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Despite Public Opposition New Zealand May Go Forward on Agbiotech

Despite Public Opposition New Zealand
May Go Forward on Agbiotech

August 21, 2001 New York Times

A Step Forward for Genetic Engineering in New Zealand

By ALLAN COUKELL

AUCKLAND, New Zealand, Aug. 20 < The Royal Commission on Genetic
Modification has recommended that research on genetically modified crops and
animals "proceed with caution," elating the nation's biotechnology interests
while dismaying opponents of the technology, particularly the nation's
influential Green Party.

The commission's report explicitly rejects the idea of a nation free of
genetically modified crops and animals, saying it would not be in New
Zealand's social, environmental or economic interests. Although it calls for
a number of additional restrictions on genetic modifications, the report
argues that the technology can be used "in a way that does not threaten New
Zealand's `clean green' image."

The recommendations, issued late last month, are not binding, but if
accepted by the government, they would ease restrictions on low-risk
research done in laboratories and would tighten the regulatory regime around
activities like the general release of genetically modified organisms. In
particular, the commissioners called for a rule change that would enable the
authorities to impose follow-up safety monitoring or to limit the scale of
any release of genetically modified organisms.

They also called for more research on the potential for any release to
affect soil and ecological systems.

The report, a wide-ranging inquiry into the technology's implications for
health, environmental, legal, economic and cultural issues, is the first of
its kind from an industrialized nation. It is expected to attract interest
from other countries grappling with the controversies arising from
biotechnology.

Prime Minister Helen Clark, who set up the panel in May 2000, said opponents
must accept the fact that the commission "has not embraced their view on
field trials and on crops." She said her government would study the report
and make a decision in about three months.

Genetic engineering is controversial in New Zealand. No genetically modified
crops have yet been approved for release, and even experimental field trials
have been delayed since the commission first met.

Critics of the technology predict that it will lead to widespread
environmental damage and health problems. Some, including many Maori groups
that testified before the commission, oppose it on ethical or spiritual
grounds. Others believe that New Zealand farmers can capitalize on the
growing world market for organic produce, but only if the nation rejects
genetic modifications.

The critics have won wide support. A commission survey showed that most New
Zealanders were comfortable with genetic modification for medical purposes
but saw "more disadvantages than advantages" in its use on animals or crops.

On the other side of the debate are the biotechnology industry, science
organizations and farm groups that view transgenics as an important tool for
improving the value and efficiency of New Zealand's agriculture and forestry
industries.

The four commissioners < a doctor, a scientist, a bishop and a retired chief
justice < held dozens of public meetings, heard expert witnesses from New
Zealand and abroad, and worked through more than 10,000 submissions from the
public. More than 100 individuals or groups presented evidence in formal
hearings.

Representatives of industry said they would not object to the additional
scrutiny recommended. "Field trials were going to be expensive anyway," said
Dr. Ian Warrington, chief executive of HortResearch, a state-owned company
that is using gene technology to improve fruit production. "It is a very
good report," he said.

The report also calls for a new advisory body on ethical, social and
cultural matters in biotechnology.

The commissioners said they recognized that greater use of genetically
modified crops would create some problems. For instance, the report calls
for a strategy that will allow both genetically modified crops and the
continued production of organic honey, which requires no contact with pollen
from genetically modified plants. But Pete Hodgson, minister of research,
science and technology, conceded that it would be extremely difficult to
keep the bees from those plants.

The full report is online at www.gmcommission.govt.nz.


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