Northland Regional Council’s rejection of GMO moratorium is welcomed

Rejecting a moratorium on genetic modification in Northland will broaden economic opportunities, enable vital tools to meet environmental challenges “and was the right decision for the Northland Regional Council to make”, the chairman of the Life Sciences Network, Dr William Rolleston, said today.

GE Free Northland and others had attempted to inject prohibitive GM provisions into the regional plan part way through the planning process.

When finally rejecting this earlier in July, the council said it was the responsibility of the Environmental Risk Management Authority to assess and control genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Activists for some time have pushed to stop farmers and conservationists using modern genetic technologies by persuading councils to impose onerous local rules and outright prohibitions, Dr Rolleston said. Continue reading

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.

Federated Farmers challenge GE ruling in the High Court

Federated Farmers is challenging an Environment Court ruling in May last year that the Resource Management Act entitles regional councils to give expression to community attitudes and control the use of genetically modified organisms, especially crops.

The feds are arguing that councils cannot use the RMA to control the use of GMOs.

They say central government passed the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act expressly for that purpose and the Environmental Protection Authority is the sole regulator of GMOs.

The farmers argue that Parliament cannot have intended local councils to duplicate that job, or thwart the authority of the EPA.

Their appeal is being heard in the High Court at Whangarei, Radio New Zealand reported.

The feds hope to overturn a decision by the Environment Court’s Judge Newhook, who found that councils did have a role to play in the use of GMOs.

He found all resource use was governed by the RMA unless specifically exempted and, since regional councils were charged with the sustainable management of resources, they must therefore be able to consider the social, economic and ecological effects of genetic modification.

GE Free Northland spokesperson Zelka Grammer said, since that decision, councils up and down the country have been responding to community pressure to limit or ban GMOs.

“Hastings District Council, for example, since Judge Newhook’s decision in our favour, they’ve proceeded with their district plan and they have banned everything,” she said.

“They have banned any outdoor GE experiments; any releases for a period of 10 years. And there was very strong support in that district for that protection.”

Northland farmer and former regional councillor Ian Walker said local councils lacked the scientific smarts to make those sorts of decisions.

Mr Walker fought to keep genetic engineering off the Northland council’s agenda.

He said the anti-GE lobby was holding back production and hurting the economy.

“None of our councillors has a science background,” he said.

“The EPA is the agency that does have the scientific knowledge to control GMO releases, and it should not be able to be undermined by councils,” he says.

“There are GM grass strains being trialled overseas at the moment that could help us weather climate change,” Mr Walker said.

“They would reduce the impact on the environment and stand up to drought and flood. But they’re effectively banned in this country and we may never get them.”

The Soil and Health Association, Whangarei District Council, the Northland Regional Council and GE-Free Northland are all represented at the appeal hearing.

Both councils are taking a precautionary approach to GMOs in their policy statements, but the Soil and Health Association is funding the court case.

The association’s co-chair, Marion Thomson, said donations had poured in from around the country – many of them from organic growers worried that GMO crops could ruin their livelihoods

Local communities should be able to control where GMO crops could be grown, she said.

“There is no tolerance for GMOs in an organic production… If someone’s growing GMO crops next to an organic property and it’s contaminated, they lose their organic certification. So it’s pretty serious, for a business.”

Mana whenua in the north are also taking a close interest in the appeal.

Dr Benjamin Pittman, of Ngāti Hau, said GMOs presented a unique problem for Māori.

He said plants and animals were seen as having their own whakapapa, or genetic lineage, and messing with that went against tikanga, the sense of what was right and good.

“We know that plants evolve and change over time through natural causes,” he said.

“The problem is this human intervention. At the very least, there needs to be discussion about it and not just a blanket decision, like this is how things are going to happen.”

The appeal hearing was expected to conclude this morning with submissions from Soil and Health Association lawyer Dr Royden Somerville QC.