Gordon Campbell on changing the GE rules, plus a music playlist

6b25881022c38025869eSo Christopher Luxon wants to relax the rules that govern the use of genetic modification outside a laboratory setting. Would this mean going only so far as to allow gene editing of an existing gene sequence, or does Luxon intend to give a green light to field trials where entirely new genes have been inserted, and/or where the irradiation of existing gene sequences takes place in search of useful mutations? Hard to tell what he has in mind.

In the food area, would a National government seek to restrict the imports of GNO food only to animal feed, or would it allow open slather on GMO food for human consumption? Hmm. What extra labelling regulations – if any – does National envisage to enable consumers to know whether the food that they’re eating has been GE-altered? After all, we all know how much ACT and National hate red tape.

True, National is talking about having an independent regulator to look after all the ethical and safety issues that may arise. Good luck with that. Whoever gets that job will have their work cut out in deciding the balance to be struck between commercial gain and the human/environmental risk – not to mention how these competing factors might be measured and weighed.

In the end, any regulator is only as good as the resources they have at their disposal, and the commercial, ethical and safety boundaries within which they have been told to operate. So far, National is not indicating that it sees any role at all for government when it comes to setting the boundaries that commercial firms and scientists would be required to observe when experimenting with the building blocks of life.

That’s a concern. But – some would say – it’s not as if National has been alone in calling for reform of the rules around genetic modification. There’s a useful pro-reform overview of the current regulatory situation available here. The possible impact of GE on the whakapapa and mauri of native plants is discussed in this article. Good points are raised. In practice, how would National ensure its proposed relaxation of the rules for GE testing and approval are consistent with its obligations under te Tiriti o Waitangi?

The Productivity Commission also issued a report last year calling for a major regulatory review of genetically modified organisms and technologies.

On The Other Hand…

Conversely… As the Sustainability Council pointed out in its response to the Productivity Commission’s draft report, there is still a notable lack of compelling evidence that the current regulatory regime for GMOs is unduly restricting the access of New Zealand scientists to modern technologies. An MFE/EPA report in 2019 for instance, had found only minor changes were needed to the scientific approvals process. Moreover, as the Sustainability Council says:

The claim that New Zealand is suffering large “opportunity costs” due to overly restrictive regulation is unfounded. Industry lobbyists frequently make such claims, without adequate evidence… The claims rest on the notion that adoption of this technology is meaningfully constrained by regulation. However, the case study evidence shows factors beyond regulation [eg such as market resistance to GE inputs, and resistance by other players to potentially harmful spill-over effects ] are determinative. The [Productivity] Commission’s study focusses on individual firms’ interests and their ability to access unspecified GE products for unspecified purposes, with no assessment as to whether these provide a net benefit relative to non-GE products. The frame is inadequate for the New Zealand food and fibre [ie. forestry] industry. The key question for the past 20 years has been the national level one : how does NZ position [itself] as a sustainable consumer-led, high-value food and fibre economy – and where does the outdoor use of GMOs sit within that, if at all? The lack of fit with those aspirations is the primary reason no agricultural GMOs have not been approved for release in this country to date.

In sum, a responsible government should not be blithely opening the laboratory door to GE technologies. Policy in this area shouldn’t be driven by whatever the lobbyists from individual firms (and their house scientists) are demanding for personal gain. The only safeguard envisaged by National is this sole regulator who will magically balance commercial and scientific factors, via rulings that – presumably – would be open to legal challenge, and prone to being ignored by the government of the day.

Before we do anything rash, a genuine balancing act is required between the claimed productivity gains derivable from the wider use of GM technology, and the extent to which such theoretical gains would be wiped out by actual consumer resistance (both here at home and elsewhere) to GE-altered content… Not to mention by the expense of the extra labelling and tracing information this would require.

As the Sustainability Council also usefully pointed out:

The high profile and long running GMO research project to launch GM grasses in NZ has not been held up by regulation: it has foundered because it is targeted overwhelmingly at dairy pasture, and Fonterra has specifically and repeatedly refuse to to support introduction of GM grasses.

Yes indeed. What does Fonterra think of National’s proposals, and how much does it fear that these may impact badly on the marketing in China of our pure grass-fed dairy products? Consumer resistance and the regulatory/labelling/tracing demands that go with it are one thing. We also need to consider the spinoff effects of a higher GE profile on the efforts of other NZ private sector and national brands, from Fonterra to tourism.

In other words, we should make haste, slowly. Are the constraints in the current approvals and testing regimes really as devastating as is being claimed by the lobbyists for the individual firms that have gained the sympathetic ear of the National Party? Right now, the public is being stampeded into change by commercial interests, but in the absence of any compelling evidence that the nation is in fact suffering at all from – allegedly – being left behind in the GE race.

Risks. What Risks?

It is not re-assuring that the National Party seems to think that changing the rules on GE testing and approvals can only be a win/win outcome for everyone. What are the main risks, if any, TV One’s Jack Tame yesterday asked of our potential next Prime Minister, that genetic modification might pose? After Tame’s repeated attempts to elicit an answer remotely connected to the question, Luxon indicated that no, he couldn’t see any risks but hey he was only a politician and the expert regulator envisaged by National would sort all that stuff out.

Sigh. Only a politician. In living memory one can think of politicians – one of them even got to be Prime Minister – who were able to provide an intelligent reply and talk freely on any topic or question put to them. Luxon, however, seems unable to talk about anything beyond reciting a couple of the bullet points he has been given. Like George W. Bush, Luxon appears to be popular with his corporate sponsors partly because he doesn’t seem to be bright enough to get in their way.

Footnote: Hey, I’m just a journalist, but there are quite a few potential risks/unintended consequences involved in adopting a more laissez-faire approach to our current GE testing and approvals regime.

More GE in the food chain would pose a reputational risk to our current marketing of this country as a producer of niche, organic produce that can be sold at a high premium. Moreover, if the genes from GE modified crops and forests got into the genetic chain of wild plants and other crops, this would have an unpredictable impact on plant life, on insects and on other species.

There could also be a loss in bio-diversity due to the tainting/displacement of existing crops by genetically-altered varieties. No doubt, establishing the actual costs, trade-offs and opportunity costs is not an easy process. Yet that’s why caution should prevail.

Sure, selective breeding programmes can have unexpected outcomes as well. But in that case the process is slower, more predictable and more easily reversible. Once the GE horse has bolted, it will gallop off in all directions.

Music, music

And here’s this week’s Werewolf music playlist