FORUM – GMOs In New Zealand

The introduction of GMOs into a country will never be a simple affair. But in New Zealand, October’s decision to allow contained GE field trials and to place a two year moratorium on GE releases have been particularly controversial because of a 161-year-old agreement between the Maori and the Crown, the Treaty of Waitangi.
Here’s a look at the current situation. Until recently, New Zealand has proudly called itself GE free. Genetic research has been carried out under tight controls in contained laboratories, there has been no commercial production of GE food crops or animals, no fresh GE produce being grown or imported into New Zealand and no whole GE foods imported. But under pressure from the business and science sector to loosen restrictions on GE research, last year the government ordered an independent Royal Commission into the issue.
After 14 months of public submissions and debate, the New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic Modification handed down its report on July 27, 2001. The theme of the report was ‘preserving opportunities’: namely, that it would be unwise for New Zealand to turn its back on the potential advantages of genetic modification, but an action plan of care and caution was recommended.
About two months later, Prime Minister Helen Clarke’s government responded with such evasiveness that she pleased neither proponent nor opponent. The government agreed that New Zealand should indeed ‘preserve its opportunities’, implementing a two-year moratorium on the release of GMOs so that research and analysis recommended by the commission could be completed. Presenting her government’s plan of action, Clark claimed that the reason behind the moratorium was to allow time to establish or continue contained research programs to address socio-economic, ethical, environmental and agricultural research.

Anti-GE campaigners were hoping for an outright ban of all trials. Scientists are pleased that they will be able get stuck into some serious GMO research on everything from the development of sheep with bigger bottoms (read, more meat) to lucrative pharmaceutical cures, using, in the words of leading NZ scientist Owen McShane, ‘the most advanced and effective production plants on the planet for their manufacture – the cows, sheep and plants of our own green fields (quoted in the New Zealand Herald, 23/11/2001).
But the most problematic opposition to the government’s plans has come from New Zealand’s indigenous Maori population. And here’s where things get tricky. The Maori claim is that the government’s decision to allow GMOs to be tested in the open environment is in breach of certain clauses of the still active Treaty of Waitangi, signed by 45 Maori chiefs and Lieutenant Governor William Hobson in February 1840.
The most relevant passage reads, ‘Her Majesty the Queen of England confirms and guarantees to the Chiefs and Tribes of New Zealand and to the respective families and individuals thereof the full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates Forests Fisheries and other properties which they may collectively or individually possess so long as it is their wish and desire to retain the same in their possession’.

As always, when indigenous culture and contemporary systems of government clash, interpretation is a moot point. The Maori belief is that ‘full, exclusive and undisturbed possession’, means any genetic interference with these ‘Lands and Estates, Forests, Fisheries and other properties’, is effectively breaking the law.
As prominent activist Chris Webster stated in the Maori magazine Mana, September 2001, ‘the life essence of our indigenous resources is now at risk not just of contamination but of outright loss as well…sadly, the Royal Commission’s recommendations don’t reflect our relationships with the land or one another’.
According to Maori values, the people will bear the spiritual cost of environmental degradation irrespective of who initiates it. They believe that the words ‘field trials’ and ‘contained’ cancel each other out – that any genetic engineering in the ‘field’ is a form of environmental degradation.
The conditions expressed by the government in response to these objections assure that the trials will be so contained that ‘once a plant reaches the stage where it is capable of releasing heritable material (for example, seed), any reproductive structure above the ground must be securely contained or immediately removed and destroyed’ (Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, Summary of Key Government decisions).
How this will be done is another contentious issue. The soil in which these experimental crops are grown will have to be sealed off and decontaminated or removed entirely. The problem is that nobody knows whether modified genes can be transferred through normal soil bacteria to other plants. It’s never happened but scientists can’t rule it out. As for trials on animals, a similar statement has been released that the animals will be securely contained.
The issue of soil contamination has caused particular problems for scientists and legislators. For example, Dr Chris Walter, a Forrest Research scientist, was planning to have GM trees in the ground by Christmas but because of confusion over how to define ‘heritable material’, contain the seedlings and protect them from protestors, has postponed plans. He has called campaigner’s suggestions that soil could be considered ‘inheritable material’ absurd. Other scientists claim that there is evidence to support the idea that DNA can survive in soil.

The two-year moratorium is also not watertight. During this period, exceptions to the rule prohibiting release of GMOs will be allowed. Among these are any which will provide direct benefits to human or animal health and those which are in accordance with existing emergency provisions of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO).
Pages and pages of the Commission’s report have been dedicated to the interpretation of words such as ‘direct benefits’, and references to the treaty are laced with definitions of words like cooperation, communality and values. The conclusion was a recommendation that the HSNO act be ‘amended to provide that effect be given to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi’.
The Prime Minister accepted the recommendation: ‘what we have agreed on is a process, based on partnership, for moving ahead. It is essential that the amended HSNO Act provides for processes which are more inclusive of Maori and are reflective of Treaty of Waitangi principles’.
Immediately after this statement, the amendment process began, but came to an abrupt end on October 30, with a divided Labor Maori MP caucus and a sketchy and majority (meaning that certain Maori MPs refused to sign) agreement that some Treaty clauses in genetic modification be strengthened to give extra weight to the treaty clause in the HSNO act.
In response to this, the Environmental Risks Management Agency (ERMA), which is responsible for the act, is declining to comment other than to say that it will ‘take into account’ the principles of the treaty. This is hardly going to stoke the fires of confidence in the Maori camp. ERMA has a dubious track record of approving almost every field trial to date and responsibility for numerous documented breaches of field trials of GE salmon, tamarillos, peas and potatoes.
Debates have collapsed into screaming matches, Labour Maori MPs have stormed out of Caucus meetings, protesters have stormed the ERMA office and still the rhetoric bogs on. Meanwhile, field trials quietly get underway and activists are giving public demonstrations on pulling up trial crops. But what cannot be argued, debated or re-interpreted is that New Zealand is no longer GE free.
Watch this space!

GE: Genetic Engineering
GMO: Genetically Modified Organism
ERMA: Environmental Risk Management Authority
HSNO: Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act
To Genetically Modify means: ‘To delete, change or move genes within an organism, to transfer genes from one organism to another, to modify existing genes or construct new genes and put them into any organism’. (Royal Commission on Genetic Modification)

For further information
To read the full text of the Prime Minister’s statement on GE, go to:

For more information on the Royal Commission and on-line copy of the report, go to:

For more information on the anti-GMO campaign, visit:
Greenpeace New Zealand, or

For more information on the Maori position, visit:
GE Free NZ,

For more information on the Treaty of Waitangi, go to:

Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team

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