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New GM legislation in force as moratorium expires

Amendments strengthening the main legislation covering genetic modification (GM) come into effect tomorrow (Thursday).

"This new legislation, with its strict rules governing the release of genetically modified organisms, will take effect at midnight, as the moratorium on applications for releases of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) automatically expires," Environment Minister, Marian Hobbs said.

The minister said the changes to the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act 1996 are designed to underpin the government's overall policy of proceeding with caution with GM while preserving opportunities for different systems of production.

"That includes keeping our options open for organic agriculture, conventional farming and integrated pest management so that they can each contribute in their own way to the overall benefit of New Zealand," Marian Hobbs said.

"We put in place the moratorium on applications specifically so that we could strengthen the legislation and improve the way it worked for new organisms. Now that is done, there is no need for that moratorium to remain.

"We have also ensured that the independent agency responsible for decision making about genetic modification – the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) – is well-resourced and has the processes in place to effectively carry out its role now it is once again able to consider release applications."

Central to the amended act is a new category of conditional release.

"This will allow ERMA to attach controls on a case-by-case basis to any approval to release new organisms," Marian Hobbs said. "ERMA will be able to specify where and how organisms are used. It will do this on a case-by-case basis because each organism is different and the circumstances of each release will be different too."

The amended Act also includes enforcement procedures to ensure people using GMOs do not breach any conditions imposed as part of approval, with significant penalties for anyone who does break the law.

An individual can be fined $500,000. Companies are liable for fines of $10 million, or three times the value of any commercial gain from the breach, or 10% of the turnover of the company involved (including subsidiaries), whichever is the greater amount.

A strict liability regime introduced under the Act also allows anyone harmed as a result of a breach of the law to seek compensation without having to prove the harm was caused by someone else’s negligence.

The minister stressed that the end of the moratorium on release applications does not mean a rash of GM releases.

"The floodgates will not suddenly open. Anyone proposing to release a GMO has to apply to ERMA and go through a rigorous assessment process, which includes public submissions," Marian Hobbs said. "An approval will only be given if a proposal meets stringent minimum standards designed to protect health, safety and the environment, and if the benefits of a GMO outweigh any adverse effects, including the economic effects."

Other work in response to the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification recommendations

The changes to the legislation are just part of the work the government has been putting in place during the moratorium in its response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification.

Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council has been set up to advise the government on biotechnological issues that have a significant cultural, ethical and spiritual dimension.

The HSNO Act has been amended to more appropriately reflect the Treaty of Waitangi partnership. The government is also encouraging a series of initiatives aimed at establishing better lines of communication between Maori and researchers working in the field of genetic modification.

Around $7m a year has been going towards research programmes to investigate the environmental and social impacts of GM and there has been an increase in public funding in support of the organics sector from around $0.8m to $3m a year.

A Biotechnology Strategy setting out a vision and direction for the development of biotechnology in New Zealand was published in May this year.




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