- The Washington Times - Monday, November 5, 2001

AUCKLAND, New Zealand This country's much-vaunted "clean, green" image useful for luring tourists and selling agricultural and dairy products overseas is no longer in the hands of Mother Nature, following the government's go-ahead last week for laboratory experiments and field trials for genetically modified crops.
The move has predictably outraged opposition to genetic engineering (GE), including the Green Party in the government coalition, and alienated Labor-supporting indigenous Maori lawmakers who oppose genetic modification on cultural and spiritual grounds.
Opponents have said the Labor government could lose next year's election over its GE stand. The Greens and fellow coalition partner Alliance Party say they will fight to extend a two-year ban on the commercial release of genetically modified (GM) material.
Organics producers fear the country's booming organics export industry will suffer if New Zealand eventually does produce GE products.
Some environmental groups, however, have applauded the government's long-awaited response to recommendations made by the Royal Commission on Genetic Engineering, saying the ban on commercial release of GM products for two years will give them time to fight the move by blocking applications through the public hearing process, effectively stifling GM projects.
Research organizations were strengthening their security days after the government's announcement, as protesters threatened to sabotage field trials by uprooting GM crops.
Key decisions include allowing field trials under strict conditions, banning the commercial release of GM products for two years, exempting some medicines from the ban and creating a bioethics council to provide guidelines and promote dialogue on related cultural, ethical and spiritual issues.
About 10 field trials are expected to go ahead in the coming year, since a voluntary ban ended last week. They include GM trials of potatoes, sugar beet, peas, pine trees, petunias and corn.
Prime Minister Helen Clark defends the government's "middle-of-the-road" decision, saying science is critical to ensuring that New Zealand develops a knowledge-based economy.
"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 concerns raised about aspects of genetic modification," she said last week.
Mrs. Clark said she was aware the announcement would not please everyone.
"It is simply not possible to do so when the extremes of the debate are so polarized."
Green co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons said the government had ignored the wishes of nearly two-thirds of New Zealanders by lifting the moratorium on GE field trials.
According to a television poll last month, 62 percent of New Zealanders said they did not want GE outside the lab. But in the commission's report, 92 percent of the more than 10,000 written submissions were against genetic engineering.
Mrs. Fitzsimons said she was pleased the government had agreed to a legislated two-year moratorium on GE release, but said the Greens would fight through the next election for a GE-free New Zealand.
Meriel Watts, director of the Soil and Health Association of New Zealand, said "the government's two-year moratorium on commercial releases of genetically engineered crops is a qualified, and partial, victory for the organic movement, but it is not enough."
"We have a two-year period of grace during which we have to ensure that the government extends that moratorium to a permanent one. This is the beginning of a long journey towards New Zealand becoming an organic nation."
Figures from New Zealand's Organic Products Exporters Group predict domestic and export sales of organic produce will rise from 65 million NZ dollars ($26 million U.S.) last year to around 100 million NZ dollars ($40 million U.S.) this year. OPEG predicts these sales will reach 500 million NZ dollars ($200 million U.S.) by 2006 and says the value of the domestic organics market is doubling annually.
The Green Party's agriculture spokesman, Ian Ewen-Street, said people need to realize that "organics and genetic engineering in agriculture are mutually exclusive."
"Genetic engineering poses a serious threat to organics because of the possibility of horizontal gene transfer and pollen contamination. The two simply cannot co-exist."
Adding to a debate continuously riddled with contradictions and confusion, professor Bob Brockie, a research associate at Wellington's Victoria University School of Biological Sciences, said in a letter to the Listener, a current affairs magazine, that 10 years of British field trials have shown that GM crops "do not escape or overrun surrounding farmland and do not hybridize with nearby crops or weeds."
"It's the other way round. GM crops can't compete with normal crops or wild plants and weeds, which quickly overrun them.
"In the light of these 10 years of experiments in Britain (headed by leading British ecologist M.J. Crawley), it appears that Greenie fears of GM plants overrunning the country and hybridizing with other plants are groundless."
Now at the GE crossroads and trying to discern fact from fear, New Zealanders are unsure if there can be a government-decreed "middle road" between the GE-free world of organic Luddites and that of DNA-juggling scientists.


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