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GM Food Production: Proceed with Caution

Nature is the master of genetic shuffling and is constantly sorting and resorting DNA, causing both subtle and profound changes in all living things. People first began their own DNA management thousands of years ago, when they began crossbreeding plants to produce better foods or fibre. Human and scientific intervention through plant breeding enhanced this process. Tissue and embryo culture technologies allowed mass-production of plant culture for many years. Splitting and inter- and intra-species transferring of genes is the latest technology which allows production of "designer plants and animals" of specific characters.

There is generally little disagreement as to the need for designer seeds and animals for enhancing cost-effective food production. There are potential environmental advantages of reduced fertiliser and pesticide use, economic gains from increased yields, improved quality traits and reduced spoilage between harvest and market. On the other hand, doubts have been raised as to whether such designer animals and plants pass human health and environmental pollution tests. Such concerns are neither new nor unwarranted; similar views were often expressed when early chemical fertilisers or pesticides were introduced.

As with most new technologies, genetic modification raises concerns, including the potential for creating undesirable effects in the food supplies of humans and wildlife and for creating herbicide resistance in weeds and pesticide resistance in insects. A lot of research in controlled conditions is now aimed at identifying just such possible health or environmental risks. Such research is examining the environmental, social and economic impacts of the use and release of genetically modified crops, micro-organisms and animals

I totally agree with the view that we need to have a cautionary approach when introducing new GMOs and more specifically the designer seeds or animals with the specific characters. The Labour-led New Zealand government agreed to the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification that we should proceed with caution. We put in place a moratorium on the release of GMOs, a very blunt instrument indeed, for the last two years, which is expiring at the end of October this year. To strengthen the process of transition from moratorium to conditional release of GMOs we have strengthened ERMA along with introducing the legislation to regulate future introduction of new organisms.

The political process of consultation and discussions with stakeholders and wider public has been exhaustive, more so than any other country in the world. Major national institutions and corporations such as Fonterra, CRIs, Universities and international biotech companies have supported this process. Such institutions have agreed that with sensible safeguards in place we should proceed with conditional release of GMOs into New Zealand environment strictly on a case-by-case basis.

Since the initial release overseas of GM crops in the mid 1990's, there has been astronomic global uptake of such crops. It is now believed that there are over 58 million ha of major GM crops being grown in 16 countries around the world. To date, there has been no evidence-based information reported in any peer-reviewed scientific publications, which may suggest any adverse impact on either human health or the environment. On the other hand there is clear evidence of significant reduction in the amount of pesticide use in GM crops. For example in Australia GM cotton is now widely grown and reports suggest that this has allowed reduction of up to 50% of pesticide used.

In New Zealand, we have been at the forefront of many innovations in agriculture, which have allowed us to maintain our living standards. We cannot afford to be left behind and our scientists must continue to be at the cutting edge of innovative technologies. Much future research is needed, particularly in the ecology and population dynamics of wild relatives. The challenge is to produce data of sufficient quality to allow reasoned judgements to be made over the future of genetic modification in agriculture. But, we need to do such research in New Zealand so that we have the intellectual property rights of such technologies rather than us becoming dependent on imported seeds of future harvests.

I fully support the government view of proceeding with caution in field trialling and introducing GM crops on a case-by-case basis while protecting our environment.

Dr Ashraf Choudhary QSO - Member of Parliament

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