The GE debate: does it still matter? (9/6/2007)

The GE debate: does it still matter?
The Press (Christchurch, New Zealand), 9 June 2007

A new field trial for a genetically modified crop has been approved. Does anybody care any more, or has the GE debate lost its momentum? PAUL GORMAN reports.

This is what all the fuss is about. Down chilly corridors smelling faintly of chemicals, through a twin-set of double doors requiring a special pass, and round a corner into a maze of glasshouses surrounded by security measures that the Crop and Food Institute at Lincoln requests not be described, for obvious reasons.

Lab coats are compulsory in here, along with plastic overshoes. There is no requirement for gloves, although you might, if you are from solidly anti-genetic-engineering (GE) stock, feel squeamish about touching anything. Certainly you have to wash your hands after exposure to the glasshouses containing the GE plants.

Sitting innocently on a bench in the middle of all these precautions are the GE brassicas – mostly forage kale and cauliflower– that have caused some people's blood to boil.

They certainly don't look like "Frankenstein foods", a phrase coined by the anti-GE Soil and Health Association that has ruffled the crown research institute's feathers. But they do look a bit spindly, a bit odd, with single stalks and a few leaves on the top. Research scientist Mary Christey says that is because they have been grown from tissue culture and were root-bound.

It is seeds from these plants and others that will be grown at a secret outdoor location in the 10-year field trial approved by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) on May 28. Christey's research group has been given the nod to assess the performance of four GE vegetable and forage brassicas – broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and forage kale – in a 0.4-hectare plot.

The brassicas have been modified in the laboratory, with a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis inserted into them to increase their resistance to caterpillar pests, such as the cabbage white butterfly and the diamond-back moth.

Erma has set down strict controls on the field trial to minimise the chances of GE material escaping from the site. Opponents at the April hearing in Christchurch were particularly concerned the brassicas could bolt and flower between visits by the researchers, releasing GE pollen into the environment.

The research team will have to prevent flowering, ensure all GE brassicas are removed and do not enter the human or animal food chain, and monitor the site for a year after the end of the trial to make sure no dormant GE plants sprout.

Elvira Dommisse was in her Spreydon garden tending her organic plants when she heard Erma had approved Christey's proposed field trial.

A biotechnologist and former Crop and Food scientist, Dommisse worked on the early stages of the institute's GE onion experiments before the current field trials began. She left because she says she found the work unrewarding and could not see it solving the problems some hoped it would.

"There was a message on the phone from Steffan Browning (of the Soil and Health Association)," she says of hearing the news. "I wasn't really surprised it went the way it did because Erma is kind of hamstrung they are a risk-management authority, not a `yes' or `no, you can't do that' authority, but one that has to manage risk and set conditions."

Christey was in Canberra on leave when the decision came out. Crop and Food senior communications adviser Leanne Scott rang to tell her the news.

"I was there, wondering when I was going to hear about it. I was rapt. I was unsure which way the decision would go and was prepared for it either way."

In the simplest terms, genetic engineering, or genetic modification (GM), is the manipulation of genes in an organism in a controlled way with the aim of improving some aspect of it. Agriculture has been the main focus for most GE work to date, with scientists working to develop plant strains that have an increased resistance to weather, insects and diseases.

Opponents of GE worry that those modifications will create potential dangers, including new diseases and toxins, new weeds and noxious vegetation, and may also harm wildlife and lead to possibly increased resistance to antibiotics from having genetically modified organisms in the food chain.

Erma received 959 submissions on the application - 941 against, 17 in support and one other. The hearing panel received and considered an initial evaluation report from Erma staff saying there would be minimal risk of adverse environmental effects and little chance of any adverse effects on human health and safety, on Maori and on the Treaty of Waitangi, given the controls proposed over the destruction of the plants. It was the 17th field-test application Erma has considered since it was set up in 1998. The agency has approved them all.

So, there's to be another field trial. Do we really care? Is GE a thing of the '90s, as the anti-nuclear cause was in the '80s and climate change is now?

The Green Party's co-leader, Jeanette Fitzsimons, believes GE remains a crucial issue for the country.

"People still do care very deeply about it. You can see that in that there were a lot of submissions strongly opposing this (Crop and Food) application for field testing. In fact, climate change and GE are both examples of humans thinking they know better than nature."

Crop and Food's research general manager, Prue Williams, agrees the GE issue has not been overshadowed.

"There are a lot of issues coming from science at the moment. Just because there's a new one like climate change doesn't mean GE has gone away at all."

From a marketing point of view, some see GE crops as a disaster. With New Zealand being a little niche market at the bottom of the world, why would we want to spoil that image, that point of difference?

Kiwi actor Sam Neill has waded into the argument in recent days, saying the Erma decision "beggars belief" and that while the trial might provide interesting science for a few, it is potentially disastrous for New Zealand farmers, exporters and the nation.

Fitzsimons considers the Erma decision is a classic case of "sending good money after bad".

"The main stupidity is it is putting a heap of research and talent down a blind alley."

However, scientists engaged in the work say it is necessary for New Zealand to keep up with GE research, in case modified crops are shown to have definite advantages.

Says Crop and Food's Williams: "The GE technology we use is a very important research tool worldwide. If New Zealand doesn't (pursue this), we'll fall behind. It (GE) gives us options for the future. We don't know where the research is leading us. It's important to take the science forward.

"Our GE work is only a small part of our biotechnology research effort, maybe five per cent of that."

That Crop and Food has such a high awareness of the threat of sabotage to its GE field trials is another sign GE is still very much a live issue.

Christey says the need for a confidential location for the outdoor experiment is paramount, given previous experiences with GE trials. In 1999, anti-GE protesters destroyed a field trial of GE potatoes near Lincoln and three years later hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of GE potato plants were wiped out in an attack on a Crop and Food laboratory.

She fully expects people will discover the growing site and says some people will even get the chance to visit it.

"But there's a difference between people finding it and people doing something to it. I'm happy to show people the trial there'll certainly be visits to the site."

Williams says that although Crop and Food will not be blindfolding visitors to and from the site, they will have to sign a confidentiality statement agreeing they will not disclose its location.

The public has misconceptions about funding for the new project, she says.

"A lot of people say it's coming from the Government. It's not it's coming from other companies, New Zealand companies."

She does not want to say which companies or how much money is being put into the trial, other than that it is in the order of "tens of thousands of dollars, not hundreds of thousands".

Dommisse says the issue is not just a "greenies versus scientists" argument.

"I wouldn't say it was just the greenies. It's about 5% to 7% of people who vote for the Greens, but there are a lot more people I know and talk to who don't vote for them who are against this.

"It is such a diverse range of people who are interested in this. Foodies are interested in this, and the common people of Europe are opposed to GM, That's why it's so hard for United States growers to get their food into the EU. The average Joe and Josephine may feel it is beyond their league, but they still want to know what they are eating.

"But," Dommisse continues, "there is still this feeling that, 'as long as the scientists say this is safe, let's trust it'. For years we were told smoking was safe when obviously it wasn't. But you don't know what's in the corn you eat, especially if it's from the US.

"I'm always trying to counter misinformation from scientists. They get annoyed at me because I'm just pointing out things that aren't true. But there are a lot of them that think, `go Elvira, go. We can't say that, we will lose our funding or our jobs if we do'."

Fitzsimons says that when it comes to the crunch, GE plants will never thrive on our shores.

"New Zealanders will never, ever, accept having them grown out in the open commercially. Nobody wants the stuff. We could be spending that money somewhere more useful.

"Certainly people still feel very strongly about it. The big threshold has still not been crossed in New Zealand – we have still not had a commercial application to grow these crops approved. I don't think that will happen – there will be thousands of submissions and people will be marching in the streets. The legal hurdle for release is a lot higher than for field tests – the companies are aware of that.

"Every little bit of research that comes out points the finger at harm from GE products that is only gradually being discovered. There is more and more accumulating evidence, but it is accumulating very slowly."

Recent overseas studies have shown damage to rats' livers and kidneys as a result of GE feeding trials, some of which have only been released publicly after court battles.

Soil and Health's Browning considers this latest Crop and Food application was weak and lacked a lot of detail. "Erma have said the risks are low and maybe they are right, but they've also said that the benefit of it is low as well, so why are we doing this?" Browning says.

"The other issue for us is New Zealand's positioning in the world - whether we should be going down the GE path. Some of the decision-makers don't really understand sustainability, and the rhetoric they are coming out with is at odds with reality. What we see for New Zealand in terms of economic advantage is true sustainability and that would not include GE."

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