GE Field Trials in New Zealand Produce Backlash from Indigenous Groups

GE Field Trials in New Zealand
Produce Backlash from Indigenous

Inter Press Service
October 31, 2001

By Bob Burton


This week's decision by the New Zealand Labor Government to allow
the resumption of field trials of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
has created a storm of controversy among the indigenous Maori
community, most of whom reject the release of the technology into the

In an attempt to defuse the growing controversy, Minister for
Conservation Sandra Lee -- who is a Maori herself but from Labor's
coalition partner, the Alliance Party -- promised today that further
changes will be made to address Maori concerns.

Lee conceded that the prospect of crossing genes from one species to
another is "generally repugnant to many Maori," and Maori politicians
and groups say they find it "disrespectful" of life.

Lee has promised further legislative amendments to address concerns
that the decision breaches the government's obligations under the 1852
Treaty of Waitangi with Maori. Concerns over transgenic organisms, she
said, would "be considered by a proposed Bioethics Council." The
controversy follows the announcement yesterday by New Zealand Prime
Minister Helen Clark that the government would allow the resumption of
field trials of genetically modified crops.

"We cannot afford to turn our back on science, which has the potential
to inform our medical, biotechnology and industry strategies, but nor
can we ignore the concerns raised about aspects of genetic
modification," Clark said in announcing the decision.

The decision potentially allows field trials within the next year of
genetically modified maize, potatoes, sugar-beets, peas and pine trees
for forestry.

The government also announced that it will pass a ban on the
commercial release of genetically modified organisms for a two- year
period -- "except those that provide direct benefits to human or
animal health" -- to allow further research on ethical, social and
environmental concerns.

The genetic engineering lobby group, the Life Sciences Network (LSN),
welcomed the government decision.

"None of the potential conditions flagged in the government's
announcement are new or outside the range of conditions which have
previously been considered by the Environment Risk Management Agency
(ERMA). We would expect ERMA to continue to base its decisions on
science rather than irrational emotion," LSN chairman Dr William
Rolleston said.

The decision has provoked a backlash from the Maori community, which
has fundamental objections to the release of the technology to the

After walking out of the caucus meeting yesterday, all nine Maori
Labor Party members issued a statement saying "we have particular
concerns about ensuring that nature is not manipulated."

"The release of genetically modified organisms into the environment is
not acceptable. We are not opposed to science. We are concerned about
the dangers of compromising the social, cultural and environmental
integrity of our country for short-term commercial gain," they wrote.

"The transfer of genes between unrelated plant, animal and human
species is in our view a threat to human existence as we currently
know it. (Maori) recognize the various life-forms and the contribution
they provide for each other. To interfere with a life-form is
disrespectful and is another form of cultural arrogance," they stated.

Earlier this year, national Maori groups told the 14-month- long Royal
Commission on Genetic Modification that they supported a ban on the
patenting of any life forms and urged an end to "free trade
negotiations and stop biotechnology multinationals from entering
Aotearoa to conduct GM experiments."

They also urged the government to halt the import of GM foods for the
future and instead invest in transforming New Zealand into an organic
producing nation.

The final report of the Royal Commission -- established to advise the
government on policy options with genetic modification and its
regulation -- was handed down in late July. While the report
acknowledged the deeply held concerns of Maori, it rejected nearly all
their recommendations.

The controversy is not confined to the Maori community. A strong
grassroots campaign has mobilized tens of thousands of people --
including at major rallies -- in support of a policy of New Zealand
declaring itself "GE free."

While the pro-GM lobby supports the case-by-case assessment approach
adopted by ERMA, Greenpeace is skeptical.

"We have no faith in ERMA, who have approved every application for a
field trial they have received and are really a very weak regulatory
agency," Greenpeace GE campaigner Annette Cotter said.

"By artificially differentiating between field trials and commercial
releases the government has fallen woefully short of their obligations
to New Zealanders, and the integrity of the environment," she added.

With the Labor Government already relying on Green Party members to
ensure a majority on the floor of Parliament, Clark risks losing
further support to the Greens which have strongly opposed the
government decision.

Greens Leader Jeanette Fitzsimons has vowed to make GE a major issue
in the run-up to the election, which is due at the latest by November

"The government needs support from both Maori and environmentalists to
win the election and this decision has alienated both groups," Cotter

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