RNZ report gives succinct rundown on the issues surrounding genetic modification

Offsetting Behaviour, an economics blog, has steered us to Radio NZ’s “good summary” of the case for allowing genetically modified plants and crops.

The RNZ Insight report, by Charlie Dreaver, is headed Has the time come for Genetic Modification?

It starts with a sub-heading: Gene edited plants are just as safe as normal plants, according to one scientist.

According to several scientists, actually.

But in this case Ms Dreaver is reporting on her visit to a Plant and Food Research greenhouse in Auckland, where one of the sections is filled with $300 apple trees and Andy Allan, a professor of plant biology, is pointing out one of his favourite experiment, a tree with bright, fuchsia-coloured flowers.

“The particular red gene we’re testing is under a strong expression, so the roots are red, the trunk is red, the leaves are copper and the fruit goes on to look more like a plum, it’s so dark.”

The apple has an extra apple gene, making it genetically modified. Other plants in this room have exactly the same number of genes, but they’ve been edited.

The report goes on:

“Along with the apples, pears, tomatoes and petunias are thriving, but many also flower all year round and produce seeds five years earlier than usual. 

“Mr Allen compares the practice of gene editing in plant breeding to key-hole surgery.

” ‘It just makes a cut in a place you know exactly where it’s going to go to.

” ‘That cut is repaired by the plant, but often the plant makes a mistake, but those mistakes are like the natural equivalent to mutation and variants you see out there in the environment.’ 

“He says the public’s perception of the research is much more sinister than what actually happens.

” ‘We are academics or public civil servants and we’re doing experiments using the plant’s own DNA, so the perception of what we do as being evil or dangerous, is way different than what actually happens in this greenhouse’.”

Other countries would plant these crops in the field, he tells Ms Dreaver, and he believes some of those growing in the greenhouse are ready for the outside world.

” ‘I think these plants are as safe as the normal plants are, there is risk associated with everything, but there are no additional risks associated with these plants.’

“And the benefits of what’s being grown could be significant, he believes, including trees which would not need cooler winters to flower and grow fruit.

“But everything that leaves the facility, even the soil, will have to be destroyed.

“The only thing exiting this greenhouse at the moment is knowledge.”

The item answers the question What is Gene Editing? And it reports the division among farmers on whether they should be able to use GMOs or not.

“But others, including the Minister for the Environment David Parker, argue there is no need to jump the gun on introducing GMOs into the environment.”

Ms Dreaver also quotes the former Chief Science Advisor for the prime minister, Sir Peter Gluckman.

In his last report, Sir Peter laid out the ways genetic modification or gene editing can benefit the agricultural sector with pasture management and emissions.

“New Zealand scientists have developed promising forages using genetic technologies that could be used to make major progress through higher energy, lipid rich rye grasses which are now in field trials in the United States.

“However, these have not been and effectively cannot be subjected to field testing in New Zealand.”

Sir Peter said New Zealand needed to revisit the contentious topic.

“We have such big challenges ahead of us, between environmental degradation, climate change, the future of agriculture, the future of New Zealand’s economy, the way we live, the way rural life and provincial life occurs.

“This is the core technology of the future, alongside the digital technologies and precision agriculture, we can’t afford not to have the conversation.”

Ms Dreaver concludes her piece with a rundown on GM and the law.

Legal and Scientific researcher Dr Julie Everett-Hincks, from the University of Otago, told Ms Dreaver she believes legislation is due for an update.

To the contrary, Pure Hawke’s Bay – which was instrumental in the move to make the Hastings District Council adopt a  10 year moratorium on genetically modified crops – says business would suffer if any changes were allowed and they argue that not enough is known about the technology and its effects.

There’s resistance to any change at this stage from the government.

Environment Minister David Parker agrees with the European Courts decision to include GE under genetic modification rules and has no intention of changing the legislation here.

” ‘It takes a precautionary approach, people who want to make an application to release the GMO can, that’s then dealt with by the regulator and we think the law is fit for purpose.

” ‘I’d have to be satisfied there was a need to change the law, and I’m not satisfied’.”

He also highlights the trade benefits in keeping crops GM-free.

” ‘Sometimes they might be overstated, but none the less they are real’.”

If there are to be any changes in the use of GM, Mr Parker says the government will first be looking at pest control, rather than agriculture.

Offsetting Behaviour blogger Eric Crampton suggests that, as part of any agricultural accession into the ETS, the Crown be liable for any additional costs falling on farmers because of the ban on using GE pastoral systems.

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Science advisory group is among the Govt’s plans to improve water quality

The Government today announced its next steps to improve the state of our waterways, promising a noticeable improvement in water quality within five years.

The establishment of a Science and Technical Advisory Group is among the initiatives.

Mr Parker and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor released the Government’s blueprint to improve freshwater quality along with a new approach to the Māori/Crown relationship that will acknowledge Māori interests in fair access to water to develop their land.

New rules will be in place by 2020 to stop the degradation of freshwater quality – a new National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management and a new National Environmental Standard, he said.

The rules would  include controls on the excesses of some intensive land use practices to better protect remaining wetlands and estuaries.

“We will drive good management practices on farms and in urban areas,” Mr Parker said.

“We are also amending the Resource Management Act to enable regional councils to more quickly implement water quality and quantity limits.

“We know Māori share the same interests as the rest of New Zealand in improving water quality and ensuring fair access to water resources.”

The Government’s approach to solving these issues entails engaging leading New Zealanders who care about freshwater – “environmental NGOs, Māori, farming leaders, scientists, Regional Council experts and others”.

This looks much the same as the consultative approach taken under the previous government.

Mr Parker said:

“Already, we are working with the primary sector and regional councils in the most at-risk catchments. I recently visited the Aparima River in Southland where the farming community is leading a project to get all 600 land managers in the catchment following better farming practices.”

This seems to be a reference to a project which began in 2013, when some farmers in the Balfour area formed an environmental  cleanup group.

Damien O’Connor said the primary sectors are crucial to an environmentally sustainable, high-value economy that supports the wellbeing of all New Zealanders.

“This is why we must grow a sustainable and productive primary sector within environmental limits.

“Many in the sector are already working hard to protect the natural resources they depend on, and recognise the importance of enhancing our reputation as a trusted producer of the finest food and fibre products. The workstreams set out today recognise the importance of accelerating this good work.”

The documents Essential Freshwater and Shared interests in Freshwater can be read on the Ministry for the Environment website at: http://www.mfe.govt.nz/fresh-water/essential-freshwater-agenda

The Government said the work programme will deliver:

Targeted action and investment in at-risk catchments, including accelerating the implementation of Good Farming Practice Principles and identifying options for tree planting through the One Billion Trees programme.

A new National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management by 2020, to ensure all aspects of ecosystem health are managed, and address risks, for example by providing greater direction on how to set limits on resource use, and better protection of wetlands and estuaries.

A new National Environmental Standard for Freshwater Management by 2020, to regulate activities that put water quality at risk, such as intensive winter grazing, hill country cropping and feedlots.

Amendments to the Resource Management Act within the next 12 months to review consents in order to more quickly implement water quality and quantity limits; and to strengthen enforcement tools for improving environmental compliance.

Decisions on how to manage allocation of nutrient discharges, informed by discussion and engagement with interested parties.

Involvement of interested parties in testing and advising on policy options through a network of advisory groups; Kahui Wai Māori, the Science and Technical Advisory Group, and the Freshwater Leaders Group.

Members of Kahui Wai Māori, to bring a broad Māori perspective, are Kingi Smiler (chair); Dr James Ataria; Mahina-a-rangi Joy Baker; Riki Ellison; Traci Houpapa; Dr Tanira Kingi; Paul Morgan; Millan Ruka; Prof Jacinta Ruru; Hon Dover Samuels; Annette Sykes.

The Freshwater Leaders Group, “appointed because of their personal experience and commitment, not as representatives of any organisations”, are John Penno (chair); Mandy Bell; Alison Dewes; Graeme Gleeson; Traci Houpapa; Stephanie Howard; Tom Lambie; Bryce Johnson; Corina Jordan; Allen Lim; Dr Hugh Logan; Marnie Prickett; Dr Marc Schallenberg; Lees Seymour; Prof Nicola Shadbolt; Gary Taylor.

The Science and Technical Advisory Group will ensure science is accurately interpreted and incorporated into the policy process.  Its members are Ken Taylor (chair) Dr Adam Canning; Dr Bryce Cooper; Dr Clive Howard-Williams; Dr Chris Daughney; Dr Bev Clarkson; Graham Sevicke-Jones; Prof Ian Hawes; Prof Jenny Webster-Brown; Dr Joanne Clapcott; Dr Jon Roygard; Dr Marc Schallenberg; Dr Mike Joy; Professor Russell Death.

 

Environment Minister is given proposal for tougher water quality standards

Environment Minister David Parker will consider tougher water quality standards which have been proposed to replace the standards National introduced last year, Radio NZ reported today.

The previous government was widely criticised for introducing standards for swimming which did not actually measure the health of lakes and rivers.

Mr Parker has been presented with the proposed National Policy Statement for freshwater management which was written by Fish and Game with input from Forest and Bird, the Environmental Defence Society and Greenpeace.

A key difference between the two sets of standards is that the proposed Freshwater National Policy Statement would account for the health of ecosystems, setting a bottom line which enables people to swim and collect food from rivers and lakes without getting sick.

Research from freshwater scientist Mike Joy was used for the proposal, which he said sets standards requiring measurements of more components of the water to give a much broader picture of what is happening in a catchment.

“What we had before was a National Policy Statement that talked all about ecosystem health, but then had no measures of ecosystem health and no requirement for meeting levels of ecosystem health,” he said.

The previous standards were introduced by former Environment Minister Nick Smith, who dismissed criticism of them as “junk science”.

But Dr Joy told Radio NZ those standards could not even achieve their own stated aims, and if the proposed measures were put in place there would be action on improving water quality.

Mr Parker declined to be interviewed on the matter, saying he had received various views on national water standards and would consider them.

But he said a report from the Land and Water Forum last week proved consensus could not be reached on different measures of water quality and the mandate now passed back to central government to tackle.

Source: Radio New Zealand

 

Ministers’ Letter of Expectations to the EPA for 2018/19

Environment Minister David Parker and Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage have sent the Environmental Protection Authority a formal ‘Letter of Expectations for the 2018/19 Financial Year’

This letter outlines their high-level priorities and operational expectations of the EPA over the year. These expectations will aid the EPA’s Board in its strategic planning.

For more detailed information please read the Letter of Expectations (pdf 1.83MB)

Source: Environmental Protection Authority

 

Good farming practice plan a step forward for water quality

A plan to help farmers and growers reduce their impact on fresh water, through good farming practices, was launched today.

The Good Farming Practice: Action Plan for Water Quality commits to supporting all farmers and growers to implement good practice principles that will reduce their impact on our freshwater.

The Action Plan, jointly developed by primary sector groups, Regional Councils and the Ministries of Environment and Primary Industries, is a positive step by the primary sector towards improving the health of New Zealand’s waterways, Environment Minister David Parker said.

“This initiative sets out practical measures farmers and growers can take, and also commits them to monitoring and reporting on progress,” Mr Parker said.

“It is intended to ensure that all farmers adopt the good practices needed to protect our rivers.”

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor said the Good Farming Practice principles in the Action Plan “are not a stretch for many farmers and growers”.

“The difference is that this plan intends to reach those who are not yet using these good farming practices, for whatever reason.

“The aim is that all farmers and growers develop and implement a farm environment plan that identifies the risk areas for water quality on their property and sets out the actions needed to address those risks,” Damien O’Connor said.

Mr Parker said some Regional Councils already required some farmers to have farm environment plans.

“This Action Plan is expected to accelerate the uptake of good farming practices across all catchments, ahead of any regulation. I look forward to regular reports on progress.”

The Action Plan Governance Group responsible for the plan includes representatives of Beef+Lamb NZ, Dairy NZ, Federated Farmers, Horticulture New Zealand, Irrigation New Zealand, Regional Councils and the Ministries for the Environment and Primary Industries.

Source: Ministers of Environment and Agriculture

Science boost for Overseer farm management tool

The Coalition Government and the primary sector will work together to boost the science behind the valuable Overseer farm management tool, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor and Environment Minister David Parker announced in a Budget press statement.

Overseer is a tool used by a range of primary industries and regional councils to help measure nutrient use and greenhouse gas emissions.

“Well-used, it can assist farmers to minimise waste and maximise profits,” says Mr O’Connor.

The Budget includes an investment of $5 million of operating funding over the next four years to enhance it.

The extra funding for Overseer will enable:

• quicker adoption of environmentally friendly farm practices

• the inclusion of a wider range of land types and farming systems

• a more user-friendly interface.

“All farmers and growers want to keep their fertilisers on their paddocks and crops, and they want the best tools to manage their environmental responsibilities,” Mr O’Connor says.

Mr Parker says the extra funding in the Budget opens up opportunities for farmers to trial new technologies, techniques and tools that would otherwise be too risky or expensive to try.

“We need practical, science-backed tools to achieve this Government’s goals to improve land use, achieve a net-zero-emissions economy by 2050, and help clean up our rivers so our kids can swim in them without getting crook.”

The Ministry for Primary Industries, AgResearch and the Fertiliser Association of New Zealand each hold one-third stakes in the Overseer intellectual property.

 

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.