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The GM debate: Softly, softly but we must move ahead

When the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification reported in July 2001 the New Zealand Herald in an editorial (July 31) commended it for a set of sane and sensible recommendations which "provide a way for New Zealand to capture the rewards of (genetic) research while also offering protection against the risk". "It is up to the government to accept the wisdom of these recommendations ….A knowledge society demands as much," the Herald said. Over the ensuing months the Herald warned the government that to continue a moratorium indefinitely would make a travesty of the royal commission's work and stunt this country's agricultural and horticultural sciences. It also acknowledged that "this country already has environmental procedures for the approval and monitoring of genetic science that are probably second to none in the world" and the government's proposed rules for the conditional release of genetically modified organisms "represent an astute balance" reinforcing the commission's view that research should proceed cautiously. I could not have put it better. Labour came to government in 1999 promising a Royal Commission on GM. The commission, with members chosen for their expertise, was established in May 2000, cost over $6 million, sat for 14 months, heard from some 400 witnesses and others registered with an interest, considered written submissions from more than 10,000 members of the public and consulted widely, holding 50 public meetings, hui and workshops in regional centres from Invercargill to Kaikohe.

We accepted all but two of the royal commission's 49 recommendations and in the last two years have worked to implement them and ensure that the Environmental Risk Management Authority has the tools to do its job.

New Zealand would be unwise, the commission concluded, to turn its back on the potential advantages on offer, but should proceed carefully, minimising and managing risks. "At the same time", it noted, "continuation of the development of conventional farming, organics and integrated pest management should be facilitated."

The royal commission was satisfied that the basic regulatory framework for genetic modification was appropriate and that the key institutions – the Environmental Risk Management Authority and the Australia New Zealand Food Authority (now known as Food Standards Australia New Zealand) carried out their functions conscientiously and soundly.

We are now into the final stages of ensuring our systems are in place when the moratorium expires. Parliament's Education and Science select committee is considering the New Organisms and Other Matters Bill, which implements recommendations of the royal commission. The bill provides the practical framework for regulating new organisms, including GMOs, and improving the overall efficiency of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, ERMA's governing statute.

ERMA came through a testing, rigorous and thorough review, which found it has the capability to do its job. Forty-nine recommendations for ERMA to improve its management and governance performance are being implemented through detailed action plans.

My concern is to ensure that we have the systems and processes in place to deal carefully with applications while protecting our environmental health and safety and preserving opportunities for the benefit of coming generations.

I am satisfied that on October 30 we will be ready to pick up the royal commission's recommendations for proceeding with caution. An ERMA survey shows there is not going to be a flood of applications for gm release or to grow gm crops. I doubt, in fact, if we will have fresh gm food in New Zealand for many, many years. Before any such food can be sold here, Food Standards Australia New Zealand must conduct a through safety assessment, allow for public comment and defer to the joint ANZ ministerial council for a final decision.

We will have in ERMA an authority with the expertise to consider all the evidence when applications are heard for the release of new organisms, including gm.

Some primary produce exporters have expressed alarm that the potential for gm release will damage our trading reputation. This is something that ERMA will no doubt consider when considering applications. The authority already has the means to assess the economic risks of applications and a strengthened version of this decision-making framework will be in place by the time it needs to assess their first conditional or full release application.

It must also be noted that there is no international evidence of a drop-off in demand for non-GM crops exported from a country which also grows GM. Argentina, for example, is the second largest producer of GM crops, but also has a growing organics sector. A recent Australian study showed that the United States and Canada continue to secure access for their non-GM barley exports to "GM-sensitive" importers such as Japan, China and Saudi Arabia, despite their grain systems handling significant quantities of other GM grains.

There has also been talk that we risk "image contamination" should a GM release ever be approved. Again this is not borne out in international evidence. Canada continues to market itself as a "clean, green" tourist destination despite its extensive GM plantings.

In nine weeks the moratorium will expire. ERMA will then be able to consider applications for general release. It does not expect a rush of applications. Each application will be assessed on a case-by case basis, and will be open for public submissions. By law the work can only g

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