Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

2nd November 2001 - Clean Up After Yourself

Copyright © 2001 Russell Brown

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Taliban with an "i" or an "e"? GM or GE? It might be taken as a sign of the confusion of the present times that we don't seem to even agree on how to spell or what to call what we're all worried about.

It struck me this week that I've been referring to the process of manipulating the genetic structure of organisms as GE, which, by semantic implication, places me in the camp that regards the science as bad.

It's not just that "GE" rhymes so nicely with "free", but that "engineering" sounds, well, so much more *manipulative* than "modification". "Modification" sounds like an improvement; perhaps something you'd do to your car to annoy John Banks.

Anyway, Taliban with an "i" and "GE" not "GM" it's been on Hard News and that's the way it might as well stay. Don't assume anything by it.

So the government finally released its response to the report of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification this week, and the response has been interesting.

Business and science interests, having been softened up for a further two-year moratorium on even applying for a trial, are applauding the promise of a new regime stricter than the one they've been moaning about since it was introduced.

The protest lobby, having developed unrealistic expectations of a comprehensive ban, is outraged by a policy that exceeds the safeguards suggested by the Royal Commission.

And, make no mistake, this is a cautious policy - possibly the strictest in the world. Not only must any crops be destroyed before they seed, the soil in which they grow must be removed. And that's if you can get approval from ERMA for a contained field trial anyway.

Some of the red tape around lab work is to be removed, but it will be very difficult to get approval for a field trial. Anyone will be able to file objections and it is entirely possible that no new approvals are granted for years. There is a two-year moratorium on any question of commercial release, with an election in the interim.

Meanwhile, for all that the Australians are trying to drag the chain, one of the most rigorous labelling schemes for GE food ingredients anywhere kicks in next month in our two countries. Is this getting through? Our emerging laws are strict.

By the same token, now might be a good time for the Life Sciences Network and their cheerleaders in the press to acknowledge that there are very good reasons for people to be wary of GE agriculture.

Not least because most of the GE crops that have been commercially deployed so far are owned by rapacious, amoral corporations such as Monsanto. It is perfectly right and rational to fear a world where the intellectual property in agriculture is in the sweaty hands of half a dozen global giants

Mind you, that's an also argument for New Zealand to diligently pursue its own GE IP - precisely to avoid being grasped by the bollocks by Monsanto. What's missing from our GE policy now is sufficient of a sense of sovereignty. Amongst the applications in the queue will be one from Monsanto to trial a GE wheat variety in Canterbury. What's the hell's in that for us?

It is a fact that there have been some problems with GE food crops patented by Monsanto and the other big life sciences companies: rapeseed spawning "super weeds" in Canada; weird disease and pestilence in RoundUp-Ready soy in Missouri. Not to mention withering export markets. It's not quite as bright and sunny as some newspaper editors seem to think.

On the other hand, there's a local trial in progress of a GE strain of pine tree that gives up its lignin - which has to be chemically extracted before paper can be made - more easily and cleanly. That seems at least worth investigating in a contained, controlled fashion.

I suspect that once labelling becomes commonplace in OECD countries, the market will dictate what happens to GE food ingredients. McDonalds has already smelled the coffee and gone GE free. It might be a little more difficult for certain large soda pop companies to find alternative sources of that shitty corn syrup they put in their drinks, but they will if they have to.

People do have every right to be suspicious of industrialised food. I regularly buy organic tomatoes and organic free-range chicken and eggs and organic milk and yoghurt and Phoenix Cola because they generally just taste better. Who wants to emulate the sad spectacle of America, where they've really fucked up their food? You, middle-class bFM listener, can make a difference with your shopping choices.

We need to be careful about assuming that the current regime will sink our emerging organics industry. Certainly, the strongest clean-green message would have been a comprehensive ban. But walk into Huckleberry Farms and you'll see that the majority of the pricey imported organic stuff on the shelves comes from the US - where most of the world's GE crops are growing. Not little clean-up-after-yourself trials, but millions of acres planted over the last decade.

It went almost unnoticed amid the news this week that the government affirmed its support for organic farming. I can't help but feel there's more mileage in organising to hold them to that promise than in destroying plants that the law says will have to be destroyed anyway.

The other risk of direct action is, of course, the squandering of public sympathy. The masses will eventually see it as vandalism - and if they don't the Herald's editors will make sure they do.

Likewise, coverage of the arrival of the anti-GE hikoi at Parliament this week will have been somewhat counter-productive. Causes fronted by Ken Mair and Titewhai Harawira do not tend to engage the public's sympathy. Never mind that they didn't seem to make any sense.

Maori have been part of the process all along in this: NBR wasn't far wrong when it described the Royal Commission as the most politically correct inquiry in New Zealand history. Yet there appears to be anything but an informed consensus out there. Labour's Maori MPs went into the big caucus with little apparent idea of what they wanted. Tipene O'Regan backed the Life Sciences Network - presumably taking Ngai Tahu with him - but other Maori leaders are of the opposite view.

So will it lose Labour votes? Probably. But to the left, which is a better scenario than losing votes to the right with an extreme anti position. National cannot now trump Labour on this, not with Bill English, who subscribes to a faith that frowns on in-vitro fertilisation, in charge. Greenies can vote Green with the aim of influencing the decision two years' hence. Labour can declare itself the inevitable party of government and solicit votes to let it govern without the Greens' help. The big loser is, again, the Alliance, left vainly pointing at the little victories it won in the making of policy.

But enough of GE. We must turn, regrettably to Auckland's Mutant Ninja Mayor. John Banks declared this week that Auckland City didn't have enough money to plant a replacement for the old Monterey pine on One Tree Hill. As usual, he absurdly contradicted himself; declaring the taking down of the old, unsafe tree to be "institutional vandalism" by the council, then raving about an alleged half a million dollars spent keeping the old one alive. What was he proposing? That it should have been left to fall on someone's head?

And once again, Banks appeared to have no idea of the extent of his powers. He didn't appear to have a clue that a restoration plan - planting a dozen seedlings and choosing the one that thrives to be the new tree - has been approved by council and received resource consent. It has even, I am sure, been budgeted for.

Yet the mayor who wants to dig a tunnel under Hobson Bay seems to believe the council can't afford to plant a tree. Isn't planting trees in parks what councils do? Just to cap it off, he needlessly insulted Ngati Whatua.

He really is a prize fuckwit, although you wouldn't have known it from Jane Clifton's fawning profile in this week's Listener. And Clifton, for the second week in a row, gave Judith Tizard yet another pompous ticking off for her innocent suggestion that time would tell if Banks was mad. Clifton might not be able to tell from Wellington, but it looks like the lunatic has taken over the asylum to me.

For real madness, of course, you can't beat war. If that, in fact, is a term that can be applied to the one-way munitions dump going on over Afghanistan.

The time-honoured principle that is better that innocent foreign children should die than professional America soldiers is very firmly in effect here.

It remains unclear whether the Americans will actually ever have the nerve to go in on the ground, especially now that the Taliban have rather inconveniently assassinated the leading prospects for a new government - and now the Russians are talking about sending a quarter of a million troops to help the so-called Northern Alliance. It's not only ironic, it's appalling.

And, by the way, that ABC story TV3 carried about "proof" the the anthrax spores being used in attacks was false, having been debunked by the White House itself. The better evidence still points to American origin.

All that's left now is to thank Mike Chunn and APRA for yet another year of the Silver Scrolls. It was as relaxed, classy and thoroughly stirring as ever, this time with the added spice of the announcement of the Top 10 New Zealand songs ever, as voted by APRA members and invited worthies.

It wasn't quite the 10 I would have picked. I mean, Tim Finn for 'Six Months in a Leaky Boat' and not 'Charley'? My 10 might have included 'Charley', and the Newmatics' 'Broadcast' and the Clean's 'Point that Thing' and the Marching Girl's 'True Love' as well as Neil Finn's 'Don't Dream It's Over'.

But that's okay. I've seen the list of the 900 songs that got at least one vote and it's a wonderful thing. And there's something nice about a song as goofy and pastoral as 'Nature' coming through. In an evening of cover versions, the Muttonbirds' 'Nature', Handsome Geoffrey's 'American Wife' and, most of all, the Brunettes' wonderful version of Goodshirt's 'Sophie' stood out.

So, like every year, I got more sloshed than I ever meant to, although I'm fairly sure I didn't say anything inappropriate to the Prime Minister - and I was possibly no more trollied than one or two of her MPs.

So, after conversation number 413 for the evening, with that nice young man from the Hasselhoff Experiment, self-preservation kicked in and I got in a taxi. Phew.

Next biggie, of course, is The Private Function, on the 22nd, with Pitch Black - they're back! - Kapisi, Gerling, the D4 and DLT. Wicked. And remember, you must have a b-Card


Russell Brown                      

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