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Speech by Jeanette Fitzsimons in Urgent debate on GE decision, 30/10/01, in New Zealand Parliament:
Today¹s announcement that GE field trials will resume and some releases will be allowed is designed to reassure international business and finance markets rather than the NZ public. It is yet another sign of who governments feel they are really accountable to. It is yet another sign that there is now, disappointingly, rather little difference between the Coalition and the National Party.
Last week a TV1 poll showed 62% of New Zealanders wanted no field trials and no genetic engineering outside a contained laboratory. But their views are dismissed as 'unreasonable' or 'extreme'.
The Green Party has not signed up to this package and we will continue to work in every way open to us for a GE Free NZ outside the lab. We thought the Alliance agreed with that position and were sad to hear Mr Anderton say just now that they got everything they asked for in the negotiations.
Moving genes between species that could not cross in nature is deeply offensive to Maori and to many other New Zealanders. It treats nature as a basket of commodities to do whatever we like with. It offers no respect to the fundamental principles of life and evolution, no respect to the intrinsic values of species which have evolved separate from each other over millennia, but sees them as just stuff to make a buck from.
It is wrong to see this debate as an argument between science and emotion. There is science on both sides of the debate, and there is emotion on both sides.
Modern molecular biology offers insights into the structure and processes of life that have revolutionised our knowledge. It has provided valuable tools for diagnosis, new understandings of disease, faster routes to conventional selective breeding, and new medicines. All this has been achieved within contained laboratories and that is where it should stay. There will be a lot more progress in this kind of science and the Greens welcome it - inside the lab.
Many eminent scientists, including those who are doing genetic engineering themselves in the lab, have joined the campaign to prevent the release of new organisms into the environment, at least until the science is much better understood.
At the Royal Commission hearings the Greens called Dr Michael Antoniou, leading geneticist and medical researcher at Guy¹s hospital in London who said "Genetic engineering technology is far too crude for the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment, and for their entry into the food chain to be justified. This is particularly important when one bears in mind that genetically modified organisms, once released, are uncontainable and unrecallable if problems happen to arise."
We also called Prof Philip Regal, internationally known ecologist and advisor to the US government who organised the first workshop in the US in 1984 to look at ecological impacts of releasing GMOs. He said...
"The genetic engineering of ecologically viable organisms would often be like Russian Roulette, where it could be expected that one chamber of a gun was loaded, while many more chambers were empty. But when was it safe to pull the trigger and when not? That was the problem."
And there were many more. No-one can possibly claim that science is on only one side of this debate.
None of the evidence given by those witnesses was challenged or in any way refuted. However, nor was it even referred to by the Royal Commission in their report.
The Royal Commission has been lauded by some as balanced, thorough, informed, and many other plaudits. This was the same Royal Commission which told the representative of one organisation, before they had even made their presentation, that the Commission had already made their decision and it would be the Great NZ compromise.
The same organisation, after handing in their written submission much earlier, found there was an error and asked to correct it. They were told it didn¹t matter as "no-one was going to read it anyway".
In fact the Commission disregarded a great deal of evidence which did not support its conclusions and made numerous errors of fact - for example in its reporting and assessment of evidence about the poisoning of thousands by GE tryptophan and in its misinterpretation and misrepresentation of Dr.Pusztai¹s experiments on rats.
The Commission accepted that there were risks with genetic engineering; accepted that the results of manipulating genes across species were unpredictable. But it did not follow through on the obvious implications of this. In fact many scientists told it that the process of forcing alien genes from another species into an organism could well disrupt the functioning of other genes and in many experiments had, in fact, done so. It is an uncontrollable technology, the effects are not replicable from one experiment to another and it has the capacity to create new toxins and allergens in food and ecological disruption when organisms are released into the environment. The obvious fact that this will not happen with every such organism - Dr.Regal¹s Russian Roulette - is no comfort when it is not possible to know in advance which chamber is loaded.
The public has gradually come to understand that there is a scientific basis to their fears that GE is somehow ³unnatural². And contrary to what has been claimed by some, the more they learn about what it is and what it does, the more they fear it.
While genetic engineering began in the laboratory some thirty years ago, the growing of outdoor crops for food began only around the mid nineties. With no labelling and no public information it crept up on people and was well entrenched in the US before people realised. Nearly four years ago the Greens began to expose to the public what was in the food they were eating and what experiments their taxes were funding. They learned about NZ field trials putting toads genes in potatoes to produce an antibiotic; making corn pest resistant by causing every cell of the corn to produce a pesticide throughout its life; making soy beans resistant to herbicides so the whole crop could be sprayed with them; putting an extra growth gene into salmon so it would grow many times faster than normal. And they rebelled. They bombarded food producers till they agreed to find out where their ingredients came from. They boycotted companies that refused to change.
They put in submissions to ERMA hearings on applications for field trials and appeared and argued at the hearings. One group of citizens took ERMA to judicial review for not following its own methodology and won. ERMA simply rewrote their decision without any fresh consideration of the evidence which by then was nearly two years out of date scientifically.
In mid-1999 Monsanto was within a couple of days of applying to release its herbicide resistant canola for full commercial growing. At the last minute they withdrew, understanding that the opposition would be huge. This was the same canola which in Canada contaminated and cross-pollinated Percy Schmeiser¹s crop. Monsanto sued him for growing their genetic material without paying a royalty and they won, virtually bankrupting him, even though he had no wish to have their product on his property.
Since 1999 we have succeeded in preventing the release of any GMO. A moratorium was imposed during the period of the Royal Commission and it has now been extended till November 2003. We will do everything possible to ensure it is not lifted then. We are confident that during that time evidence will continue to accumulate that transgenic organisms pose unknowable risks and few if any benefits.
We are totally opposed to the government¹s decision to allow field trials to resume. Their record in New Zealand so far has been appalling. Out of a mere dozen and a half that have occurred we have two canola trials where the so-called "containment" was breached significantly; a salmon project where the mesh designed to prevent escape of eggs into the Waiau river was a similar size to the eggs themselves; and a tamarillo trial where fruit was allowed to rot on the ground in breach of all containment conditions and rats and insets had access to it. The applicant now admits they cannot control the regrowth of GE plants on the site. In this latter case the Royal Commission commented that the public were right to be concerned at the lack of containment. There has been little if any monitoring and no enforcement of conditions.
More recent experiments have been increasingly questionable scientifically. One example of the shonky science that is often used to justify genetic engineering is the cynical way Agresearch has sold its project to put human genes in cows to make myelin basic protein in the milk as a treatment for Multiple Sclerosis. In fact it is now clear that myelin has not been shown to be useful in treating MS and Agresearch is not conducting any trials to see if it is. They are marketing a trial of a bulk manufacturing process as vital medical research. This has led to its description by a leading US expert on MS research as "questionable science and bad business" and another professor of biological sciences, himself involved in genetic engineering, to say "I am amazed that anyone would now days seriously consider this application as a viable avenue to pursue for an MS treatment".
The hospital patient from whose letter the PM just read has been seriously duped. If the Government really cared about multiple sclerosis it would fund the treatments which are available now.
The many, many New Zealanders who are revolted and disgusted by the invasive procedures that put human genes in animals so that they will produce human proteins are being asked to swallow this, worse - to fund it from public money - when it has no scientific merit.
The Government package released today virtually admits that ERMA has not followed the Act and that is why they are tightening the rules. Monitoring during and after trials will be stepped up. It has been perfunctory up till now. Approvals will be much harder to get with the requirement for proper ecological assessment before application. The Act already talks of effects on the environment, the intrinsic values of ecosystems and the precautionary principle but these have been largely ignored. This will not be possible in future. There will also be requirements for removal of reproductive structures before they mature and the ability to remove all the material, including the soil if necessary, from the site for destruction.
This reflects the fact that science has evolved considerably since the current Act was written. At that stage few were even thinking about effects on soil or horizontal gene transfer. In fact, when the Commission began its hearings the pro-GE lobby argued that we shouldn¹t worry about horizontal gene transfer because it was extremely rare if it occurred at all. Six months later, after a lot of contrary scientific evidence had been heard, they were arguing that we shouldn¹t worry about it because it is so frequent!
All this - the new moratorium and the new conditions - will be cemented in legislation amending the HASNO Act. That is why the Greens will not withdraw confidence at this stage. Much as we deplore the rejection of the values of most New Zealanders in this package, we will hang in there to make sure the gains we have achieved will be locked in with the tightest wording possible. An early election would prevent that and we would be left with the moratorium on field trials lifted and no better conditions than now in place.
The public will also ensure that approval for field trials will be very hard to get. The last application received by ERMA, to trial GE wheat, provoked 1400 submissions asking to be heard. The applicant withdrew rather than face that degree of scrutiny. Hearings under the new rules will not be just expressions of protest. They will be vigorous scientific debate about the criteria ERMA must follow and the risks and benefits, if any, of the proposal.
The devil will be in the detail of the Act. The wording of the package released today leaves many questions unanswered. That is why the Greens will engage with the detail of the legislation and ensure it does what it is intended to do.
The exemptions from the moratorium on release are said to be for living organisms that are to improve human and animal health and which cannot establish viable populations outside the body of the recipient.  We assume this very vague statement means vaccines. The Greens are prepared to accept a case-by-case assessment of human vaccines where there is demonstrable benefit to health provided there can be no effect when they are excreted into the environment. But we have serious concerns about animal vaccines which will, if they are commercially successful, be excreted all over the soils of NZ. We will be scrutinising the legislation on this exception very carefully.
The saddest statement about this package is that it is to preserve the knowledge economy. There is a series of wrong arguments which first equates knowledge with science, then science with biotechnology, then biotechnology with genetic engineering. Each is only a small subset of the last. It is tragic indeed if we think a prosperous and sustainable economy can be built just on the ability to juggle genes between unrelated organisms. That is a travesty of a research and science strategy.
The big biotech companies are already splitting off their agricultural from their medical wings so that the crash of their farm products does not bring down their medical inventions with it. Agricultural GE is failing all over the world - failing because it does not perform and because the markets do not want it.
NZ is a small and remote country. We have the opportunity to do well in the world by being not like the others. There is no future for us in simply adopting the latest fashion in science that everyone else is pursuing too.
The world is crying out for the science. Research products that underpin a sustainable economy. The knowledge of soils and pest lifecycles and plant nutrition that will further enhance the highest value farming, organics. The science of sustainable forestry. Management of marine ecosystems. Renewable energy and energy conservation. Cleaner production in industry. Smart waste management and zero waste technologies. Predicting, avoiding and adapting to climate change.
NZ is particularly well placed to be a centre of excellence for this kind of science. Every dollar of public money spent going down a GE dead end is cutting off opportunities to do better science.
Anyone who thinks the debate on GE has now been put to rest is dreaming. It will be a very public issue every time there is a new application to ERMA. It will be in the headlines every time there is a new disaster overseas. It will be a major issue at the next election. In the meantime we have ensured a holding position where if we are lucky we can emerge without lasting damage to the environment. But the struggle will go on.
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