Now let’s get a gee-up for GM from Sir Peter, science writer urges

Science writer Bob Brockie today is calling for the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, to do for GE what he did for P.

Two weeks ago, he observes, Sir Peter debunked the idea that traces of methamphetamine are a health hazard.

He says there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the idea.

Rather surprisingly, the government has taken the scientist’s assertion on board and is keen to right the wrongs of previous policies. Usually, scientific evidence goes in one government ear and out the other, but this time it looks as though three hundred wrongly-evicted tenants might get some sort of compensation and thousands more relieved that they won’t be thrown out of their homes.

Dr Brockie then notes Sir Peter’s persistent urging of the the government and other public agencies

” … to pay more attention to scientific evidence instead of basing policy on gut feelings, fashionable beliefs, needless fear, gossip, conspiracy theories, noisy ill-informed fanatics, and shock/horror media headlines.”

And so….

“We now look forward to the day when the science adviser similarly debunks government and public attitudes towards genetic engineering.”

Dr Brockie references recent substantial reviews of GE by the British Royal Society, the British Medical Association and the American Academy of Science and Medicine which concluded that GE has never harmed anybody or any thing.

Indeed the societies claim that GE only does good. The world’s 28 million GE farmers have increased their crop yields by 22%, their incomes by 66%, and reduced their use of pesticides by 37%. And, for that matter, over 60 000 grateful New Zealand diabetics daily inject themselves with GE insulin with no complaints. Claims that GE is a health hazard to man and beast, or that it degrades the soil or the environment get no support from the top scientific societies

But this is not what we hear incessantly from ‘GE-Free New Zealand’ and Greenpeace. Based purely on gut instinct and misinformation, these paranoid luddites spread fear and loathing about genetic engineering. They suppose that they occupy the high moral ground on these issues but are really shouting in a benighted abyss of ignorance.

And so – Dr Brockie concludes – it is time to step up and debunk the claims of GE-Free-NZ and Greenpeace because “there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support these fear-mongers”.


Soil & Health is pleased that Federated Farmers has dropped legal action around GMOs

The Soil & Health Association says it welcomes Federated Farmers’ decision to drop legal challenges to several local council resource management plans controlling their outdoor use.

Soil & Health reminds us the farmers’ organisation has run a number of cases before the courts challenging the rights of communities in Auckland, the Far North and Whangarei to manage the outdoor use of GMOs within their own districts and regions.

The courts continued to find that territorial authorities have the right under the Resource Management Act (RMA) to set their own policies and rules controlling GMO use, a finding that Federated Farmers repeatedly challenged.

Marion Thomson, Soil & Health National Council Member, congratulated the farm organisation

” … for seeing the sense in dropping further litigation, allowing Councils to get on with making GMO policies and plans that reflect the needs of regions and communities”.

Soil & Health has held strong concerns about the potential impact of GMO land use on regions dependent on an agricultural export sector increasingly reliant on non-GMO requirements of key trading partners.

“This affects both the traditional agricultural sector and New Zealand’s growing organic sector,” Ms Thomson said.

The New Zealand environment and our local communities should not be guinea pigs for GMO land use, she said.

Auckland Council, Far North District Council and Whangarei District Council all prohibit the general outdoor release of GMOs and made field trials a discretionary activity with performance standards in place, whilst Northland Regional Council adopted a precautionary approach in its regional policy statement.

Soil & Health, representing organic and GE-free farmers, primary producers, home gardeners and consumers across New Zealand, has long campaigned against Federated Farmers in each court challenge brought by the feds.

On its website, Federated Farmers sets out their policy stance on GMOs (HERE):

“Federated Farmers’ policy on GMOs is designed to be neutral, recognising that members have a diversity of opinions on the subject.

“Federated Farmers does not advocate unrestricted use of GMOs, especially in relation to allowing foreign DNA into organisms. At the same time, we want to avoid a moratorium on new biotechnologies.

“Fundamentally, the Federation’s policy asserts farmers’ right to use technologies that are approved as safe. We support responsible, flexible farming systems which can respond to changing consumer preferences, market dynamics and advances in technology. We also want to ensure that New Zealand farmers can hold their own with our international competitors, in terms of on-farm productivity.”


David Parker talked (briefly) about GM, too – but the media overlooked it

New Zealand might be ready to consider the use of genetic modification related to pest eradication, rather than agricultural crops, says Environment Minister David Parker – and he is willing to take a look at the issue.

His readiness to look into GM science and how it might be applied was expressed during his interview on TV One’s Q+A last Sunday (HERE).

The interview generated widespread follow-up reports and discussion in response to Mr Parker’s declaring that dairy cow numbers must be reduced in some parts of the country.

Through regulation, if need be.

“Well, cow numbers have already peaked and are going down, but yes, in some areas, the number of cows per hectare is higher than the environment can sustain. That won’t be done through a raw cap on cow numbers; it will be done on nutrient limits, the amount of nutrient that can be lost from a farm to a waterway, because it’s not just a dairy cow issue.”

But interviewer Corin Dann raised other issues with the Minister.

Genetic modification was one of them.

Interviewer:  The Environmental Protection Agency says there’s been no leadership on this issue, that trials of rye grass could help with methane emissions and these types of things have had to go overseas because of our laws. Where do you sit on this issue? Will you help farmers by taking some leadership to give them the tools and some new biotechnology that could work? 

Minister:  Well, there are new cultivars coming forward, which are already helping in that. There’s a form of plantain, which has been bred using conventional means. It’s got a lower roots— deeper root zone, and it absorbs nitrogen well, and it’s really good in wet conditions. Now, those sorts of technologies are coming forward. We haven’t needed GM for it. If people do want to pursue GM outcomes, they can do under our law. They can do the trials in New Zealand.

Interviewer: There’s a lot of science denial — that’s what the EPA’s saying, and there’s a lot of lack of leadership. Would you step into that?

Minister:  I think where New Zealand will put its toe in the water as to where we should go on GM will actually relate to pest eradication rather than agricultural crops. In my assessment, that’s where it will start. I’m willing to have a look at that issue, but through the existing regulatory regime that we’ve already got.

The lack of followup on this might suggest the news media have lost interest in the GM issue.

Perhaps.  But don’t count on it.

EPA rules leading-edge plant and animal research is not GMO

Landcare Research has been given approval by the Environmental Protection Authority to use a leading-edge science technique with the potential to improve disease resistance in plants.

Landcare Research applied for an EPA ruling on whether the technique, which treats certain plant or animal cells (eukaryotic organisms) with RNA to stop those cells producing certain proteins, is a permitted activity under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO).

An EPA-appointed decision-making committee considered whether the practice would result in the creation of a genetically modified organism.

It determined that it would not, says Stephen Cobb, New Organisms Manager for the EPA.

“For Landcare Research this means they can maximise the benefits from their research in treating certain animal and plant cells with double-stranded RNA molecules (dsRNA),” he said.

The technique is being trialled in a lab for agriculture research and may result in a range of benefits including less toxic insecticides.

Source: Environmental Protection Authority

Federated Farmers is headed for court to challenge another council’s GM-free status

Undeterred by a string of failed legal attempts to stop other councils banning GM research, Federated Farmers is proceeding with its court challenge to Hastings District Council’s GM-free status.

News of this follows AgScience advising scientists (HERE) they should keep an eye on new legislation aimed at restoring the promotion of social, cultural, economic and environmental well-being of communities to the statutory purpose of local councils.

The legislators may be pressed to strengthen local authority powers to determine what happens in their regions on issues such as genetic modification research.

The Local Government (Community Well-being) Amendment Bill is designed to restore “four well-beings” (including economic and environmental wellbeing) to the statutory purpose of local government.

“By inserting the four well-beings back into the Local Government Act we acknowledge the valuable role local leadership has to promote the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of citizens and communities,” Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta said.

Radio New Zealand reminds us today (HERE) that the Hastings council was the first local authority in the country to ban genetically modified crops and animals under its 2015 district plan. Federated Farmers immediately challenged the rule in the Environment Court.

The Auckland and Far North councils have also declared their regions to be GM-free. Federated Farmers attempts to challenge them have been lost in the courts.

Radio New Zealand reports:

In 2016, the High Court upheld Northland Regional Council’s right to decide whether to allow genetically-modified organisms in their region.

The farmers’ lobby group appealed the decision, but lost, arguing the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, not the RMA, was the overarching legislation that governed GMO use.

Federated Farmers tried to overturn that ruling in the Court of Appeal in February 2017 but withdrew its case in November, just weeks before a scheduled hearing, citing changes to the RMA would have reduced their chances of winning.

But the feds are now challenging the specific rule in Hastings’ district plan that prohibited GMOs from being released into the environment.

Rule 29.1 forbid any release or field testing of any genetically modified organism, even if it already been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

GMOs being used in labs or for medical use, such as in vaccines, were allowed.

Federated Farmers national president Katie Milne says the legal challenge is not about the “rights and wrongs of GMOs”.

“GMOs are managed within a national framework, and local authorities such as the Hastings District Council (and communities within local authorities) have a role within that framework. The framework is set up under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, not the Resource Management Act.

“Federated Farmers’ challenge to the Council in the Environment Court is about the Council attempting to pre-empt the national framework.”

Hastings District Council is being supported by the GM-free lobby group Pure Hawke’s Bay, which represents local farmers, growers and exporters.

The council submitted its evidence to the Environment Court last week.

Federated Farmers had until this week to respond before a hearing date was set.


Local government powers to constrain GM projects may be revisited

Scientists should keep an eye on new legislation aimed at restoring the promotion of social, cultural, economic and environmental well-being of communities to the statutory purpose of local councils.  The legislators may be pressed to strengthen local authority powers to determine what happens in their regions on issues such as genetic modification

Two new Bills also aim to re-introduce the ability of councils to collect wider development contributions and make it easier for them to bring in online voting.

The Local Government (Community Well-being) Amendment Bill is the one designed to restore the “four well-beings” to the statutory purpose of local government.

Previous National-led administrations had narrowed the statutory purpose of local government to focus only on service delivery and not broader community well-being, Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta said (see HERE)

“By inserting the four well-beings back into the Local Government Act we acknowledge the valuable role local leadership has to promote the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of citizens and communities,” she said.

“We are confronted with various challenges as a country such as the impact of population growth, climate change and ageing infrastructure. Quality of life outcomes as well as regional growth and prosperity require a broader focus in the way councils meet the challenge of setting priorities and planning for the future.”

There are implications for the constraint of research involving genetic modification.

Before the election, Labour said it would  maintain the status quo of new GM techniques requiring EPA approval for use.

Labour also declared it would maintain the ability of councils to decide on economic grounds whether and where release and commercial use of GMO plants and animals is allowed.

It would also protect farmers who do not wish to adopt GM technology by ensuring the liability regime for use of GMOs that cause harm is strengthened.

Green Party policy is that genetic engineering should occur only in a contained laboratory setting.

“Our food and environment should be GE Free,” the Greens say.

A second Local Electoral Matters Bill addresses the design, trial and analysis of new voting methods for local elections, and will make it easier to trial electronic voting, including online voting.

In November last year, GE-Free Northland expressed its delight after Federated Farmers withdrew two “vexatious” appeals to the Court of Appeal to challenge GMO provisions in the Northland regional policy statement and the council’s right to have the region declared GE-free. 

GE-Free Northland, along with appellant Whangarei District Council and other interested parties including Tai Tokerau mana whenua and the Soil & Health Association, at that time had successfully defended the right of local authorities to manage the outdoor use of GMOs in their region after Federated Farmers sought a ruling in 2015 that the Northland Regional Council had acted outside the law. 

Federated Farmers had argued that the Environmental Protection Authority had sole responsibility for the regulation of GMOs under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, and disputed the right of councils to put in place precautionary GMO provisions, and the right of local mana whenua to identify Issues of Significance.

The Northland Age reported (HERE):

The broad suite of interested parties standing behind the Whangarei District Council, the robust existing case law (unequivocal decisions by both Principal Environment Court Judge Newhook in 2015 and Justice Mary Peters in the High Court last year) and recent amendments made to the RMA (confirming the High Court ruling) had led the federation to the view that they were likely to have materially reduced the prospects of the appeal succeeding, he said.

A spokesman for GE-free Northland, Martin Robinson, said:

“Parliament acknowledged last April that local councils can regulate or ban outdoor use of GMOs under the Resource Management Act, in keeping with the wishes of farmers and other ratepayers.”

Councils across the country accordingly were now free to act on their duty of care to their constituents and the environment, putting in place a much-needed additional tier of local protection against the risks of outdoor use of GMOs, Mr Robinson said.

Whether the Government might be pressed to make sure councils are free to act on these matters by fortifying their powers is among the questions raised by the announcement of new legislation.

Gene technologies among considerations as FSANZ prepares to revise its food code

Dr Grant Jacobs, a computational biologist based in Dunedin, has reminded New Zealanders and Australians they will have to hurry if they want to make last-minute submissions to revise Food Standards Australia and New Zealand’s code for controlling new food varieties.

The role of gene technology (he points out HERE) comes into considerations.

FSANZ is seeking input from the community on whether food derived using new breeding techniques (NBTs) should be captured for pre-market approval under the Code, and whether the definitions for ‘food produced using gene technology’ and ‘gene technology’ should be changed to improve clarity.

The consulting paper will need digesting first.

Dr Jacobs last year offered an outline of things to consider with current GMOs.

A key issue, he explains, is that by focusing on “breeding” technologies, good new varieties are being blocked.

This is not a case of avoiding risk. An alternative is to focus on each new variety on it’s own merits, it’s traits, the nature of that plant, and how it’s managed in the field, and so on. They’re the things related to risk.

Dr Jacobs provides anyone interested with his earlier list of thoughts on regulating gene-edited varieties

At the top of a list of 13 thoughts are:-

* GMO has little scientific meaning. People have different ideas about what it means, and it carries emotive baggage. Instead, use specific terms appropriate to each application.

* They’re new varieties, call them that. They’re basically the parent plant with one feature tweaked.

* The key to making these new varieties is being able to “read” genomes and work out what particular genes do. Editing technologies are “just” tools to make “whatever”.

To find other writing on this topic, he gives advice on how to use the Sciblogs homepage to find material and suggests this reading list: –

Kumara are transgenic (Transgenes occur in nature too.)

Genetic modification now accepted by most New Zealanders (A survey indicates New Zealanders now accept GM food as safe.)

GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural” (An essay on food.)

Green Party GM policy and discussion about GE or GMOs (The Green Party should revise their stance on GM.)

In a demon-haunted world (Not about GM, but unfortunately relevant. A tribute to Sagan, sorely needed in these times.)

Is GM corn really different to non-GM corn? (Reporting other’s objections to one controversy.)

Séralini GMO maize and Roundup study republished with no scientific peer review (One of the ‘unorthodox’ researchers opposing GMOs re-publishes a retracted paper with no fresh peer-review.)

Christmas trees weedy and not (The proposed project that the court case shut down – despite EPA approval, and that it didn’t involve introducing new genes. Wilding pines are a curse in New Zealand.)

Carrots for my neighbour (A short story of sorts.)

New Zealand political spokesperson for GE and more endorses homeopathy for Ebola (What can we say. Some people are… interesting. He re-asserted this claim in his valedictory speech.)

Changing the GMO regulations – the ministry options (The options that set the current legislation.)

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part one (A short series; parts two and three are linked at the start.)

GMOs and legislation: useful suggestions for New Zealand in British report (A summary of a large UK report. Not a short read!)

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on GMO legislation (Lighter take on the previous article.)

In a footnote, Dr Jacobs complains about how notifications of these submission calls are so hard to discover.

Surely there must be a simple way to have them sent to you without having the circular problem of knowing what sites to “follow” in order to receive them. (For parliamentary submissions, I’ve tried the government notifications tools; my experience was that it seemed to want to send (spam!) me everything BUT what I wanted!)

He says he will write later on relevant issues, such as “‘genes from other species”.

He has illustrated his post with a picture of transgenic C5 plums, which contain a gene that makes them resistant to plum pox virus.

UPDATE: Dr Jacobs advises the deadline has been extended to 19 April (see his comment below).