NOTE: full article in print edition
With the moratorium on GM due to lift in just a few months, disturbing new evidence is emerging from overseas about GM’s failures, but no-one seems to be listening back here…as HAMISH CARNACHAN reports:
It was a bizarre display really. Larry had the complete and undivided atten-tion of everyone in the room. In fact, he literally had the assembled journalists and high profile guests eat-ing out of the palm of his hand – the one that wasn’t attached to the cordless microphone. Perhaps it was because they’d been buttered up with crayfish tails and expensive French champagne. Perhaps it was because they felt privileged to be in his company. Regardless, Larry had wooed the usually tenacious media into a pack of slumber-happy puppy dogs. They hung on his every word – not daring to interrupt, not daring to spoil the ‘atmosphere’ with anything Larry might consider to be a remotely penetrating query.
Comfortably perched on a simple stool, beard neatly cropped, dressed in a black turtleneck top and casual slacks, he could have been any middle-aged gentleman. But Larry was seated centre stage, slightly elevated above his captive audience, with a multitude of strategically placed stage lights illuminating the Oracle like he was some divine apparition.
This was Larry Ellison, the multi-billionaire, the founder of the Oracle IT company, the owner of the eye-catching super yacht Katana, America’s Cup syndicate boss, and the fifth richest man in the world. This was the guy everyone knows simply as Larry, simply because everyone knows of him.
And hovering in his halo of light, Larry made headlines. Asked where young New Zealanders should invest for future financial success, he blatantly ignored his own industrial empire – IT was a maturing sector. According to the Oracle, biotechnology was the new growth area.
There it was – the headline: ‘Larry says biotech the way forward’. The fact that Larry offered no analysis for this proclamation didn’t really matter – coming from such a wealthy man this was a prophecy; apparently this was news.
A decade ago if you’d asked someone if they knew anything about biotechnology you probably would have been greeted with a blank expression: “Bio-what?” Today though, it is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating areas of science. It’s what has given rise to nano-technology, stem-cell technology, and other potentially “life changing” applications that we have been promised lie ahead, in the not too distant future. However, within biotechnology’s innumerable layers is perhaps the most controversial scientific ‘advancement’ of our time – genetic engineering and modification.
Just like early investigations in the field of nuclear physics, every so often science brings to light a technology staggeringly useful but at the same time breathtakingly dangerous. And just like the proponents of nuclear power promised a solution to the world’s energy demands, biotechnologists, and the companies behind their research, have been quick to voice the potential of the undertakings in their field.
New Zealand’s media has been equally as swift in reporting these endeavours as it was in pouncing on Larry’s declaration. Every day you can read and listen to reports about this brewing revolution – promises about radical new ways to deliver drugs; solving some of the world’s most pressing medical problems; relieving the food shortage crisis faced by so many impoverished nations – to name a few of the grand claims. But as was the case with the rapid development of nuclear science, some still fear the price of proceeding down the path of genetic engineering is environmental disaster.
The Government’s Royal Commission of inquiry on genetic modification (GM), which began in June 2001 and was released 12 months later, has ultimately paved the way for the “conditional” release of genetically engineered organisms in October this year.
Since the commission’s recommendation to “proceed with caution”, calls to maintain the moratorium have, by and large, fallen on deaf ears. Despite increasing concerns about the technology surfacing overseas, few such findings have filtered into the public arena here. The New Zealand media have been either oblivious or deliberately indifferent to alarming reports that would appear to bode ominously considering this country’s current stance.
The Royal Commission was supposed to have conducted “the most extensive” public consultation and investigation into genetic modification of any country. But as this science has progressed so rapidly, how up to date are those findings and how well has the public been informed?
Those who oppose the release of genetically modified and engineered organisms into the environment believe there has been a distinct bias in the media. Jon Carapiet of GE Free NZ believes the country’s news organisations are not playing it straight.
“Stories are missed or hidden in business pages like the Herald reporting on the GE cheese from AgResearch’s cloned cows. It could be due to convergence of interests: companies with links to media outlets and biotech industry – our captains of industry being chums with senior editors.
“I believe the media are falling down on covering both sides and encouraging genuine debate on GM and other things too.”
One of the strongest arguments for lifting the moratorium on GM in New Zealand is that the country would fall behind other nations if the technology were not embraced. Pro-GE groups have used the “knowledge wave” idiom – a phrase coined by the collective think-tank that endorses enterprise and research to increase the country’s economic prosperity – to advance their case.
Carapiet believes that far from sitting on the fence, the New Zealand Herald has pursued a staunch editorial line supporting the “knowledge wave”, and it appears the message has also rubbed off on the Government. Late last year Environment Minister Marian Hobbs stated that calls to maintain the moratorium overlook “the need to preserve opportunities in the age of biotechnology”.
To cynics, such claims are akin to lemmings competing to be first off the cliff – head-strong and injudi-cious at a time when caution is called for.
To date, limited research and development has been carried out in containment, but from October the Government plans to lift the moratorium on applications for the commercial release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
In the latest move, the Government has unveiled proposed legislative changes to the 1996 Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act, and related acts, under which the release and research of GM organisms is regulated.
The Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) controls the release of new plants and animals, including GMOs. Under the proposed amendments ERMA will have the power to approve the conditional release of GMOs into the field on a case-by-case basis.
Although the new changes also stipulate penalties for companies that deliberately flout the law, and also terms for applications to be denied on cultural, ethical and spiritual grounds, parties opposed to the lifting of the moratorium say this is the wrong direction and New Zealand’s marketing image will suffer as a result.
GE Free New Zealand’s vision for “contained and ethical applications” of the technology is part of the “best way to pursue the ‘knowledge wave’ because it maintains the country’s clean green marketing image”, according to Carapiet.
“The advantage of not introducing conditional release is that moderating controls on gene technology may help develop industry practices and innovations focussed on ethical contained uses.
“The most cost effective and practicable approach – achieving the purpose at the least cost – is prevention of contamination by approving only contained applications for GM organisms.”
The Sustainability Council of New Zealand is also strongly opposed to these latest moves. It accuses the Government of rushing to clear the way for release of GMOs into the environment before it has assessed the economic impact on the country.
“New Zealand’s clean green brand is worth hundreds of millions a year and GM release directly threatens those earnings,” says Sustainability Council chairman, Sir Peter Elworthy.
“There is no GM release in sight that could begin to contribute at that level of earnings in the next few years. The economic studies Government has commissioned to look at the risks to the clean green brand and the economy have yet to be reported. Government is flying blind after having explicitly committed to proceed with caution.
“Why the rush? The only prominent contender for early GM release is a disease resistant potato. When ERMA assessed such potatoes for field trials, it literally could not identify any sure benefits for New Zealand. It’s easy to see why when the US Department of Agriculture expects plantings of GM potatoes to vanish in America – because even the fast food chains don’t want them.”
The reason fast food franchises refuse to accept genetically modified crops is because consumers don’t want them – there is a growing demand for traditional and organic products. This trend was no more graphically illustrated than when McDonalds, the world’s biggest fast food company, switched to organic milk in its United Kingdom restaurants in February this year. So far it will only affect carton milk but the company plans to change to organic milk for its range of ice creams and thick shakes too.
Surprisingly, recent reports from overseas that show growing consumer resistance to GM food in New Zealand’s key export markets – Europe and east-Asia – have been given little or no media coverage in this country to date. GE Free New Zealand and the Sustainability Council say these “clear market signals” fly in the face of those who suggest lifting restrictions on the release of GM organisms is the way forward to an enriched and prosperous nation.
As New Zealand moves closer to easing restrictions on the technology some European nations are moving in the other direction. Not reported here (again) was the recent news that the Swiss Chamber of Agriculture, responsible for giving farmers a voice in Swiss politics, backed a new people’s initiative for a moratorium on GMOs. If supported by the Swiss government this will effectively stop genetically modified plants, plant tissues and seeds from being imported, or put into circulation for five years.
European commentators have called the move “a clear signal of a realignment towards the consumers’ choice”. According to the most recent surveys, 70% of Swiss consumers desire GM-free food.
And the British Medical Association (BMA) recently made a submission to the Scottish Parliament for a moratorium on GMOs too. It calls for all genetically modified crop trials in Scotland to be stopped immediately as a “precautionary measure to safeguard public health”.
The professional medical body, which represents more than 13,500 doctors in Scotland and more than 80 percent of British doctors, states that “insufficient care” has been taken over public health and concerns are “serious enough” to justify an immediate end to trials.
The BMA goes on to say that the “most worrying” issue is the potential danger posed by GM crops in creating antibiotic resistance in humans, which has the potential to lead to new diseases.
“We believe there is a greater need for more comprehensive risk assessments which include interactions between GMOs and the long term effects on health and the environment before field trials are taken any further,” it concludes.
Don’t be surprised if you didn’t read about these rev-elations in your local paper, they probably weren’t reported, suggests Carapiet – which is incredibly surprising considering the monumental step this country is about to take. Yet, even more dire warnings have gone largely unnoticed.
Alarming results from official trials of GM crops are threatening the British Government’s plans for growing them commercially. The study, the result of six years of monitoring farm-scale trials, shows, for the first time, that genes from GM crops are spreading on a large scale into conventional plantings, and even with weeds, as a result of interbreeding.
The report shows that genes from GM oil seed rape (OSR), specifically engineered to be herbicide-tolerant, contaminated conventional crops as far as 200 metres away from the trial area. The GM crop also interbred with a weed, which further highlights concerns about the prospect of inadvertently developing “super weeds”.
Additionally, it was found that seed dispersal of the genetically modified crop occurred when “some combine harvesters were not cleaned after the harvesting of the GM crop, and the crop harvested subsequently flushed out the GM rape seed onto the ground causing contamination of the field”.
The Independent says, “the report is so devastating to the Government’s case for GM crops that ministers sought to bury it by slipping the first information on it out on the website of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Christmas Eve, the one day in the year when no newspapers are being prepared.”
On numerous occasions the British Government has stated that the results of these trials would answer any question about whether or not GM crops posed a threat to the environment.
This report, it would seem, certainly adds firepower to the opponents of lifting the moratorium in New Zealand. Especially when the report concludes: “The results from these larger trials and crops indicate that commercial scale releases of GM OSR in the future could pollinate other crops…” That one line proves what they have been saying since this science reared its head – “coexistence of GE and non-GE agriculture is impossible” for all practical purposes.
A survey carried out by Reuters at the end of January provides further proof. The poll showed that almost half of United States farmers could not comply with rules requiring more record keeping to control GE contamination. And yet New Zealand’s biotech industry, Government and government regulators believe they can guarantee compliance by New Zealand farmers and prevent cross-contamination.
Last month it was announced that two US biotechnology experts had been asked by the US Embassy to come to New Zealand to counter “misinformation” surrounding genetically modified crops. But with more international news reports detailing that the proclaimed increase in yields and profits, and reduced agrochemical use, have not materialised for farmers in the US, critics are wondering who is actually peddling the propaganda. What’s more, with these experts having scheduled lectures for MPs and local officials, those on the side of a cautionary approach query how well-informed the decision makers have been.
The Environment Minister claims that ERMA “is there to protect the health and safety of New Zealanders [and presumably their environment] and before approving any application ERMA must decide that the benefits outweigh the risks”.
Carapiet says this approach is fundamentally flawed. As far as GE Free New Zealand is concerned, so far the Authority has: failed to act in response to international warnings; failed to rapidly assess new data and integrate it into a formal risk management model; and ERMA does not appear to be able to consider and accept, or reject, this information with clear reasoning and scientifically-supported data.
But perhaps the prob-lem is that the science of gene-technology is so new, and develop-ing so rapidly, that not enough is yet known to assess risks and benefits. If that’s the case, is a “precautionary approach” going to offer enough protection?
“Exactly,” says Carapiet. “The insurance industry calculate risk on data, but as this is a new field it is refusing cover. Instead of doing the same, ERMA estimates the risks and then try to manage them – the risk is carried by the public purse. Who actually benefits financially is not clearly analysed.
“The national interest of our clean green image has clear value but does not get considered properly in the ERMA process. [ERMA] consistently ignore the advice of their own Maori consultants, independent scientists and others like the BMA.”
Defending ERMA, the Chief Executive, Dr. Bas Walker, argues that the Authority “generally” monitors developments occurring overseas, both in terms of decisions made and the publication of research results and other articles.
“When a particular application is put forward then a more intensive review of overseas information is carried out, but will, for obvious reasons, only be directly referenced if it is relevant to the particular application.”
So with evidence emerging that we may be heading down a dangerous path, how does ERMA suggest New Zealand can handle the experience any better when the moratorium is lifted in a few months’ time, and why aren’t these warnings being heeded?
“Overseas events of course give signals that we are very conscious of and will form a part of the background to future decision-making,” says Dr. Walker. “It is impossible to say in advance however, what applications will be received and how they will be decided. In that sense the question is not really one that can be answered, except in the general sense of saying that the Authority will continue to be careful in making decisions that are robust and provide a high standard of risk management.”
“The Authority is taking a cautious approach, and it probably is stating the obvious to say that the Authority believes it is being appropriately cautious. In deciding on the degree of caution to be exercised, an important factor is uncertainty and especially the extent to which this might lead risks to be greater than expected. This is almost always a factor.
In this sense, risk assessments cannot be expected to produce precise answers, although they need to be accurate within the bounds of uncertainty.”
But, the Australian Insurance Council has issued a clear warning that “there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the exact nature of the risks arising from genetically modified food”, which has unforeseen risks for the insurance industry.
“Any farmer thinking of entering into such an arrangement should ensure there is a contractual agreement in force making it clear that all liability resulting from the tests is picked up by the relevant bio-technology company,” declares the industry statement.
The Age quotes the council’s executive director as saying the risks were similar to those associated with asbestos, where companies faced enormous claims 20 to 30 years later.
Exactly who would pick up the tab in New Zealand in the event that something goes wrong is not yet known and Carapiet suggests ERMA is taking a high-stakes gamble. He highlights AgResearch’s studies into GE cattle at Ruakura research centre, in Hamilton, where the animals are essentially already in the field.
“A contained lab is not a field with a fence. Again ERMA scientists said we know little about insects as vectors for GE gene spread but ERMA approved [this research] without controls to keep insects out i.e. keep experiments inside. Erma seem determined not to learn. In my view they are not following the precautionary principles despite more and more evidence of problems.”
Presently, the Government’s “safeguards” to pre-vent GMOs entering the environment is legislation that stipulates “no commercial release”. But some wonder what the difference is between AgResearch’s paddock of Friesian’s, with synthetic donor genes sourced from humans, mice, cattle, sheep and goats, and the cattle in the field next door.
As recently as early February, nearly 400 pigs used in bioengineering experiments entered the food supply in the US when they were sold to a livestock dealer – a direct violation of stringent US Food and Drug Administration laws that states the animals should have been destroyed.
Aside from raising concerns about so-called “containment”, concerns have recently arisen about how the GE cow trials were sold to ERMA and the New Zealand public.
When the research centre gained approval to proceed with its GE cattle experiments, AgResearch released a statement detailing “plans to produce cows which express milk containing an array of therapeutic proteins, potentially of use in medical treatments which may counter a range of genetic and rare disorders”.
The media jumped on the story. What a fantastic development for suffers of cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis and other rare complaints. Probably for the first time, it offers some semblance of hope.
But what went largely unnoticed were the revelations that these GE cows, still being promoted to the New Zealand public as offering miracle cures, also “alter dairy products for human consumption and increase profits of cheese manufacturers,” says GE Free New Zealand.
Scientists from AgResearch claim in Nature Biotechnology journal that they have discovered their experiments “enhance milk composition and milk processing efficiency…” and that the results show that “it is feasible to substantially alter a major component of milk in high producing dairy cows by a transgenic approach and thus to improve the functional properties of dairy milk.”
Carapiet says it’s no coincidence that the dairy giant Fonterra supported AgResearch’s application at the ERMA hearing last September. He adds that the latest statements, reported to the world by the BBC, not only have the potential to damage New Zealand’s trade and exports by signalling a change into biotech food, but also show that the public has been misled.
“There has been a noticeable media push describing the unproven medical use of GE, which is being used by the pro-GE lobby to influence the public into accepting genetic engineering in New Zealand,” says Carapiet.
“Fonterra are keen on [biotechnology]. Remember they threatened to take $150 million research budget overseas if they didn’t get their way on GM experiments. Talk about economic blackmail! To some extent the ‘cover’ story of medicines has now been blown by the announcement about the cheap cheese GE cows from AgResearch. The truth is out but do people know?”
Dr. Walker disputes that ERMA was misled though, because, he says, the benefits were always seen as being primarily scientific in character – the generation of scientific knowledge and understanding.
“Ultimate commercial uses – whether in medical use or in food production – were regarded as quite speculative at the relatively early stage of the proposed work.”
Yet, while no one would want to de-prive the sufferers of rare disorders a potential cure, the facts show that for all the talk, nothing beneficial has been delivered. Some critics suggest that these groups have been “led up the garden path” to canvas public support.
“There is definitely an attempt to confuse issues of GE food and GE medicine and to use serious illnesses as a justification for it, without looking at alternatives,” says Carapiet. “Also, prevention of disease rarely gets looked at. Families of the sick children grab hope and so want the experiments to go on though there are never promised outcomes, just ‘maybes’. The biotech industry has done it consistently for some years. There is now a push to say, ‘you have to accept it all’.”
Dame Susan Devoy’s resignation as patron of the Cystic Fibrosis Association thrust the divisive nature of this debate into the spotlight recently. Devoy was, more-or-less, forced to quit after members became increasingly angry with her opposition to genetic engineering through her role in the Sustainability Council.
The Cystic Fibrosis Association of New Zealand acknowledge being pro-GM and GE in medical research but it does not have a policy or position on the use of the technology in food production. While the General Manager of CFANZ, Bruce Dunstan, says he accepts that its membership is likely to be divided on the food issue, clearly it could not tolerate the Sustainability Council’s approach.
“The food chain is not the business or concern of the Association. In the case of medical field trials, the benefit or potential benefit needs to outweigh the risk or potential risk,” says Dunstan.
“Since the Cystic Fibrosis gene was discovered in 1989, gene therapy has been the major hope for a cure. Nothing has happened in almost 14 years to change this. CF families do everything possible to prolong life and improve the quality of life for any family member with CF. So do health professionals dealing with CF patients, and so does our Association. Why wouldn’t we all want everything possible done to find a cure? GE/GM offers our best hope for a cure.”
But when pushed on how he knew the Association wasn’t being used as a pawn in the argument, and what GE or GM had delivered to sufferers, Dunstan couldn’t provide any answers.
Even Dr. Walker acknowledges that ERMA doesn’t investigate whether or not a claim, upon which an application may be granted, is legitimate or not. According to him, the issue of following through with claims has not arisen to any “appreciable degree” because benefits have usually been scientific in character.
“However, this will very clearly become more of an issue as projects move to a more commercial stage, so that commercial or economic benefits are more significant in decision-making,” he assures.
Ah…promises, promises. Would anyone wantonly invest in a venture that has promised so much but delivered so little? Sure, biotechnology industries have a great deal of potential but it appears clear that potentially there is a great deal of risk. New Zealand is certainly on the verge of its biggest decision – a choice that will either make us millions, or bankrupt us of our environment and our way of life. Are we ready to make such a choice and will it be an educated decision?
But the most worrying factor is that somehow in New Zealand, whoever is pushing this, appears to have done a very good job at burying biotechnology’s failures – and there are plenty of these. On the face of what other countries have experienced, New Zealand seems woefully ill prepared to dive headfirst into this murky business.
In the Associated Press’ (AP) most recent report on the genomic revolution it says not only have there been few medical breakthroughs – but it has cost investors billions of dollars with few returns.
Goodness only knows where Larry gets his information on biotechnology from – maybe he’s been in the country too long. But who cares – he’s Larry. And as we’ve seen with Larry, what the big guy says is, unfortunately, all too often reported and digested as fact.
Perhaps we should remember Larry’s venture into the America’s Cup market. It proved to be a rather fruitless – not to mention incredibly costly – punt. He can afford to have the occasional slip-up though. Any investment entails some calculated risk but – say critics – is treading the GE tightrope a gamble New Zealand can afford to take?