Hard News by Russell Brown

Respect me in the morning ...

Jeanette Fitzsimons described life after the GM moratorium on One News last night: she said companies from New Zealand or abroad making applications to Erma could expect scrutiny so close that some of the "shonkier" ones would probably just drop out in advance. Well, good. That's how it's supposed to work.

If nothing else, the end of the 18-month moratorium will move the debate on from the sprawling shape it has taken and towards real decisions on real, specific questions.

Because, frankly, the GM debate in its current form has not been terribly useful. Last Thursday, the Harbour News ran a story looking forward to the anti-GM march. It quoted Jonathan Eisen - author of a book claiming, among other things, that the Apollo moon landings were faked, and that evidence of buildings and canals on Mars is being covered up - as a protest spokesman. It concluded with a dissenting opinion - from the local branch of the Raelians. Jesus wept. Is this where we're at?

Yesterday morning, in my usual comment slot on 95bFM, I tried to explain my perspective on the issue, the gist of which is in this post. There followed a string of phone calls to the station from people who had been at the march, most of them abusive towards me. There was a lot of emotion washing around all morning.

Personally, I'd be happy enough for applications for commercial release to be held off for another year or three, although I don't expect any to actually be made in that time. On the other hand, Labour is ending the moratorium it put in place - and hasn't that little detail been lost in the passion? - as part of a public policy process that meets the key tests of a democracy.

The party went into and won the 1999 election with this process as policy, as a promise to the Greens, who, just before the election, had presented a petition with 92,000 signatures calling for an inquiry into GM and a moratorium on the release and field trials of GMOs while the issue was investigated further. This is what they got.

The government held the Royal Commission, received its findings, and instituted the formal moratorium to provide some breathing space while a new regulatory structure could be prepared. It then fought another election, and won that. Of the other parties elected to Parliament last year, all but one (the Greens), representing in excess of 90 per cent of votes cast, more or less backed this path.

Moreover, I'm concerned at the recent tendency to retrospectively smear the Royal Commission, most notably in the case of Eisen, whose book, The GE $ellout, argues that:

The Royal Commission, however, was from the start a crucial part of the government’s “game plan” – to engineer popular opinion. The Commission’s deliberate distortion of the evidence of harm and danger from GE was simply too obvious and repetitive to have been “accidental”.

Eisen's press release goes on:

A new book hitting the stands this week that the Royal Commission on GM was primarily an expensive, elaborate “PR exercise” whose outcome was a foregone conclusion.

The GE $ellout, edited by Jonathan Eisen, contends that scientific studies indicating serious harm to human health and the environment have been deliberately and consistently ignored by the NZ government.

This certainly isn't how it was seen at the time. The NBR bitched about how it was the most "politically correct" inquiry of its kind ever undertaken in New Zealand. When the terms of reference and the names of the commissioners were announced, along with news of a voluntary moratorium, it was justifiably claimed by the Greens as a significant policy achievement (Winston Peters, of course, claimed it was all his idea).

The commission sat in 15 towns and cities (even Greymouth!) and held 28 workshops, 10 regional hui and a national hui with Maori. It met with 107 "interested parties" and took around 10,000 submissions in all. It eventually cost around $7 million to complete. The claims of either side were tested and measured against each other before a former chief justice of New Zealand, a doctor, a scientist with relevant experience, and the Anglican Bishop of Auckland, the Right Reverend Richard Randerson. It was not, as Alannah Currie appeared to suggest last week, some obscure thing that happened in Wellington.

The Royal Commission actually had a significant effect before it was even constituted. With a change of government - and, consequently, a Royal Commission - looming, Monsanto withdrew what would have been New Zealand's first application for commercial release, for its GM canola. Under the old regime, the application might well have been approved. Now, I honestly don't think there'd be a chance in hell of GM canola being accepted. Which is good, in my view.

As the likely shape of the government's response emerged, scientists complained at the strictness of the coming regulations. The National Party accused the government of caving in to the Greens, and demanded that the moratorium be cancelled immediately because it went further than what the commission recommended and would harm innovation.

You're not hearing a lot of that from the National Party right now, of course. Act and National have gone very quiet on GM, doubtless reasoning that if anyone's going to get their head shot off, it might as well be Marian Hobbs (although United Future has, creditably, taken a public position - it doesn't actually matter what the position is, so much as that they have the decency to take one).

The major media have been largely hiding out, too. No thunderous front-page editorials - either way - in the Herald, and a continuation of the generally anaemic, personality-based coverage that has plagued the issue. No one seems to have covered the genuinely interesting story around Dr Peter Wills' paper Genetic Engineering: Policy and Science since the Royal Commission: Insoluble Problems, which was posted on the Life Sciences Network website, and subsequently criticised by a number of his peers.

Wills' response to his critics was an extraordinary letter (Word doc) claiming he had been defamed and demanding the immediate removal of the criticism and "written apologies to me from all of the member organisations of the Life Sciences Network." Given that Wills contributes to the Eisen book, which casually defames so many people, his letter seems ill-advised.

The most common fallacy in the press is to attach global significance to a single issue. The Guardian, working on advance information of a significant report due for delivery to the British government on Friday (about which you will hear a lot), ran this story speculating that the results would justify the banning of all GM crops in the UK.

You have to read down a bit to get the nuance: three commercial GM varieties, of canola, sugar beet and maize respectively, were tested against their conventional counterparts; the test being that they had to be more environmentally benign than existing crops. The canola and the sugar beet failed: there were fewer insects in the soil.

You might have been forgiven for thinking from the various stories that it was because they were GM that they damaged the environment. Actually, no: they were designed to resist a particular herbicide, and it was the herbicide that clearly proved too harsh for local conditions. The solution? Don't grow them, obviously. These results would be strong enough for those plants to be rejected for growing in New Zealand.

The maize, on the other hand, came up better - because the conventional maize fields were treated with atrazine, a rather nasty weedkiller which has recently been banned. The Guardian's reports on the issue were strongly criticised by the British Royal Society, but widely quoted by GM opponents.

On the other hand, read this fascinating story from The Atlantic Monthly, which focuses on the way GM plants have been used to aid no-till farming, which is a revolution in soil ecology. It predicts that GM plants will be embraced by many ecologists for this reason.

We also tend to forget that many other countries are having the same debate as us, working through regulatory systems, making their choices. Brazil recently allowed the planting of GM soybeans - in part because its farmers were already importing seed from Argentina, to the point where the Brazilian soy crop was already about 60% GM varieties. Fourteen African states are working on a joint regulatory system. GM cotton appears to be growing well, with less pesticide and better yields, in China, India and Australia. The Canadians, on the other hand, appear to have lost all hope of separation of GM and conventional varieties of canola, and this has hurt their sales into Europe. There are successes and there are failures.

If anything about the science has changed since the Royal Commission, it's separation distances, especially in the case of crops like canola, which is both promiscuous and related to far too many weeds. The Otago University study set out the key future trade issues for New Zealand as regards GM. European food buyers (as the Canadians discovered) are extremely wary about the possibility of intermingling between established crops and similar GM ones. But they're relaxed about GM pine trees, for example. And they place remarkably little stock in the idea of a "GE Free New Zealand".

Actually, the most pause I have been given on the issue this year was the result of a conversation with a physicist at the Skeptics conference. He felt that insufficient attention was given to the role of quantum actions in genetics. He didn't seem to want to ban biotech, but he did think there should be physicists available to Erma. Fair enough.

So there are nuances galore. For the record, I have no doubt that various biotech products will eventually prove highly beneficial. I don't believe GM is fundamentally wrong or against the laws of nature - I respect the people who do, but that's a religious argument. I hold no brief for companies like Monsanto, and I would far rather see New Zealand continue to focus on its own intellectual property in agriculture, as it has done for years. I'm realistic enough to know that big corporations already supply the patented seed that produces our conventional crops, and that that those seeds must already be purchased anew each year (that's the price farmers pay for hybrid vigour). I can see an interesting clash of values in a few years, if GM crops continue to spread in Africa and Asia.

But it's somewhat hazardous to discuss. I knew that anything I said would have me potted as a cheerleader for the biotech industry - which I'm not and don't bloody want to be - but I was a bit shocked by the reaction yesterday. I periodically get abusive emails from anti-GM people, and generally try to answer them in a serious and respectful manner.

For the record, I admire Madge and Alannah Currie, for their extraordinary ability to mobilize, for being creative and not humourless. But I also admire these guys, who stood off to the side with their own little counter-protest on Saturday. One of them was physically assaulted (punched in the face) and - again - the quiet dissenters needed the assistance of the police. I find this quite worrying.

I have friends on the other side of the debate, and I don't want to be anyone's enemy (except perhaps Eisen's, but I'll shut up about that for now). But I don't believe that government was ever going to walk away from the process it began nearly four years ago (this is not the same thing as saying the protest was useless, it wasn't). It probably wonders whether the moratorium itself was a blunder, but I don't think so.

All this means even Madge has to change now. If Alannah wants to continue to speak for the organisation, she'll have to do better in interviews like this, she'll want to avoid alienating people by calling them "stupid white men" and she'll have to start addressing the more specific arguments to which the debate will now turn. Emotional intensity won't do for ever.

The government needs to raise its game too. Corngate drained it of moral authority, the Prime Minister seems to be fighting back a hissy fit every time she has to discuss GM, and it's hard to imagine how a minister could so singularly fail to engender public confidence as Marian Hobbs has.

Clark also needs to get over her issues with Fitzsimons, who I think is going to be a key figure in the next few years. It's crucial to the integrity of the process that there is a reasoned opposition, and Fitzsimons and her colleagues are likely to provide it. For now, many people are saying some wild things about issues they haven't taken the trouble to understand. I'd like it now if everybody took the trouble to show a little respect.