The world’s first major government study on genetically modified foods has created a storm of protest despite firmly sitting on the fence in its findings. David Robertson comments from New Zealand on a dispute driven by science, ethics and not least politics.

New Zealand, a heavily agricultural-based economy, set up a Royal Commission on GM foods last year and after a NZ$6m (US$) and 14 month investigation the Commission reported last week that modified foods should be neither banned nor encouraged too much.

The Commission, which in British Commonwealth countries carries similar weight to the US’s Congressional hearings, is the first wide-ranging investigation and received over 10,000 submissions from the public – 90% of which expressed concern.

But in its 1200 page report the Commission points out what everyone has known for some time about GM foods: the worriers have little or no evidence while the full weight of scientific research can be brought to support genetic engineering.

The Commission, which had four members and was led by former chief justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, has taken a middle of the road approach producing 49 recommendations that will allow limited field testing but puts in place plenty of checks and balances.

The moratorium on GM field trials will be lifted at the end of this month and the government will take about three months to reply to the Commission’s suggestions, which include food labelling, protecting organic farmers with buffer zones and support for sustainable farming methods. It also proposes that the environment minister should decide the first application for the commercial use of any new GM crop.

The recommendations have been supported by the scientific community, many farmers, the Labour-led government and the opposition. ”

“New Zealand is well placed to become a leader in pharmaceutical research because livestock are free from scrapie and BSE”

New Zealand is well placed to become a leader in pharmaceutical research because livestock are free from scrapie and BSE. There are very real opportunities and the Commission’s findings acknowledge these,” said Dr Dan Cohen of the Environmental Science and Research Centre in Auckland.

But the report has outraged organic farmers and the Green party – there has been a week of Frankenfoods scaremonger since the report came out. The Greens ironically pushed for the Royal Commission in the first place hoping that it would reject all GM crops and enable the party to pursue its dream of a totally organic country by 2020. By allowing field-testing the Greens claim that the NZ$110m organic industry will be jeopardised and likens the Commission’s recommendations to the initial enthusiasm for DDT, nuclear power and CFCs.

“While the report recognises that the technology is unpredictable and risky, the Commission then shows an incredible faith in the technology, assuming that it will eventually become safe,” said Green co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons.

Political sway

This type of hand wringing from the sandal brigade is to be expected but in New Zealand their opposition to the report is given an added weight as they effectively have the swing vote in parliament. Labour is the major party in a coalition that includes the Alliance and, when it suits them, the Greens. Generally the Greens will vote with the government but if it doesn’t then the government can be beaten and its policies kicked out.

Fitzsimons has hinted that the Greens may withhold support from the government if it goes ahead and implements the report’s findings, suddenly adding a whole new, political, dimension to the GM debate. In fact, the whole future of genetic engineering in New Zealand may be decided in the next few weeks by politics as the parties stake out their ground before next year’s election.

According to senior government officials the Green opposition was the reason for Prime Minister Helen Clark’s cautious acceptance of the report and decision to delay doing anything for three months. If Labour loses support from either the Greens or the Alliance (which is also making up its mind) then the report is likely to get binned in order to keep the coalition together.

But the whole Green-led furore may be a political bluff. Another well placed government source told that he did not expect the Greens to withhold support over the GM issue – and it was noticeable that the Greens’ other leader Rod Donald has gone out of his way not to rock the boat in the last week.

“The Greens have more to gain thanks to this report than if it had come back saying ‘ban all GM foods’. In a purely political play it sets out their stall for the election. It works well for them as it gives them something to campaign against. They’ll use it to up their poll [3-5%] because many voters know they’ll vote with Labour on social issues but they’ll pick up the outrage vote by hammering home the Frankenfoods message.”

Ironically the Royal Commission’s recommendation to back field testing of GM foods actually benefits the Greens politically although it does leave their ideals floundering. In an agricultural economy it will be very hard to stand in the way of developments that could add billions of dollars to export earnings and politicians of all parties seem to be aware of this. As a result it is likely that GM will get the green light in New Zealand – but quietly.

“I think we’ll find that most or all of the recommendations will go through but on the quiet so as not to upset anyone,” said the source. “I don’t expect too much to be announced in three months.”

By David Robertson, correspondent

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

World Market For GM-Food Testing

Handbook on the Labelling of Genetically Modified Foods, Ingredients and Additives