain forest to plant crops that can be sold because they have not yet been contaminated as much as existing plantings.  Argentina is also facing the same problems of forest degradation and GE contamination with high levels of pesticides leaching into the whole ecosystem and affecting the health of farmers.

It appears that the four major countries growing GE can no longer find land or clean seed to meet the demand coming from all nations for GE Free foods. GE wheat, has been boycotted by the Canadians and other countries, since it is a clear threat to their export markets, yet the biotech industry continues to try and force the introduction anyway.

Co-existence has not worked on these vast continents, because of factors like insects that have, for instance, been shown to travel over 26 Km, the wind, and also basic human error. The US government revealed 20% of farmers were already failing to maintain regulatory controls placed on GE crops in the US.

New Zealand is a small island buffeted by winds and floods, so GE Free conventional and organic production will be threatened if environmental GE release continues. Birds carrying seeds will disperse them all over the country.

The biotech industry is also claiming they will feed the third world by selling their GE seed and chemicals. Food security experts from leading international charities have roundly rejected these claims, pointing to the fact that to date GE plants have lower yields and no cost advantage, except to the patent holder. Nevertheless poor farmers are misled into thinking the new miracle crops will make their lives better and conned into adopting them. If the farmer cannot pay the premium price their land is used as collateral. Thousands of Indian farmers have committed suicide as a result of such debt.  This unethical business practice by the biotech industry is in effect a corporate takeover of indigenous land throughout the world.

Africa, India and South America have found this to their detriment. New Zealand should be supporting these nations helping defend them against this attack, rather than siding with the multinational corporations. Instead of joining the US case against Europe at the WTO aimed at forcing people to accept GE, New Zealand should be standing up for the values and human rights the public holds dear.

"Lets not support the unethical practices of these companies. I hope New Zealanders will boycott the likes of Syngenta and Monsanto products, and buy locally made New Zealand goods." says Claire Bleakley of GE Free NZ in food and environment.

"This way a consumer moratorium will overcome the inability of government to abide by the democratic process.  We can then have safe GE Free foods for our families and clean seed for the future" says Ms Bleakley.

The Minister Marian Hobbs has guaranteed the public that no GE fresh foods will be on the market for at least ten years, if at all. It will be the vigilance of the people of New Zealand that will ensure this promise is kept.

Contact Claire Bleakley...... (06) 3089842
Anti-GE protest with a touch of class
Protesting is a civilised activity in Malborough.

A genteel salute to the protest from Annabel Langbein (left) and Jane Hunter. Picture / Mark Mitchell

What better place to push an anti-GM message than a winery, over samples of the finest wines and nibbles.

About 50 of the region's top winemakers and restaurateurs were at Hunters Vineyard yesterday to endorse purefoodnz, the anti-genetic modification campaign pushed by some of New Zealand's best-known foodies.

The campaign has toured other key areas of food and wine production before the lifting of the moratorium on GM next week.  It is a protest without placards or chants. And even the petitions - large glossy posters sporting flamboyant signatures of the who's who in food and wine - are suave.

The petitions will eventually be presented to Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Yesterday, in the finely manicured garden of her 24-year-old establishment, hostess Jane Hunter urged her fellow winemakers to hold dear the Wine Council's export boast proclaiming its wares to be "riches of a clean green land".

Her plea was backed by Annabel Langbein, top foodie and purefoodnz convener.

She reminisced about her childhood in the 1960s - a time when all food was good and New Zealanders enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the world.  She was passionate about the cause because she wanted her children and grandchildren to have the opportunity to enjoy delicious New Zealand foods and wines.

This campaign, she told the crowd, should be seen as the "voice of reason", with no political allegiance.

Scheduled speaker Jim Anderton, leader of the Progressive Party, was a last-minute no-show.

His party's new policy made it, though, and the message was delivered by Sustainability Council chairman Sir Peter Elworthy: "New Zealand should keep GM out of the paddocks and crops upon which we all so heavily depend."

It was preaching to the converted. The well-dressed crowd, many in hats and frocks worthy of the Melbourne Cup, were all in favour.

Their cars parked outside with number plates such as GEFREE and ORGANC gave the game away.

Food and wine writer Lauraine Jacobs criticised the Government's consultation process during the moratorium.

"I'm sure none of us have been asked to have our say. I have no idea how to get to talk to a select committee, and I don't think any of you do either.

"But we have a way of being heard through purefoodnz, and we must make damn sure we are heard."

Ms Jacobs said the end of the moratorium was not the time to give up.

Instead the anti-GM message from food producers must be continually brought to the attention of the politicians.

"It's not over. In fact the battle begins next Thursday."

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