Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

31st May 2002 - Everything's Gone Green

Copyright © 2002 Russell Brown

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well, you can't say politics isn't interesting this year. One partner in the governing coalition has wrecked itself and wound up with a party leader who can't lead it in Parliament, National's go-getter president has been told to shut up before she makes things even worse, the Prime Minister is being investigated for fraud, and nobody knows when the election is. Just in case anyone was bored, the Greens stepped off the cliff.

The Green Party having launched its new policy with a Parliamentary walkout and a TV documentary, ran shock-value ads with the banner 'Guess who's coming for dinner' in Sunday's papers.

According to a party press release, the campaign intends to tell New Zealanders "why the party is taking a firm line on genetic engineering and contrasting the different positions of Labour and the Greens."

But this poorly-written ad - "Kiwi's" with an apostrophe, for God's sake - does nothing of the kind. Not only does it fail to properly outline the Greens' new stance - that if it holds the balance of power it will bring down any government that allows the present two-year moratorium on applications for GM release to expire - it makes no attempt to even justify it. Surely it might have been appropriate to actually explain why All GE is A Bad Thing?

Instead, the ad repeats Jeanette Fitzsimons' line that the "the Labour government has made the decision to let GE out of the lab and into our food chain."

The most charitable description of this statement is that it's the short version. So what, actually, is the story? Okay. Since 1996, applications for GM releases have been considered by the Environmental Risk Management Authority under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act.

Approvals for quite a number of GM field trials had been granted in the time before the current government took office. The Labour-Alliance government acted fairly swiftly after coming in. It asked researchers to observe a voluntary moratorium on applications for new field trials while a Royal Commission convened to consider the issue. Although they could have gone ahead and applied, researchers all complied with the government's request.

The Royal Commission was lengthy and comprehensive, and broke new ground in taking submissions from the tangata whenua on spiritual issues. It emerged with a theme of "Preserving Opportunities" - noting the value of both organic farming and GM technology and expressing the view that they were not mutually exclusive.

Among its recommendations was the introduction of a new category of "conditional release", which didn't appear in the 1996 Act - under which an approval for release, once granted, was a simple green light. Conditional release would require extensive reporting and observation, even of a commercial crop.

The government took several months to consider its response, but in October 2001 it announced that while it accepted the general direction of the Commission's report, it would seek to take a more cautious course.

It imposed a legislated hold on any new applications for GM release for two years while a new Bioethics Council could be established - it will be chaired by Sir Paul Reeves - new regulations written, and a number of issues researched. In the meantime, field trial applications were restarted under extremely strict new conditions relating to containment and clean-up.

This was all contained in the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (Genetically Modified Organisms) Amendment Bill, the piece of legislation the Greens supported at every stage but the final one, when they walked out of Parliament and refused to vote either way. Indeed, not only did Greens support the Bill, they actually wrote key parts of it at the select committee stage. How odd.

The Bill also requires ERMA to consider a wider range of issues regarding applications that it had had to before - including whether there is any other way of achieving research objectives. A Supplementary Order Paper later added specific restrictions on certain biotechnical procedures - transplanting organisms into humans or animals or mixing body materials between animals and humans. The Minister would have to be satisfied that there was no unacceptable risk to the public - and that the "ethical, cultural or spiritual" concerns of the public had been addressed.

We will see more specifics before the suspension ends, in October 2003. After that date, the Greens are right, it will be possible to make an application for commercial release. But, remember, that was the case before the current government took office. No consents for GM field crops were granted under the old law. The explanatory paper with the Bill suggests that none are expected "in the near future".

The new system will be considerably stricter, and ERMA will be obliged to take public submissions. It is unthinkable that any consent could be granted without contained field trials having been conducted first.

The Greens' ad copy goes on to claim that "Together we can keep GE off our plates and out of the country."

That would be a good trick. The fact, of course, is that processed food containing one or more ingredients derived from genetically modified crops has been on our plates - or at least on the shelves - for several years.

The party then admitted three days after the ad ran, in a "question and answer paper", that "field trials have occurred permissible [sic] in this country for years and we acknowledge that in the foreseeable future we do not have the power to stop them." This, of course, is not at all what their advertisement says.

People do have a clear right to know what's in their food and to not eat anything they don't want to. And we will soon have the chance to make a choice, thanks to a food labelling law developed and delivered by a governments here an in Australia of which the Greens were not a part.

That labelling law would apply to food containing ingredients from locally-grown GM plants - but don't hold your breath for that. It hardly makes sense to release a product that the public won't yet buy. When, eventually, that product arrives, it will do so in a blinding media spotlight.

Extension of the moratorium in perpetuity has been justified by noting that Europe currently has its own moratorium. But that will probably be lifted before ours is. In the UK alone, there are hundreds of field trials of US-patented crops under far looser conditions than permitted here. By comparison with ours, their process looks like a shambles - credit to the Alliance here too. And we're way ahead of the Europeans on food labelling.

Anyway, this was an ad created by people who can't write for, apparently, an audience that doesn't read.

I do read, and I am wary. And I can't, in that reading, justify a GM doomsday scenario. I just can't see the science in it. Try and lay your hands on a copy of the May 18 New Scientist - the one with the 'Beyond Organic' cover. I'm in no position to recommend it as gospel, but it is the kind of thing you need to read before having an opinion.

And, yet, I buy organic and free-range meat, poultry and eggs - fruit and vegetables too, if the price is right. I would probably be inclined to avoid food if I knew it contained GM ingredients. Is this contradictory? No. Let me explain.

Fresh organic food, if you are lucky enough to be able to afford it, usually tastes better. I think this is less because nobody used pesticide than because it is more hand-made, and the varieties available are chosen for quality, rather than to keep for weeks in some supermarket supply chain. I also like it because the producers of the food are more likely to be locally-owned. Because my local organic butcher is a real butcher's shop where you can talk about the footy and not some faceless arrangement of chest freezers like the local Mad Butcher outlet. And because - with some important caveats - organic farming is generally better for the land.

Which brings us to GM. Genetically modified crops have been in commercial use since 1996, without either saving the world or ending the world as we know it. But GM has been brought low by the hideous economics of American agribusiness. More than three quarters of the commercial GM crops in the ground now are herbicide-resistant varieties such as RoundUp Ready soy and maize, and most of it is grown on large, mechanised, monocultural American farms.

Those farms don't so much grow crops as stuff. Soy flour and corn syrup to bulk out and sweeten bad processed food, or grain to feed beef cattle. Using grain not grass to feed cattle is economic madness; so American cattle can also be fed dead pigs, horses and poultry, not to mention processed chicken manure, sawdust and old newspapers. They are also commonly injected with anabolic steroids and slaughtered in facilities that would not even be allowed to operate in New Zealand. Have a nice hamburger.

Anyway, these American farmers grow so much of their damn stuff that they can barely make a profit. Which is why the US government recently moved to bail out corporate farmers with billions of dollars in illegal subsidies.

And it was into this benighted market that Monsanto began to sell RoundUp Ready corn and soy, whose Unique Selling Proposition is that you can douse the farm in the same company's herbicide and the crop stays standing. Oh, and by the way, under some conditions, it creates superweeds that are also RoundUp-resistant. It was a sorry and cynical public debut for a new technology, but it wouldn't be the first time that's happened.

But it's important to separate food industry politics from the science. They're not the same thing.

Sustainable farming as practised under the organic model is an important and useful goal, but there are billions of people in countries less fortunate than ours who are also going to need new crops in the next 50 years; crops, say, that can fix their own nitrogen or withstand salt water; even plants that have been deliberately un-domesticated and are able to prosper in environments where their wild ancestors did, but modern crops can't. Intriguingly, it now seems much of this can be achieved through conventional plant breeding - but it's the gene science that provides the information.

Some countries regard their own GM research as a matter of sovereignty, and I think that applies strongly in New Zealand's case. Biotech is probably the only branch of science where New Zealand can be even moderately influential. The present work on GM pine trees that can be processed with far fewer toxic chemicals seems quite visionary to me. But if you leave the science to Monsanto, Monsanto continues to own it.

I'd like to see some recognition of sovereignty included in the principles by which GM applications are considered here. The Greens could have argued for that, but they have potentially cut themselves out of that - and every other issue of social equity and safety.

Clearly, this is a science that cries out for caution - perhaps more than any other in our history. But there are no absolutes - and if you think there are - on either side - you will get it wrong. I think the Greens have got it wrong. But, even if so, it's their right to get it wrong and the right of anyone who wants to vote for them. I think our political environment has been the better for the Greens' presence.

Where they lose me - and perhaps for good - is the shabby way they're going about it.

Of course, other small parties - New Zealand First, Act and, er, National - are busy doing the same thing in anticipation of the election: race relations, immigration and crime being the pick 'n' mix issues of public fear that their researchers have identified. Labour uses polling to take the public's temperature on almost a nightly basis.

And, as they revealed in the Sunday Star Times, the Greens carefully polled the electorate before they decided to unveil their "principled" stand. Everyone will do it. I am simply sorry that the Green Party has chosen to do it with a campaign that preys on fear, fiddles the truth and obscures any complexity.

So, sorry for the extreme length of this broadcast - you get that on the big jobs. And three cheers for the Canterbury Crusaders. They are a magnificent team built on an enlightened organisation. I am also pleased to hear that the Newmatics are getting back together on occasion of a forthcoming compilation - bring on the dub mixes - and that I'm going to see Pacifier this weekend. It could be worse


Russell Brown

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