GM showdown: Minister & Councils face-off over who decides

The rights and wrongs of genetic modification are resurfacing as a political issue, as National signals its intent to introduce more GMOs, despite opposition from some councils and business

National can't believe it's luck. The government announced an historic, controversial decision this week -- the first ever general release of a genetically modified organism in New Zealand. In other words, the first bit of GM stuff to be allowed outside the lab or test paddock. And hardly anyone noticed.

Remember corngate? The royal commission on genetic modification? A decade ago it would have led the news; this week some news organisations didn't cover it at all. The Greens -- get this -- didn't even put out a press release.

It could be that people are simply sanguine about the science of GM now, yet international polls suggest that's not the case -- public scepticism of such science is high and arguably growing. Of course the fact that it was a medicine to treat liver cancer had a significant bearing; it's not what back in the day was called a 'frankenfood' and it's not some modified animal. It's just a virus (a modified smallpox virus), and, at first glance, a pretty safe one that has been used safely overseas. It could give people dying of cancer a few extra months, so politically it's not one anyone -- even the Greens -- is inclined to criticise.

But while the risks appear low, it's interesting to dig into how those on a cancer trial are expected to behave to ensure the GM virus doesn't spread. They have to wash their sheets to a certain temperature, treat their dressings as special biowaste and several others things that, in reality, someone will forget to do and are impossible to enforce (MPI says as much in its comments on the EPA's decision to approve the trial). In this case the risk is low, but at a first principles level it remains a hugely significant decision that warrants public discussion.

What's more, it comes at a time when GMOs are resurfacing as an issue. Hastings District Council last month declared itself GM-free. That is, it banned GM crops and animals, not liver cancer patients. And several other councils, including Auckland, are considering following suit.

Their concerns are less about the science and more about marketing. The argument goes that our clean, green image means our produce sells at a premium; introduce GM crops or animals and consumers turn away, or at least pay less. Horticulture NZ says there's "considerable consumer opposition to [GM] food" and even Fonterra recognises "the value and premium New Zealand's GM-free status commands globally" and it doesn't support the release of GMOs.

Environment Minister Nick Smith is having none of it. While he insists he's taking a "cautious" approach, he says councils trying to be GM-free are, well, barking. He told The Nation this weekend it's "unworkable":

"It is impractical to have 86 different councils’ rules around GM. We have no biosecurity limits. If you get in a car and you drive from Hastings to Gisborne or to Wairarapa, if you had trees that are GM, there is no biological barrier for those to spread, and so it is impractical and wrong for councils to try and regulate this separately. They are welcome to participate in any public process that the EPA must do if they're going to release any GM."

And he has a point. Hastings claim to be GM-free is little but an empty slogan when just metres from its boundary there could be a GM forest, crop or farm and nothing to stop GMOs being blown or carried in and out. Smith says it's government's job to set biotech policy and it won't be GM-free.

That may be no bad thing. While critics say sufficient trials still haven't been done, supporters say the science has come on in leaps and bounds since corngate days and is much more safe and precise than it was. I'm in no position to judge, but I'm confident the politics on this will again get heated.

The EPA is looking to introduce a national standard allowing GM pines that would trump a council by-law and Federated Farmers is already taking Hastings Council to court. But the councils have no intention of backing down, so a showdown is looming.

Add to this tension the fact that National announced on Friday it was drawing up a discussion paper to redefine what is and isn't a GMO. Again, there was barely any coverage. The back story, in short, is that a high court decision last year raised questions about regulations around GMOs and the government wants to "clarify" where the line is drawn. If you're about to ask whether National is just changing the rules to get around a court ruling, it only applies to GMOs developed before 1998. Even the Greens thinks it's a useful tidying up exercise... so long as it doesn't reach forward to redefine new GMOs and make it easier for them to be introduced.

Except Smith says that's exactly what he's thinking. See this exchange with Lisa Owen:

 "Well, I think the science is maturing. There’s a debate going on in Europe. There’s a debate going on in the other parts of the country. Our government is saying we need to be quite cautious around this, because New Zealand does have an important brain for natural products, we earn a lot of our living from food products, but also we are a country that has got a pretty proud heritage of leading in science, everything from Ernest Rutherford and the like.

Owen: So that sounds like you’re leaving the door open.

Yes, I am. I’m saying that we’re going to take a cautious approach in the meantime, but as the international consensus around what is GM and what is not GM is that we are prepared to keep New Zealand in the mainstream of scientific opinion. Now, a really core, simple definition for me is that when you’re bringing in foreign DNA into an organism there’s no question in my view that that’s a genetically modified organism. Where it gets more tricky is when there are alterations to the genes of an organism within it. So, for instance, you know, when you use those older techniques of enhancements of the mutations that occur naturally within an organism, at what point, where is that line? Now, it is a wide range of opinions as to where that line is. We’re saying we’re being cautious but we are not ruling out making further changes beyond those of which we are consulting on currently relative to where the rest of the world is sitting. But we are saying New Zealand needs to be cautious.

While he's not in a rush, it's clear Smith is looking to open the door to more GMOs in the future, including crops and animals. A cancer medicine is a politically safe first specimen, but it's not hard to imagine more controversial GMOs to come.

If or when that comes to pass, I'd bet a few more headlines will be written and it won't just be the councils he's having to face-off. Fonterra, for one, seems opposed to the direction Smith is pointing. In the meantime, we should debate who gets to decide on GMO releases, as well discussing more widely the pros and cons of National's approach, so that whichever path we take, it's a well-informed one.