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PoliticsOctober 29, 2019

Young scientists call on Greens to rethink GM stance in the cause of the climate

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An open letter signed by more than 150 New Zealanders under 30 who specialise in biological or environmental science says the current law hinders efforts to tackle the climate crisis, and urges the Greens to change their position and take a lead on reform.

A group of more than 150 young New Zealand scientists has laid down a challenge to the Green Party to revisit its position on genetic modification.

In an open letter, the signatories urge Green Party members and MPs to take a lead in overhauling strict legislation, enacted 16 years ago, that regulates GM research. To do so is urgent, they argue, in light of the climate crisis.

“Climate change is one of the greatest crises in human history, and our current law severely restricts the development of technologies that could make a vital difference,” reads the letter.

GM based study in New Zealand was bridled by “one of the toughest regulatory environments in the world for this field of research”, they write. “We believe that GM based research could be decisive in our efforts to reduce New Zealand and global climate emissions as well as partially mitigating some of the impacts of climate change.”

The letter – read it in full here – is signed 155 people under 30 who either have or are studying for a PhD or Masters degree in biological or environmental science. It pokes a stick at a potential hornet’s nest for the Green Party, pitching members who are staunchly opposed to genetic engineering against the more resolutely “evidence-based” camp keen to see science deployed in the fight against climate change.

The Greens had been targeted, according to the open letter, “because of a history of leading in science based policy such as climate action, even when that path is difficult.”

Responding to the letter, the Greens’ spokesperson for science and technology, Gareth Hughes, said: “We’re comfortable with keeping GE in the lab but we’re always open to a facts-based public conversation about GE.”

Green Party policy calls for “keeping genetic research organisms completely contained in a secure indoor laboratory” and “prohibiting genetically modified and transgenic organisms that are intended for release into the environment or food chain”.

The signatories say that the existing 2003 law is a handbrake on GM related research in areas including agricultural efficiency, carbon capture, and the production of alternative proteins.

“The existing regulation in New Zealand inhibits application of advances such as these, blocking not only the development of green technology, but the potential for a just transition away from extractive and polluting industries. New Zealand has the opportunity to be a world leader in such a transition: for example, the development and demonstration of effective technologies to reduce agricultural emissions could have an international impact and set an example for other countries.”

The letter notes that among those calling for a public discussion around reforms to genetic modification laws are the expert panel on gene editing set up by the Royal Society Te Apārangi, which reported back in August, the prime minister’s chief science advisor, and the interim climate change committee.

The Greens have been “strong advocates of both climate action and evidence based policy informed by science”, concludes the letter.

“In this light we call upon its members, supporters, ministers, and MPs to add their voices to the cause of a science-based approach to climate, on behalf of the people and environment of both Aotearoa and the world.”

Approached for comment, the Green Party leadership directed questions to science and technology spokesperson Gareth Hughes.

“We acknowledge the letter and appreciate the message,” Hughes told The Spinoff in an email.

“We’re comfortable with keeping GE in the lab but we’re always open to a facts-based public conversation about GE to ensure our environment and species are protected and consumers are safe and informed.”

Hughes noted that the prime minister’s chief science adviser, Juliet Gerrard, had “recently pointed out that GE regulation isn’t just a scientific question, it has ethical and economic dimensions too. Risks to New Zealand’s fast-growing organics sector and national agricultural reputation need to be considered.

Gerrard has also said, however, that New Zealand’s existing law on genetic engineering is “not fit for purpose”. Speaking to the Spinoff shortly after her appointment, she said: “The act was written before the technologies we’re discussing were even invented. So I think what we need to do is have a calm look at sorting out the language and the legal and regulatory framework.”

Her predecessor as PM’s science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, has gone further, saying, “If our country does not periodically consider how to use or not use evolving technologies, we run the risk of becoming a backwater with a declining competitive position. We must to find a way to have ongoing conversations about fast moving and evolving technologies; burying our heads in the sands of short-termism can have serious long-term costs.”

An expert panel, cited by the letter writers, set up by Royal Society Te Apārangi to consider implications of new technologies which allow more controlled and precise gene editing, called for “an overhaul of the regulations” and “an urgent need for wide discussion and debate about gene editing within and across all New Zealand communities”.

Hughes added: “There are emissions reduction practices available right now without needing hypothetical, future GE-based technologies. We believe regenerative and organic agriculture is a better future for New Zealand and our environment.

“Green Party policies are developed by our members and any change would have to come from the membership.”

The strength of divergent views within the Greens bubbled to the surface last week, when a member went public over a rejected op-ed submission to the party magazine, Te Awa.

In the proposed piece, which he provided to the NZ Herald, GE opponent and non-toxic pesticide developer Chris Henry had called for the resignation of James Shaw, writing: “We simply cannot have someone weak on the issue leading the political side.”

He had been motivated by an appearance by Shaw on Q&A, in which the Greens co-leader said he would be “led by the science” in assessing the arguments for GM technology in reducing methane emissions in agriculture.

The editor of the magazine, which is independent from the party caucus, told Henry: “Your piece conflicts with many of our principles and values when it asks for James’ resignation. The Green Party’s non-violence and appropriate decision-making principles preclude me from publishing your article. You have chosen a confrontational and violent approach to getting attention to your concerns.”

Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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