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Green's Fury at GM Nod - A Royal Commission has given guarded backing to a GM future. July 2001 NZ Herald

The Royal Commission has rejected a GM future for New Zealand, plunging into doubt the Green Party's backing for the government. A furious Green Party is not yet threatening to withdraw its support for the minority Labour-Alliance coalition but that cannot be ruIled out.

The party is devastated that the Royal commission has effectively given a big tick to the present approval system for genetically modified organisms (GMOS) and labelling. "I find it very hard to think of anything further they could have done to take us closer to a GM future than they have said disappointed Green's co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons said last night. "The issue won't go away and the fight isn't over. "We were quite prepared not to get everything we were looking for. We were quite prepared to work in a spirit of compromise. But, really, this goes too far." Genetic modification issues have been the Green's No. 1 priority since the election. The CVommission's $6.2 million report says uit would be "unwise" for New Zealand to turn its back on the potential of GM technology, but urges caution. As in the past, we should go forward but with care," the report says, comparing genetic technology with such great advance as fire, the wheel, steam power, electricity and the microchip.

Many scientists research groups ahd businesess welcome the report. Auckland Medical School dean Peter Gluckman said: "It looks like a pragmatically sensible road map ahead for New Zealand. Prime Minister Helen Clark' described the 'report as thorough, measured and and conducted by a groups of people "with no axe to grind.

"It rejects the idea of New Zealand being free of all genetically modified material at the one extreme and the option of unrestricted use of genetic modification at the other." She indicated broad support for the result of the commission's work over more than a year on over 10,000 public submissions, but dismissed the possibility of drastic action from the Greens. "What I can say is that any suggestion of an election between now and Christmas [2002] on issues of supply and confidence is completely ridiculous." The commission wants to make it easier for low-risk research to be carried out by lowering compliance costs and allowing for approval on a project-wide basis rather than for each individual organism used and to toughen up high-risk research.

The Greens will hold discussions with the government as it works on an official response to the report.

Jeanette Fitzsimons accused the commission of having "chickened out and passed the buck".

She agreed it would be difficult for the Greens to support the Government if it embraced the 49 recommendations in their entirety. But added: "I don't want to explore options until I know what the Government will come out with, because it sounds like issuing threats, which is not what I'm doing." . Asked if she ruled out withdrawing support, she said: "There are a whole lot of degrees of support for the Government." She would not elaborate on the option of the seven MPs. But non- cooperation with the Government or abstaining on confidence issues are possibilities without endangering the coalition which commands 59 of the 120 votes in parliament.

The Greens say the worst aspect of the report is a proposed new category of "conditional release" 'of genetically modified organisms. It would allow the Enviromnental Risk Management Authority to place conditions on the project, including a requirement to report back on a regular basis. It would almost certainly liberalise the present regime, which is limited to a ban on release without controls. No application has yet been made for the public release of a GM crop in New Zealand. But the commission says the first case will be such an important event that the Minister for the Environment, Marian Hobbs, should use her statutory powers to make the decision It wants Maori views considered on institutions ethics committees and on a proposed Bioethics Council and it w the Treaty of Waitangi section of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 strengthened. The commission said organic, genetically modified and conventional agriculture could exist comfortably in the same environment - a claim rejected by the Greens and organic farmers.. It did not recommend any move to prohibit field tests. The Commission has virtually left the food labelling regulations alone saying (Anzfa) is doing a good job. Anzfa has agreed that food containing 1 per cent or more of GM ingredients must be labelled by December 1. The commission said the Government should "facilitate" the voluntary labelling of non-GM food. Industry and research groups agreed to a voluntary moratorium on field trials while the royal commission carried out its inquiry. No decision has been made on what to do when the moratorium expires on August 31, but it is likely to continue during the Government's three-month deliberation on the conunission's finding.

In the future potatoes could be grown in New Zealand which resist the pests that prey on them. Or the shades of flowers could be changed by altering thdir levels of pigmentations. And there are hopes of a virus-free pea. The trials of genetically modified peas, flowers and potatoes have been on hold at Crop and Food Research in Christchurch awaiting the outcome of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification. Dr Tony Conner, professor of plant biotechnology at the crown research institute, said the trials could now progress to fleld trials. Crop and Food Research had been forced to put the trials on hold for 15 months as researchers agreed to a moratorium while the commission was sitting.
On the new frontier are transferring a gene into potatoes so leaves produce an insecticide which inhibits the tuber moth pest The hope is the potatoes cowd be grown without pesticides. Genetically modifying the peas involved placing a small piece of virus into the chromosome to give them immunity. A range of flower grops, are being experimented on to control pigmentation. Professor Pat Sullivan, head of the Institute of Molecular Bio-Sciences at Massey University in Palmerston North, said the report cleared the way to get on with basic research. "I am just delighted. "We should now be able to get system running in New Zealand more akin to the systems for managing research that exist in other countries like Ausralia, the United States and Britain."

Genetic modificaton apoears here to stay. Environment reporter Anne Beston on the royal commission's 49 recommendations. NZ Herald July August 2001

The title of the long-awaited report into genetic science in New Zealand was the biggest hint of the direction it would set for the country. It was called "Preserving Opportunities", a clear indication that New Zealand could not afford to tum its back on the brave new world of gen- etic modification. And so it proved. The findings of the Royal Com- nussion on Genetic Modification are "proceed with caution". Among its 49 recommendations are suggestions that different kinds of crops, both genetically modified and organic, will be able to be grown in New Zealand, and a new provision allowing for contained release of a genetically modified organism. But new rules will be needed. These could include a Bioethics Council to consider the cultural, spiritual and ethical issues of GM and a new Parliamentary Commissioner on Biotechnology, along the lines of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. The first time a genetically modified organism (which is anything from a GM food crop to a GM medical vaccine) is released, it should be the decision of the Minister for the Envirorirnent.

If GM crops are grown, how do you stop cross pollination con- taminating GM-free crops?

The commission recommends that the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry play a bigger role in policing how GM crops are grown in New Zealand. It says MAF should develop an industry code of practice "to ensure effective separation of distances between genetically modified and unmodified crops". MAF would also get the tricky task of setting up a system of communication between farmers using different production methods if the Government accepts the report's recorrunendations. The commission suggests that MAF "provide mediation where n " but whether the ministry gets the resources to do this is up to the Government. It may be no enviable task being caught in the cr-ossfire between an organic farmer woniod his livelihood is about to disappear and an orthodox farmer claiming his right to grow anything he likes.

What did the commission say about Maori cultural and spirltual concerns on GM?

The suggestion of a Bioethics Council and a Parliamentary Commissioner on Biotechnology are the two main recommendations to try to address Maori concerns about GM. The commission found, unsurprisingly, that taking Maori concerns mto account on every application to the Environmental Risk Management Agency is "almost impossible".

"I'm sure scientists will all be feeling that some of the shackles have come off"
Dr William Rolleston - Life Sciences Network

The commission takes as an example the breeding of cows at AgResearch's Ruakura base which angered local Maori and ended up in the High Court. Eventually, the experiment had to go back to the regulatory body, only to be reapproved. With a Bioethics Council, - the commission says, the spiritual and cultural objections of Maori to this kind of research coidd be aired. Also, in view of Maori concerns about GM, the commission recommended that the grounds for stopping a particular experiment be widened, for instance where there are significant social ethical or cultural issues. The power to "call in" a particular piece of h work @use of such concerns hes with Environment Minister Marian Hobbs. But the Bioethics Council, although independent, would play only an advisory role and its decisions would not be binding.

What Is the Parliamentary Commissioner on Bicytechnology for?

The conunission says the parliamentary commissioner will check up on the authorities making decisions in genetic science, flag new biotechnology developments and "fulfil a widespread educational and consulting role with the public". Greenpeace, for one, is not impressed. Spokeswoman Annette Cotter has called some of the recommendations for new bureaucracies "expensive and inefficient. "You have to ask, how effective has the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Envirorunent been on formulating policy, that's the question. It just means more people looking at the issue, and in effect what it will probably mean is field trials of genetically engineered organisms being rubber-stamped."

What is a biotechnology strategy and who is supposed to set lt up?

The Ministry of Research Science and Technology gets this one. If the Government agrees, the ministry will consult the Bioethics Council and the Parliamentary Commissioner on Biotechnology and other groups on where New Zealand should head. The commission says this fits the ministry's role as the body responsible for "providing [email protected] for science and irmovation as a whole, accelerating New Zealand towards becoming a knowledge economy and achieving better outcomes for investment in research, science and technology".

If something goes wrong, who takes the blame or Who pays?

The conunission left the curly question of liability open - it made no recommendations and said the status quo remained. Unlike America, which has seen billion-dollar lawsuits over the accidental contamination of GM-free corn by a GM crod, New Zealand farmers would find it tough to get compensation if something similar happened. It is a question the Government may have to consider carefully as biotechnology develops, but the comission chose not to be of much help.

So If the Government adopts this report, what Is likely to happen?

Well it is unlikely to mean a crop of GM feijoas coming to a garden near you any time soon.

The approval process to grow genetically modified crops or breed calves with human genes is rigorous, and some experiments have been on hold because of the voluntary ban on new applications for GM experiments.

The voluntary ban, agreed to by industry and research organisations while the commission was sitting expires on august 31 and the government will have to decide whether to extend ot or to allow regulated GM work to go ahead.. Life Sciences Network is an umbrella group of industry and scientists wanting GM to Proceed as quickly as possible. But chairman Dr William Rolleston does not envisage rapid progress.

"While the moratorium was in place, people haven't moved forward, so we've got a lot of catching up to do. I'm sure scientists will be feeling that some of the shackles have come off and we can move forward in a responsible way." Dr Rolleston said he knew of no Planned commercial releases of a genetically modified crop and it was ulikely to happen until well into next year, if then.

Does this mean the fight against GM is probably over?

In fact, it may just be beginning. The Green Party is unlikely to give up this one. A GM-free New Zealand is a core policy for the Greens, one they campaigned. But Life Sciences, Crown Research Institute, and dozens of scientists at work in the country will push the government to adopt the commissions findings.

Science and industry is a powerful lobby group, and can argue convincingly that New Zealand needs biotech to pur-sue its vision of a knowledge economy.

Any significant backing away from the commission's recommendations is likely to draw their fire. During its 14-month investigation, the four-member commission held 15 public meetings 11 hui, 29 workshops, one youth forum and 13 weeks of formal hearings.

Life as we know it? NZ Listener Aug 2001

While the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification recommends a cautious path into the biotech future, calves containing a synthetic copy of a human gene graze placidly in a Waikato paddock. As ever, accelerating scientific progress is leaving the ethical debate far behind.

Above, Green Party coleader Jeanone Fitzslmons: vilified as the Bad Witch.

BY MARK REVINGTON The birth notice was simple - four calves born at AgResearch Ruakura. It was the next line that noted the significance. "Tests have confirmed that the female calves are carrying a synthetic copy of the human MBP gene, which represents a world first." The sight of black and white calves gamboling around a paddock under a gray Waikato sky is a quintessential New Zealand scene. But it isn't life as we know it. These animals were concocted in a laboratory, are kept in a high-security unit at the Ruakura Research Centre, and the arguments over their existence exemplify the gulf between science and society in the genetics debate. That is, until the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, also a world-first, dumped its weighty tomes upon the nation last week. Just to reach the calves requires a trip past security worthy of a difficult border crossing. Their imminent birth provoked Molotov cocktail attacks, attempted break-ins at Ruakura's high-security unit, and an acid attack on a Ruakura staff member's car. And these are animals ostensibly bred to help find a treatment for multiple sclerosis. AgResearch, a crown research institute, filed an application in December 1998 to insert synthetic copies of human genes into cows so that they would secrete something called the human myelin basic protein (MBP) in their milk. The milk would then be used in experiments to find a possible treatment for multiple sclerosis. It was part of a three-stage project that also included trials with genetically engineered cattle to increase casein and reduce lactose in milk. The first two trials have obvious commercial goals. You can picture the result, increased-casein milk in its own little bright cardboard packaging in the supermarket. However, it was the proposal to insert a copy of a human gene into cow embryos that would prove highly controversial. It would take another two years, a landmark Mgh Court appeal, and the resignatim of the scientist lead- ing the research amid criticism of chok- ing bureaucracy, before AgResearch got the final go-ahead for the project from the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma). No wonder AgResearch chief execu- tive Keith Steele savoured those moments following the birth of the first calves. "I felt very matemahstic. I went home to my wife and said, 'I don't think I've ever defended pregnant females so strongly in all my previous career.' You get very excited. One, because of the opportuni- ties they present and, two, the fact that we are at the leading edge. And just the sheer excitement of seeing the first calf on the ground and recognising that it is the next step forward and it is only the ne)Ct step forward in a long progressive chain, is so exciting and so exhilarating." The perceived role of human NMP as a possible treatment for multiple sclerosis has been the subject of some acrimonious debate, especially between Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons and Tom Miller, director of research for the MS Society of New Zealand. Both claim the scientific high ground. "There are a lot of grounds for opposition to this project," says Fitzsimons. "The first and easiest is that the public have been deceived and told a very simplistic story that it is about finding a cure or a treatment for multiple sclerosis. The public have been treated to a lot of images and terrible stories about this terrible disease and the impression has been created that genetically engineering cows is the best prospect for finding a cure. There is really no great connection between the two." In opposing the trial, Fitzsimons has been vilified as the Bad Witch. "Narrow-minded, dogmatic ideology by Jeanette Fitzsimons and her teain clearly demonstrates lack of compassion to MS sufferers and their families ... " claimed a letter to the NZ Herald. "Ms Fitzsimons is obviously happy to let people suffer for many years to help her with her ideological dream to take us back to cave days as the only way we can ensure a safe environment."

A lack of compassion? No, says Fitzsimons, who points out that she has a close friend who suffers from MS. "I've had lots of letters and emails from MS sufferers who see me as the big villain. Some of them change their minds when I write back. They are being used as cover by AgResearch." Fitzsimons has problems with both the claims that the trial could help MS sufferers, and the way in which Erma's decision was made. She believes AgResearch is putting the cart before the horse, or cow in this case, in trying to produce large quantities of human MBP before clinical trials can estab- lish just how it wig help fight MS. She quotes Laurence Steinrnan, professor of neurology at Stanford University. "He says, 'Human or cow NMP can easily be made in bacteria or microbes by fermentation. There is no need to produce it in cows at present."' The Ruakura trial, she suggests, is simply a way to demonstrate a manufacturing technology using cows, a precursor to designer niilk. Nflller in tum is implacable in his reaction to Fitzsimons. "That's absolute nonsense. The basis of a large slice of MS research is looking for alternative targets for the inunune system to attack rather than the individual's myelin and the basis of that whole arrn of research, in terms of diverting the immune system attack, is looking at derivatives of human myelin basic protein." Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system that scientists believe is caused by the degeneration of the myelin sheath that coats nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Human myelin basic protein, or part of it, could act as an altemative target. The problem has always been getting enough human myelin basic protein to carry out adequate research, says Miller, because it is extracted from human brains. "That's a very limited resource, so the AgResearch initiative to produce the human myelin basic protein in cows is extremely innovative and welcomed worldwide. I went to a conference in Europe recently and spoke about this initiative and there was considerable interest. It's flmdamental to the study of the disorder and it's flmdamental to one aspect of its therapy. "The AgResearch project opens the way for extending research into MS in this country. if you are holding the resource, then you are in a very favourable position. The Greens' opposition to it is very mean- spirited and it's driven by their political philosophy. It has nothing to do with their interest or disinterest in MS, it's just that they oppose the research on principle."

The case of the calves symbolises the divide between scientific progress and ethical quandary. Many scientists told the Royal Commission that New Zealand couldn't afford to be left behind in bio- technology. Steele says New Zealand's inherent strengths in agriculture - rel- atively low costs, good animal health, smart scientists - make us a natural leader. "We probably know more about the cattle, and certainly the sheep genome, than any other country in the world, because that's been our tradition. "If you look at why we are doing this, New Zealand's strengths have always been in - I would use the word bio- logical sciences as opposed to farming - because what underpins our famiing is in fact biological sciences. New Zealand has become world-renowned for its agricultural production, for its ability to produce large volumes of low-cost dairy products, and the fact that we have good animal- health status works in our favour. "If you look at the world market for recombinant proteins, our estimate is that it is currently about $US12.8 billion a year. That's not to be sneezed at. The US currently has got 77 biotechnology medicines approved by the FDA and 86 percent of them are in fact recombinant human proteins. So it's a medical area which is well accepted. Basically, it's a growing market and there are only three or four groups in the world at the moment that are anywhere near the abilities of where AgResearch is with pharrnaceuti- cals and neutraceuticals using animals." But inserting a human gene in an animal, even if it is only a copy? The trou- ble with this kind of science is that it asks the lay public, not just scientists, to grapple with the Big One - the meaning of life. A growing unease about the sneaky introduction of genetically engineered food is one thing. Crossing the species barrier, however, blurs a line that marks us out as human. If we share 80 percent of our genes with other mammals, for instance, exactly which combination of DNA is essentially human? The answers to such imponderables may be as much about culture as they are about science. Ironically, Erma's decision allowing the Ruakura trial to go ahead was opposed by one of its own members, Leatrice Welsh, who believed it posed a spiritual affront to Ngati Wairere, the hapu with responsibil- ity for the land upon which the Ruakura Research Centre is sited. The hapu wanted AgResearch to carry out a health risk assessment of the metaphysical effects of the trial on Ngati Wairere people, while both Ngati Wairere and Erma's own Maori advisory committee, Nga Kaihautu Ti-kanga Taiao, asked Erma to delay approval until after the Royal Com- mission's report. Erma said at that time it was unable to require an application to be witfidrawn. in approving the trial, Erma said, "It is one thing to take every effort to respect Maori spiritual beliefs, it is another to ask the whole community to accept them as arbiters of whether genetic research should proceed."

But Erma is a scientific risk managenent authority. It is not ideally suited to ietermining the relative merits of cultural arguments, or ways of viewing the world. Some opposition to biotechnology will not be concerned with risk, but instead with whether it is right or appropriate - far less tangible concepts. Finding a framework that can consider these values in tandem with science is the next challenge. "A lot of it comes dovrn to unease," says Bevan Tipene Matua, a lecturer in Maori at Canterbury University, a former senior policy adviser for Erma, and a consultant to the Royal Commission- "With Maori, you can couch it and identify it with cultural icons like whakapapa, mauri, wairua - labels, if you like. Others with spiritual and ethical objec- tions over and above the physical maybe can't couch it in those terms. I actually think the scientific arguments are themselves couched in a person's belief system - how they view the world. Then they rationalise the science accordingly, so I think the basis of the whole debate is tied up in values, in spirituality, in culture. it's just people won't admit it and [they] reduce it to good science[bad science. But it always comes to a value judgment."

The Royal Commission has attempted to address that issue, and how it can be linked to practical decision making. It acknowledged that the choices we make about genetic engineering are often linked to ethical, cultural and moral values. Decisions shouldn't be based simply on good science versus bad science. "I think that is a very brave thing the Royal Commission has done in nan-Ang core values of New Zealanders," says Anne Dickinson, chair of the independent Biotechnology Advisory Council, set up two years ago to offer the government advice in this area. (The council will be superseded if the Bioethics Conunittee suggested by the Royal Cornrnission is set up.) "What they've done is say, what do we have in common, what do we all believe in, what do the majority of us support, what are the threads g through everything that make this a New Zealand answer? "All of our decisions in this area are taking us beyond the boundaries of the lab- oratory. They reach right into the lives of individuals and they certaiffly reach into our collective identity as New Zealanders. That has been recognised in the report." Critics of the report, however, argue that the widespread opposition to field-release trials of genetically engineered organisms has not been recognised enough. Like the thresholds between species, the thought of introducing GE crops and animals into the "nominal" environment leaves many New Zealanders feeling uneasy. Fitzsimons talks of a "strong gut feel- ing" that the species divide is there for a reason and we cross it at our peril. There's an awful lot about nature we don't know about, she argues, including the impact of releasing genetically engineered material into the environment. The saine arguments against field trials ofgenet- icaBy engineered crops also apply to genetically engineered animals, she says. "The problem is not contain- ing the cows. It's that their dung and urine will go into the soil. There was good evidence to the Royal Conunis- sion that soil bacteria are capable of pick- ing up emetic material and transferring it. But Steele says AgResearch, with its 1200 employees, is a microcosm of New Zealand society, albeit weighted towards scimce. "hiterestingly mough, if you look at the divergence of views within our own company, we are no different to the gen- eral public, so we have staff who are at aN parts of the spe . In that regard, two @s are importmt. One is that one of our leading values as a company is being responsible, and that is something we invariably stick to, so we wig orily mter into undertakings that we believe are responsible. Obviously, my perception of what is responsible will differ from yours and we have those sorts of debates within AgResearch, and we set no-go areas. Those areas obviously change as we learn more, as technology progresses, as our confidence and understanding increases. We've held workshops, we've got five major campuses and we've held those discussions right around the company." And the problem lies partly in the gen- eral public's mistrust of scientists. That has been a consistent theme in all the research EBAC has done, says Dickinson. "The commercialisation of science that's occurred in the last 15 to 20 years has worked to the disadvantage of scien- tists because they're now seen as being prepared to do anything for a buck. I think there is now quite a marked dis- trust of scientists among the general pop- ulation. That distrust shows up strongly in the genetic engineering debate. We need a more open debate between scien- tists and the public and we need to learn to trust our scientists again."