Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

5th July 2002 - The Phoney War

Copyright © 2002 Russell Brown

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talk about a phoney war. Has there ever been a major election issue so poorly understood not only by most of the public, but by the politicians and the press, as genetic modification?

And even, weirdly, some of the pressure groups. This week the grandly named Sustainability Council sprang into view, fronted by a group of self-described "eminent New Zealanders" including Sir Peter Elworthy, Susan Devoy, Annabel Langbein and Sam Neill. They have a grand name and a website but, so far as I can see, not a great deal new to contribute.

Neill, who you would think has the time and money to educate himself, provided a pre-recorded clip from a film location, in which he said that in his travels as a film star he'd found that people didn't want "tomatoes that are part flounder and potatoes that are part toad". I will never be as famous or as rich as Sam. But if I was, and if I decided to use my profile to advocate on a serious and complex issue, I would hope my contribution would be less trite than that.

But fame makes headlines in a way seriousness and complexity doesn't. And the press pecks around GM in a he-said-she-said fashion, carefully steering clear of the issue itself. Even where senior commentators take it on, there's little evidence of insight. Pat Booth's ominous column in my local community paper this week is all warning and little substance.

And we got another pompous, know-nothing editorial in the Herald declaring that the government's two year extension to the moratorium after the Royal Commission reported was just a political stunt. It wasn't. Two specific issues - legal liability and co-existence with conventional crops - needed research, and that work is in progress. If anything they have become less certain since the Commission reported. And if they cannot be suitably addressed by next October, then consideration should be given to a further extension.

But I fear that the Greens have, counter-intuitively, made it more difficult for a Labour-led government to do that.

Think about it: this is a government that has been prepared to stand up and take the hits on everything from Kyoto to West Coast mining. One without which there would not have been a Royal Commission or a moratorium at all. One which nagged the Australians on GM food labelling. And, not least, one which had recently asked its Coromandel candidate to step back for the coming election to give Jeanette Fitzsimons a clear run.

And after all that, the Green Party then informs its prospective coalition partner of its single, unbreakable coalition bottom line - and this isn't just just the price of coalition but a promise to bring down the government by voting against it - *through the media*? That's either sloppy or deliberately rude. It is in no way negotiating in good faith.

Jeanette Fitzsimons confirmed to me that the Greens had not bothered to tell their prospective coalition partner about their bottom line before they told the media about it. Articulate and informed as she is, she could not explain why the Greens had behaved this way; only pointing out, rather lamely, that at a meeting last October, she had told Helen Clark that the expiry of the moratorium would be a problem. Which is hardly the same thing.

I'm quite happy to regard this as a cock-up, rather than a conspiracy to seize electoral advantage - I don't believe the Greens are that machiavellian. But it was compounded only three days later by that ghastly and dishonest Green Party newspaper ad, which provided no useful information - and quite a bit of misinformation - but deliberately and unfairly demonised Labour, which, on its record, has run the most environmentally-conscious government since the Kirk era.

By which time, of course, the Prime Minister is getting a bit grumpy and saying things she might not otherwise have said. Her party is being pushed into a position of advocacy that it probably does not invite and which it certainly was not perceived to hold three years ago. I know the feeling.

Imagine, on the other hand, that it had been done this way: In recognition of the good working relationship between the two parties - and the electoral accommodation in Coromandel - the co-leaders of the Green party go to the leader of the Labour Party.

"You know," they say, "how we said last year that the end of the moratorium would be a problem? Well, it's our single bottom line for coalition. And if it comes to it, it will affect our attitude not only towards coalition, but confidence and supply. We don't wish to embarrass you, because we look forward to working with you in government, so we'll give you a week or two to consider our response before we go public. But that is our bottom line."

The upshot might well have been a point or two less on the Greens' poll ratings. But it would equally have made it easier for Labour - whilst not having its hand forced up its back - to have extended the moratorium on applications for commercial release.

Because there is a reasonable case for extending the moratorium while the scientific and regulatory issues settle down internationally. Among other things, one of the key planks of the Royal Commission's report - separation distances between similar GM and commercial crops - has fallen through. Co-existence looks harder than at first thought.

But not all crops are the same. And at some point you have to have faith in your public process to tell the difference. There is a sound case for establishing a long-term regime of public and transparent process, setting the bar for approval of any single case very high, and getting on with it.

Remember that, although the final rules are waiting on the completion of research next year, the legislation requires that the risks of any potential release must be outweighed by the benefit *to the country as a whole*. Under that test, the prospect of Joe Farmer in Canterbury gaining permission to plant, say, RoundUp-ready wheat, is virtually nil. Chances of approval for a promiscuous GM crop such as oil rapeseed are somewhat less than that.

The main thing, to me, is that research and field trials should be allowed to continue under the current stringent conditions. Because I have no doubt - none whatsoever - that the science will eventually deliver compelling benefits. I would very much rather that any release here was based on intellectual property developed and held by New Zealanders, and the new law certainly points that way.

Labour needs to be careful now. There are at least two grounds on which the moratorium could rationally be extended come next October - an unsatisfactory or incomplete conclusion to research on issues like outcrossing and horizontal gene transfer; and further work on legal issues, which may extend to a separate system of legal liability. It ought not foreclose those just because of the Greens' behaviour and I suspect it won't. It charted a canny and cautious path through the issue after the Royal Commission report, and it can do so again. Its performance on big issues like this has genuinely been impressive.

The Greens too must be careful. Apart from their maladroit handling of coalition issues - which continued this week - they risk a dangerous undermining of public institutions. It is wrong and inaccurate to depict ERMA as a bunch of biotech industry stooges and it will be dangerous in the long run. They would also do well to consider that they only have the information they do because others have done the field research that they would, given the choice, have banned.

Such would not matter to some parts of the anti-GM lobby, where there is, essentially, a religious opposition. At some point the lobby - and the Green Party itself - will face a bitter split between two factions. At some point, the rational group will come up against the UFO fanciers like Jonathan Eisen, who was responsible for the nasty and hysterical ad from the Pure Food Coalition. Eisen, with his suppressed inventions and cancer quackery, is already a controversial and divisive figure within the lobby and I can't see that getting any better.

Because, eventually, we will have to stop treating this branch of science as all one thing. New, more precise, techniques and new products are already in development. There will come cases - probably not initially food crops, but eventually - in which the benefits by any sensible view compellingly outweigh the risks.

What might they be, locally? Well, we hear about possums and pine trees because they are the most compelling. The possum plan is this: use GM plants grown in containment to express a protein specific to possums that makes the female possum reject its eggs and thus become infertile. The protein is placed in baits and the plants are destroyed. Upshot: fewer possums and a two-thirds decrease in the use of 1080 poison.

There were other possible methods, including the use of a virus, but Landcare surveyed the public and that was the most acceptable practice. Landcare, it should be said, has taken a really admirable approach in seeking public acceptance. The Greens are quite happy with it too, although last week's radio show was the first time I've heard them say it. It is actually quite consistent with their stance.

The Greens don't like the most promising pine tree plan, though. That is, to develop a pine tree that gives up its lignin - the substance that makes it rigid - without the current, filthy chemical process. No more black rivers, much energy saved, so on.

Let's be clear: to even field trial it, you embrace some risk. But, from what I can tell, not much. Pine pollen will spread - how much you only find out through trials. But exotic pine trees only pollinate other exotic pine trees, and none of them are exactly models of environmental decorum.

There might be a microscopic theoretical risk of transfer into a native tree - that is, the same risk that ordinary pinus radiata DNA would get into a native tree and ruin it. Which either hasn't happened in a century or hasn't been sustained long enough for anyone to have noticed it. It's good enough for me.

There will never be a zero risk. Science isn't like that. And putting stuff in your mouth is, basically, a risky business. Swedish scientists discovered earlier this year that high carbohydrate foods cooked at high temperatures - bread and chips, organic or otherwise - contain potentially dangerous levels of the cancer-causing chemical acrylamide.

A risk of such magnitude has never been remotely associated with GM food ingredients. Indeed, the GM food debate is characterised by a stark absence of bodies.

The only poisoning of which I am aware took place in 1989, when a bad batch of the amino acid l-tryptophan in a dietary supplement killed 37 people in America. The tryptophan came from bacteria modified to express it. But there is no evidence that the GM factor actually had anything to do with it.

Since then, many more people have been killed and thousands more made ill by badly produced dietary supplements - to which the Green Party, in what I can only see as a serious contradiction, has quite a different attitude. Sue Kedgely has been ranting about the new Anzfa discussion document on harmonising our regulation of supplements with that of our major trading partner, Australia.

If you leave out the Kedgeley's kooky nationalism and the special pleading on behalf of businesses that make or import supplements, the stance is this: GM food, which to our current knowledge has never poisoned anyone, should be guilty until proven innocent, and dietary supplements which do poison and occasionally kill people - we're talking about substances as mundane as comfrey tea and iron tablets here - should be innocent till proven guilty. Food safety cuts both ways, Sue.

You may take the view that you just want no part of this meddling with nature and you will never taint your body so. In which case, put down that Braeburn apple, and that nectarine, even if they're organic. Because both of those are mutagenic crops. They were produced the old-fashioned way: by bombarding seeds with high doses of radiation or chemicals to produce random mutations in the hope of finding useful traits.

Specific genetic modification, right now, is a radically safer and more precise process than industrial mutagenesis, which takes a sledgehammer to the entire genome. And you've been eating that stuff for years. We do not live in the Garden of Eden.

So, frankly, subject to testing and labelling - and I know you can argue about the detail of both of those - GM food safety is not a great concern on any present knowledge. Fat, salt and sugar kill people.

The fact that some people will never accept this raises some regulatory problems. Because outcrossing within species and horizontal gene transfer do occur, to a greater or lesser degree. This is not - not, not, NOT - something specific to GM crops. They're just plants.

We should look at the Mexican maize controversy here. The science journal Nature published a study that showed that heritage maize crops in Mexico had been "contaminated" with transgenes. It subsequently un-published the paper after taking advice from several independent reviewers.

Most of the reviewers accepted that there were transgenes in the Mexican maize. By far the mostly likely explanation for this is that Mexican farmers illegally planted cheap GM maize imported as stock feed. It cross-pollinated with the heritage crop - but not, interestingly, with the wild maize, which is too different to have sex with the cultivate varieties.

None of the reviewers upheld the controversial part of the original study: that rogue genes were "jumping around" the host genome and making it unstable. Indeed, the entire science would have had to have been re-aligned had this been true. The other problem with this controversy is that it is mired so deep in nasty personal politics on the Berkley campus that no one should use it prove anything.

But the fact is that a fairly heroic degree of separation would have to occur to completely prevent outcrossing or gene transfer.

So how heroic do you want to be, especially if no harm can be shown? How far do you go in ensuring what eventually becomes a religious right? I guess we'll find out.

I've also yet to receive a satisfactory answer to one question: if even the tiniest touch of GM is unacceptable and will destroy the organics business, how come I can walk into somewhere like Huckleberry Farms and see the shelves lined with pricey organic products from the US, where millions of acres of GM crops have grown essentially unregulated since 1994? Is it therefore bad food? Jeanette Fitzsimons couldn't answer it either, beyond suggesting that our organic food was better than their organic food. Confused? You have a right to be.

But even where I disagree with Fitzsimons, I respect the fact that she is in command of her argument. Ditto for Jon Carapiet, who was also on the show last week, and Stuart Sontier of GEinfo, who wasn't on the show, but has done more to make me think about this issue than anyone else. It disappoints when the first two quote research selectively, but both sides do that.

It's been an interesting business, grappling with GM like this. It would have been easier not to. Apart from the time it has taken up, some of my friends have sharply differing views to me. Some of them, I'm not entirely sure I can still talk to.

So, to the executive summary: an extension to the moratorium for a year or two would not be a disaster. It has some merits. The quality of our process so far has been an example to the world, and, in keeping with that quality, applications ought not be opened again unless we have dotted the i's and crossed the t's. But at some point we have to stop seeing the science as a monolith and start hearing individual arguments. If nothing else, let's take it out of politics.

Thanks to everyone involved else with the GM Wire show, especially Tim Radford and Marian Hobbs, who went to some lengths to make themselves available.. The sound and transcripts aren't quite ready, but I'll let you know when they are. They might not change your mind either way, but they will leave you better informed, guaranteed.

So, thanks. Back to normal politics and sport next week. And hey, Oonst was good!


Russell Brown

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