James Shaw’s regard for science may portend a shift in Green position on GM research

Towards the end of the Prime Minister’s press conference on February 25, someone without much to think about asked Jacinda Ardern what she thought of Huawei’s public relations campaign that compared itself in New Zealand to the All Blacks?

The PM was appropriately dismissive:

It’s not for me to judge the marketing campaign of any private company. All right, thank you, everyone. Last question—I’m feeling generous.

We can be grateful she was of a generous disposition.  The final question raised an issue of interest to agricultural and horticultural scientists:

Media: Are you concerned that your Conservation Minister is blocking any exploration into genetic engineering despite her officials saying that it could be an effective alternative to 1080?

PM: Look, my understanding is that the Minister’s simply expressed that that’s not currently part of the work programme, but hasn’t given a position as definitive as that.

There was no opportunity for a follow-up question.

The Conservation Minister, of course, is the Green Party’s Eugenie Sage whose opposition to genetic modification was recently reiterated in media reports which told of her constraining Predator Free 2050 by forbidding if from carrying out any research which could lead to the use of genetic modification or gene editing.  

According to Stuff, her letter of direction to Predator Free 2050 – obtained by the lobby group Life Sciences Network – said its primary tasks were to invest in breakthrough scientific research, but not to research into genetically modified organisms and technologies or gene editing, and to raise funds for co-investment by other (non-government) parties, in landscape scale projects and breakthrough science, excluding any science involving genetic modification.

She said “gene editing is an unproven technology for predator control” and “gene technologies are problematic and untested and have significant risks.”

The SPCA has said that – as an animal welfare organisation – it advocates that any pest control measure, including poisons, GMO or any other strategies,  must be humane.

But Sage has ruled out a GMO strategy, saying New Zealand’s GE Free reputation would be at risk from being associated with any field trials of gene technology.

She further said:

“There has been no comprehensive public consultation on genetic modification and any potential changes to the HASNO laws since the Royal Commission into Genetic Modification, so there is no public mandate for research into gene drive or similar technologies.”

Life Sciences Network chairman and former president of Federated Farmers, William Rolleston challenged this, saying a ban on such research was contrary to government policy which allowed its use in the laboratory, but required Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) evaluation and approval as well as public consultation before any genetically modified organism (GMO) release.

The Life Sciences Network, formed in 2000, is a pro-biotech group which lobbies for genetically modified food and crops.

“The minister has used the excuse that there is no public mandate for the use of genetic technologies however I believe this is disingenuous as, while historical surveys have indicated a cautious public view on the issue of GMO release, 76 per cent supported the government lifting its moratorium on GM in 2003,” Rolleston said.

“Research into genetic technologies to eliminate our predators will provide insights and tools which may not necessarily require the release of GMOs. However, if our scientists are not able to even enquire, we will be trying to understand and evaluate the risks and benefits of GM predator control with one arm tied behind our back.  

“Our predator situation is unique, and our environment, particularly our taonga species, risk remaining under stress and in decline for longer than is necessary because of this call by the minister.”

The Prime Minister’s former science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, in July last year said it was time for New Zealand to restart the debate on genetic modification.

At the end of his nine-year term as chief science adviser, Sir Peter said the science had shown genetic modification was safe.

“The science is as settled as it will be,” Sir Peter told TVNZ’s Q + A today.

“That is, it’s safe, that there are no significant ecological or health concerns associated with the use of advanced genetic technologies.”

But he appreciated that New Zealand society would not automatically accept these technologies and  said…

“And what we need is a conversation which we’ve not had in a long time, and it needs to be, I think, more constructive and less polarised than in the past.

Sir Peter listed some of the areas where genetic modification could be used.

“We’re facing issues of biosecurity. We’re facing issues of predators and the desire to be predator-free.

“We’re facing the fact that our farming system needs to change because of the environmental impact of the greenhouse gas emissions, the water quality issues, et cetera.

“We are, fundamentally, a biologically-based economy. Now, the science is pretty secure, and science can never be absolute…

“But the uncertainty here is minimal to nil, very, very low. I think it’s a conversation we need to have.”

At that time Environment Minister David Parker said there were no plans to change the existing regime, which took a precautionary approach.

He did agree pest control might be the first area where New Zealand chose to consider these technologies – “but that is many years away”. 

Perhaps not.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw this week said he has not ruled out the use of genetic modification although he said it should be a question for the public and he would be led by the science around the issue.

On TVNZ1’s Q+A last night, Mr Shaw was asked what was being done to support farmers to reduce agricultural emissions.    

“There are already options that a number of them are putting in place…” he said. “Our job is to support them to make sure they have the best information and the best systems available to them.    

“The Government were also getting advice from the interim climate change committee about how agricultural emissions are priced.”   

Host Corin Dann asked if Mr Shaw would support genetic modification if it were to reduce methane emissions in livestock.   

“That’s a question for the public… but I’m also not certain that we’d need it,” he responded.   

“If it could work, would you be open to it?” Dann asked.  

“I’d have to see how it goes…” Mr Shaw said. “I want to see what the science says about that and what the science ethics committee say about that. I would be led by the science on that.”

That’s promising.  Shaw is saying science should over-ride ideology.

But meantime The Green Party website says its policy is to prohibit genetically modified and transgenic organisms that were intended for release into the environment or food chain, while keeping genetic research contained to the laboratory.

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