Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

26th October 2001 - I'll Have the Fudge, Please

Copyright © 2001 Russell Brown

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of this year's procession of lose-lose scenarios for the government, the obligation to make the call on whether to follow the Royal Commission' recommendation for tightly-controlled field trials of GE crops must be the trickiest.

The establishment of the Royal Commission was, after all, a Green Party win. For that party to turn on its conclusions after millions of dollars and the best efforts of the commissioners have been spent does look churlish.

The little stunt this week - in which an unfortunate temp in Sue Kedgley's office replied to a letter and offered the minister's support in the fight to ban the chemical dihyrdrogen monoxide - was very embarrassing. Dihyrdrogen monoxide is, of course, H2O. Water. The letter was a scam. Ouch.

Through decades of investment in agri-science, biotechnology is that rare branch of science in which we've actually got a few things going on. In imposing a ban or continuing the moratorium on field trials, the government would be seen to be willfully falling off the Knowledge Wave.

On the other hand, the government can not muster a consensus within its own ranks on allowing trials to go ahead. Two blocs - the Labour Maori MPs and the Alliance - plus an unknown number of individual Labour MPs would be deeply unhappy about that. As would, according to a poll this week - at last, a poll! - two thirds of New Zealanders.

I admit to some surprise at the way a fleet of celebs, including some people I know, fronted up so quickly to be photographed in GE Free t-shirts in support of the anti campaign. They couldn't all have considered the issues and studied the science.

But let's be honest: neither have the vast majority of people on the other side of the debate, including all those business reporters and politicians. Invoking the mighty totems of science and economics is not the same as knowing what you're talking about. I'm not the first to note the similarity between the shrillness of the present pro-GE lobby in business and politics and the shrillness of those Treasury reports in the 1980s. Looks to me like both sides got religion here.

Well, so far as I know, I don't have religion either way. I can't claim to understand more than the very basics of the science, either. But I have sat down and tried to develop a point of view.

I went looking for a number of things that I couldn't find. I couldn't find anything like a scientific consensus on GE crops. For every PhD gagging for it, there was another one sounding a warning. I couldn't find any GE food product currently fetching a premium in the market - or, in fact, one that commands even the same price as equivalent conventional produce, let alone organics.

I did find a recent angry statement from the American Corn Growers Association, which said its members, who had been sold into mass GE corn planting, were watching their export customers being "picked off, one by one" by non-GE competitors in other countries. Its CEO was demanding an explanation. I found lots of news stories of this order, actually. And, like I said, not one story about a GE crop that was fetching better prices and finding new markets.

I found some interesting recent news stories about Monsanto, one of the key backers and organisers of the country's pro-GE lobby group, the Life Sciences Network - and incidentally, a company known to have lied to and intimidated journalists. Monsanto has secured a patent for products to combat so-called GE "superweeds" - that is, weeds that have picked up herbicide resistance from Monsanto's RoundUp-ready soy plants. In Canada, which plunged big on GE rapeseed, those weeds have already begun to appear. The estimated separation zone required to prevent contamination of other crops has blown out from 800 metres to more than five kilometers.

Almost nothing about this is stable - including the policies of other governments. Most OECD countries are either implementing or considering laws requiring labelling of foods with GE ingredients. In the next two years, labelling will begin to happen in most developed countries, even the US.

The consumer backlash against foods with GE ingredients - whether reasoned or not - will be considerable and it will last at least a little while. I simply cannot see that there is a gold rush that must be joined in those two years or be forever missed. It just doesn't add up.

Like I said, I don't have religion over this. I can see that some genetically manipulated plants might be useful. I know that our researchers have been having a tickle with small GE crops for years now. But now does not seem even remotely the time to make the major policy step that potentially damages a clean, green brand that does bring our exporters a price premium.

The smart money regarding the government's decision seems to be on a two-year continuation of the current moratorium on field trials, perhaps excused with the need to do more work on issues like liability for damage. I hope so. Would that be a fudge? Possibly. But it would be correct. So yes, I'll have the fudge, please.

So anyway, Jane Clifton in this week's Listener ticks off Judith Tizard for daring to suggest that John Banks, new Mayor of Auckland, might be mad. Well, it wasn't the wisest of things for the minister with responsibility for Auckland stuff to have said - but the evidence is already that she wasn't far wrong.

Tuesday's Holmes interview - starring Susan Wood, Banks and a self-confessed boy racer with a very expensive car and a piercing for every point of his IQ - five - was the most idiotic exchange I've seen on TV for some time.

The occasion for the interview was a weekend disturbance down on Quay Street, in which a bunch of dimwits mostly in from a Labour Weekend drag meet at Meremere wasted rubber until the police arrived to clear the road, whereupon some violence took place and people were arrested.

This doesn't happen every weekend, although the programme seemed bent on giving the impression that it does. And the patch chosen by the well-heeled petrolheads isn't exactly thronged with foot traffic - Mums and Dads or otherwise.

It is, thanks to the council's decision to allow the building of a strip of fast-food outlets facing the harbour, a rather ugly part of town, well away from Queen Street. But the public road is the public road, and if it is blocked, then the police need to act to clear it. No problem there.

But Banks, who seems to have no idea of the actual extent of his mayoral powers, gibbered on about "good" boy racers and "bad" boy racers; then about getting tough on all of them; then about, well something else. Eventually, with Wood's help - and with a producer presumably screaming in her earpiece - he tricked himself into apparently offering the boy racers the use of Western Springs.

Oh, brilliant. So SuperMayoralMan, with a sweep of his hand, says a bunch of intellectually-challenged drag racers who have been using a wide stretch of city road well away from any houses, could transfer to a suburban stadium whose many near neighbours already put up with weekly speedway meets in summer and sports events in winter.

Never mind that it's a dirt oval of no real use to the souped-up Mazda brigade, Banks just does not have the power to even discuss offering it for such a purpose. It's already planned and permitted to the hilt. It won't happen because it can't happen.

His other blurt - that he could offer Hobsonville Airbase for burnouts and drag racing - was even more absurd. There are three reasons John Bank can not offer Hobsonville Airbase to anyone. First, it's not in Auckland City, the city of which he is Mayor. It's in Waitakere City, where the mayor's name is Bob Harvey. Second, it belongs to the government. Third, it's to be redeveloped for residential housing.

It was only later that we learned that on Sunday, Banks had been busted at Hobson Bay riding an unregistered jetski too fast, too close to shore and carrying three children who did not have lifejackets. Banks made great play of declaring it a fair cop and then proposed that he give the Prime Minister a ride on his new jetski. I think not. Because is there anything we hate more, punters, than WANKERS ON JETSKIS? Not many things, no.

Could this get any more stupid and embarrassing? Unfortunately, yes. Brian Rudman's column in Wednesday's Herald cast some light on the grisly business of the deputy mayoralty. Unlike the mayor, the deputy mayor is elected not by ratepayers but by councillors themselves.

The new council, having shifted slightly to the right, has nine representatives of the genetically modified Citizens and Ratepayers Now from a council of 20. It thus needed to win over a couple of independents to slot in its favoured mayoral candidate. Or not.

According to Rudman, the Act and National Party backroom types who helped organise the CitRat comeback favoured a businessman called Greg McKeown. Banks, meanwhile, was busy stitching up votes for another CitRat, the ridiculous Christian conservative David Hay - and apparently bullying independent councillors, who might otherwise have voted for the incumbent Bruce Hucker.

I mean really: three more years of this? But this is what happens when you don't vote. It should be noted that the turnout was particularly poor in the Western Bays ward, the liberal b heartland. Wassup, Western Bays? Too busy looking for organic tomatoes - or too stoned to lick the envelope?

As we pondered a rare piece of good news on the international front - Gerry Adams' carefully-scripted speech calling on the IRA to disarm - it struck me that hardly anyone wanted to speculate on the obvious: that the IRA has had word from its bankers in New York that terrorism isn't sporting any more. About time, too, you might think - although the ANC was allowed to come to the table in South Africa without a similar concession.

No such enlightenment is enjoyed in Israel and the territories it occupies, unfortunately. In response to the assassination of Israel's Minister of Tourism - a nasty ultra-nationalist who referred to Arabs as vermin and lice - the government charged into a West Bank village with tanks and attack helicopters. At least five people were killed, but nobody could make the count, because the Israelis wouldn't let journalists or ambulances into the area. It seems some people may have simply bled to death.

The Israelis emerged claiming to have captured the driver of the getaway car in last week's assassination - but, really, who could tell? The dead appear to be Palestinian policemen. They join another six Palestinian casualties, including a 15 year old boy, suffered as part of a reoccupation of West Bank villages over the weekend. It's hard to see how order can flow from this. But the Israelis say it is hypocritical for America to violently pursue its terrorist targets yet condemn Israel for the same, and they have a point.

So Israel and Ireland, those perennials of the New Zealand secondary school history curriculum, seem set to diverge. Yes, we went out into the world well equipped to tell Israelis, South Africans and the Irish what had gone wrong in their countries, if not in our own. Well, it was better than Italian Unification, anyway.

Anyway, we're almost into November and once we're there, we're almost in Christmas and all that brings: parties, happiness, commerce and the annual morose, I-just-don't-get-it editorial from Finlay McDonald. Tee-hee. Actually, The Listener's a scorcher this week. Very good indeed. See you next week with a Silver Scrolls report, then


Russell Brown                      

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