By Bob Burton, Inter Press Service
This week's decision by the New Zealand Labor Government to allow the resumption of field trials of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has created a storm of controversy among the indigenous Maori community, most of whom reject the release of the technology into the environment.
In an attempt to defuse the growing controversy, Minister for Conservation Sandra Lee -- who is a Maori herself but from Labor's coalition partner, the Alliance Party -- promised on Wednesday that further changes will be made to address Maori concerns.
Lee conceded that the prospect of crossing genes from one species to another is ''generally repugnant to many Maori'', and Maori politicians and groups say they find it ''disrespectful'' of life. Lee has promised further legislative amendments to address concerns that the decision breaches the government's obligations under the 1852 Treaty of Waitangi with Maori. Concerns over transgenic organisms, she said, would ''be considered by a proposed Bioethics Council''.
The controversy follows the announcement on Tuesday by New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark that the government would allow the resumption of field trials of genetically modified crops. "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 the concerns raised about aspects of genetic modification,'' Clark said in announcing the decision.
The decision potentially allows field trials within the next year of genetically modified maize, potatoes, sugar-beet, peas and pine trees for forestry. The government also announced that it will legislate to ban the commercial release of genetically modified organisms for a two-year period -- "except those that provide direct benefits to human or animal health" -- to allow further research on ethical, social and environmental concerns.
The peak genetic engineering lobby group, the Life Sciences Network (LSN), welcomed the government decision. "None of the potential conditions flagged in the government's announcement are new or outside the range of conditions which have previously been considered by the Environment Risk Management Agency (ERMA). We would expect ERMA to continue to base its decisions on science rather than irrational emotion", LSN chairman Dr William Rolleston said.
The decision has provoked a backlash from the Maori community, which has fundamental objections to the release of the technology to the environment. After walking out of the caucus meeting Tuesday, all nine Maori Labor Party members issued a statement saying "we have particular concerns about ensuring that nature is not manipulated".
"The release of genetically modified organisms into the environment is not acceptable. We are not opposed to science. We are concerned about the dangers of compromising the social, cultural and environmental integrity of our country for short-term commercial gain," they wrote. "The transfer of genes between unrelated plant, animal and human species is in our view a threat to human existence as we currently know it. (Maori) recognise the various life-forms and the contribution they provide for each other. To interfere with a life-form is disrespectful and is another form of cultural arrogance," they stated.
Earlier this year, national Maori groups told the 14-month long Royal Commission on Genetic Modification that they supported a ban on the patenting of any life forms and urged an end to "free trade negotiations and stop biotechnology multinationals from entering Aotearoa to conduct GM experiments". They also urged the government to halt the import of GM foods for the future and instead invest in transforming New Zealand into an organic producing nation.
The final report of the Royal Commission -- established to advise the government on policy options with genetic modification and its regulation -- was handed down in late July. While the report acknowledged the deeply held concerns of Maori, it rejected nearly all their recommendations. The controversy is not confined to the Maori community. A strong grassroots campaign has mobilised tens of thousands of people -- including at major rallies -- in support of a policy of New Zealand declaring itself "GE free".
While the pro-GM lobby supports the case-by-case assessment approach adopted by ERMA, Greenpeace is sceptical. "We have no faith in ERMA, who have approved every application for a field trial they have received and are really a very weak regulatory agency," Greenpeace GE campaigner Annette Cotter said. "By artificially differentiating between field trials and commercial releases the government has fallen woefully short of their obligations to New Zealanders, and the integrity of the environment," she added.
With the Labor Government already relying on Green Party members to ensure a majority on the floor of Parliament, Clark risks losing further support to the Greens which have strongly opposed the government decision. Greens Leader Jeanette Fitzsimons has vowed to make GE a major issue in the run-up to the election, which is due at the latest by November 2002.
"The government needs support from both Maori and environmentalists to win the election and this decision has alienated both groups," Cotter said.