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    Royal Omission

    by Peter Wills, Professor of Physics, Auckland University

    The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification has recommended that things in New Zealand be left more or less just the way they were before it started its work. Except for one thing: we should abandon the possibility of a GE-free New Zealand, something that a large proportion of the parties who participated in the Commission's processes asked for. The Commission describes excluding the possibility of a GE-free NZ as "Preserving Opportunities".

    The country's researchers, regulators and business people have been given the green light again and the people who managed to get the light changed to amber while the Commission did its work have been told that they can have their GE-free New Zealand in bits. The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries will work out how far apart GE farms and GE-free farms should be and when disputes arise they will come in and mediate.

    The gist of the Commission's attitude to genetic engineering can be gleaned from the second sentence of their report's Executive Summary:

    It [genetic modification] holds exciting promise, not only for conquering diseases, eliminating pests and contributing to the knowledge economy, but for enhancing the international competitiveness of the primary industries so important to our country's economic well-being.

    Genetic engineering is cast as heroic, fitting perfectly into the fashionable view of human good as the creation of wealth and health through global capitalism. Furthermore, our academic and governmental institutions, cooperating with industry, so we are told, have got everything right, at least more or less. The system needs just a bit of a tweak here and there, but they have made no fundamental errors.

    The report cites everyone and criticises no-one, but one has to look a little more closely to see whose interests and interpretations of the facts have been given weight. The recommendations make it very clear how interests vested in genetic engineering have been weighed against those somehow opposed to applications of the technology. In all of the major areas, research, agriculture, food, patents and liability, the Commission accepts the adequacy of the institutions and practices that have already been put in place by experts and makes only minor suggestions as to how things can be improved. The unique circumstances of the "biotechnology century", as the Commission calls our times, are dealt with by setting up a Bioethics Council and a Parliamentary Commissioner on Biotechnology and asking the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology to develop a biotechnology strategy for the country. And then the Minister in charge of the Environmental Risk Management Authority is to have a "call in" power (that has never been exercised) extended so that it includes the significant cultural, ethical and spiritual issues that have been at the heart of the debate about genetic engineering in New Zealand during the last few years.

    The wishes of those who went to the Commission and asked for New Zealand's GE-free environment to be kept the way it is, even for the time being, have simply been omitted from the substance of the recommendations. It is recommended that there be research into environmental impacts on soil and ecosystems, research support for organic farming, a strategy for the use of BT, protection of GE-free honey, special assessment of GE trees and so on, but all predicated on the progressive introduction of genetically modified organisms into our agricultural environment. Everything can exist side by side. It doesn't matter that mounting evidence suggests that humans are pretty well incapable of keeping GE farming and organic farming properly separate from one another. New Zealanders will work out, as no-one else has managed to, how to make cross-contamination impossible.

    The main result of following the Commission's recommendations will be that organic farmers will just have to accept Monsanto's and Aventis's genes getting into their crops. The Australia New Zealand Food Authority has already proposed that 1% contamination with GE material in any product must be considered normal and should not trigger any labelling requirement. The Commission praised ANZFA, in spite of their blatantly unscientific support for genetically engineered food.

    The Commission has accepted the word of the experts from the academic-governmental-industrial biotech complex and has set aside the concerns of people who want to retain the integrity of more natural ways of practising agriculture - free of wholesale wired-in manipulation for the short-term commercial gain of big biotech multi-nationals. What will our great great grandchildren think of the way we are treating our world?

    (copied from Craccum magazine)

    August 2001

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