Anti GE protesters in Auckland at the height of the issue in 2003 (Michael Bradley, Getty Images)

The Bulletin: Door opened to GE Free debate

Good morning, and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Door opened to debate on GE Free policy, dollar figure put on the health cost of poor housing, and self-ID bill deferred by minister Tracey Martin.

It has been one of the cornerstone policies of New Zealand environmentalism for the past two decades. New Zealand’s GE Free status has been maintained throughout our primary sector, meaning horticulture and agricultural products can be sold under the label. But it looks likely a thorny debate is about to get underway over whether that should be continued.

Why? The National Party is pushing for that debate to start, and they’re being backed by former chief science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman, reports Politik. Sir Peter says we should be looking at relaxing rules gene editing – not quite the same thing as genetic modification, but not a million miles away either – here’s an excellent explainer that outlines the differences further down the page. It’s perhaps a bit disingenuous to describe it as a call for a debate too – intelligent people don’t call for debates on topics if they don’t intend to then win the argument.

In particular, the topic in question is a type of ryegrass currently being trialled in the USA, which when eaten by cows could reduce their methane emissions by up to 25%. New Zealand’s output of methane is a significant contributor to our total emissions, and the argument goes that finding ways to reduce that is the best contribution we could make to reducing global emissions. It’s also entirely in line with National’s approach to climate change policy, which they want to have minimal economic impact, and be primarily driven by science and technology, rather than cutting production.

But would it actually have minimal economic impact? This piece on Pure Advantage’s website (an organisation that promotes cohesion between business and environmentalism) argues that any changes to policy in New Zealand could be incredibly damaging to our global brand. They’re not arguing that research shouldn’t take place, but they’re horrified by the thought of a commercial release of GMO crops or animals. It potentially pays to think about it in similar terms to biosecurity – sectors of the economy could be devastated if the wrong thing got loose. And there will probably always be risk – even extremely small risk – of that with genetically altered organisms.

Politically, if this takes off as an issue, it could blow up in quite a serious way. There was a skirmish reported earlier in the month by Newshub, in which Conservation minister Eugenie Sage blocked research into GE technology that could potentially help with the Predator Free goal. Her position was attacked by National, as an anti-science position. But it also got strong backing from lobby group GE Free NZ, who argued the long term effects of consuming genetically altered food wasn’t known, as well as arguing that the experience of other countries shows detrimental environmental effects. And let’s not forget, the Green Party largely got back into parliament in 2002 because they turned out the anti-GE vote so strongly.

It’s fair to say that the science isn’t fully settled on the full potential benefits and risks of gene editing and other related techniques. However, as the experts collated by the Science Media Centre last year pointed out, that’s because more research needs to happen, and they largely support that research taking place. In this Stuff story, Minister Sage said there wasn’t a push from New Zealanders for the GE policy to be changed. But if a flashpoint issue were to emerge, that could change very quickly.


A dollar figure has been put on the cost of poor housing, measured in hospitalisations and ACC claims, reports Radio NZ. According to a new report from the Motu Institute, taxpayers fork out $145 million a year for those specific measurements, and it’s entirely down to damp, mouldy and dangerous housing. Not to mention, those illnesses all too often result in death. It’s likely to be a figure that gets quoted widely in the future in debates about the costs of improving rental standards.


Internal affairs minister Tracey Martin has deferred a bill that would have removed barriers for trans people to change their gender on official documents. Ms Martin appeared on Q+A last night, and said the decision was based on Crown Law advice. However, she dodged quite specific questions about her own views on the clause in the bill, and the spectrum of gender generally. If you don’t know about this bill, it was the one privacy commissioner John Edwards wrote in support of last week.


This is an excellent in depth look from Interest about a question many wouldn’t have given a second thought – does New Zealand need a population policy? Despite relatively quick population growth, we remain among the least densely populated countries in the world. But there are now calls for New Zealand to be more strategic around how the population is growing, particularly in light of trends like ageing demographics and falling birth rates. It’s also something that would need to be considered through the lens of other policy areas, like housing, immigration, and skills shortages.


The Dominion Post has been keeping a close eye on the costs of the Town Hall restoration in Wellington, and it looks set to rise. Their front page today has a big update, with sources saying the real cost of the project could be $20 million higher than the existing $112.4 million cost. The Council will vote on funding for the original amount, as well as on a contingency fund of an undisclosed size, on Wednesday.


If you’re concerned about a fruit fly outbreak, Newstalk ZB’s news bulletins this morning feature expert comment that says that is still a long way away. Another one of the buggers was found yesterday, but MPI is confident the cases are isolated. A Lincoln University expert quoted by ZB said there needed to be a real population for it to be considered an outbreak. However, it should probably go without saying that it’s still important to respect the MPI fruit quarantine zones.


Superbugs are one of those health concerns that haven’t really got any less pressing over the last decade. This feature by Newsroom‘s Eloise Gibson looks into Carbapenemase-producing Enterobacteriaceae – better known as CPE – of which an increasing and worrying number of cases are being found. Superbugs tend to be defined by their resistance to anitbiotics, and while many carriers aren’t affected, they can have a significant danger to those who are already vulnerable.


Some hefty fines have been handed down to fishing companies who significantly under-reported their bluenose catch, reports the NZ Herald. All in all, 131 charges were pleaded guilty to by the group of defendants, which included Hawke’s Bay Seafoods, one of the largest companies in the area. Minister Stuart Nash says it sends a strong message to those in the industry who flout the law.


From our partners: Climate change has already affected how electricity gets delivered to customers, and it’s only going to get more challenging. Vector’s Chief Networks Officer Andre Botha outlines what the lines company is doing to respond.


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Rob Muldoon in 1973. Photo: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Right now on The Spinoff: Chris Ford brings the perspective of a disabled person to the debate over the Lime scooter ban. Alex Penk and Julian Wood of the Maxim Institute argue that the idea behind the provincial growth fund is good, but the implementation risks turning it into a fiasco. David Faulkner has analysed the conditions and found the rental squeeze is likely to get even worse. And Claire Adamson has some tips for making your tramping food be less bleak.


A rather strange and concerning story from Stuff broke at the end of last week, which showed ministry of health officials tried to undermine a study into the country’s maternal care system. The research came out, and ministry officials said they’d look into it, but then nothing was commissioned. As well as that, the ministry was accused of trying to freeze out the research to manage the publicity issue, rather than actually work out good policy. Here’s an excerpt:

Though maternity was not Sarfati’s usual area, she knew any research critical of the system was likely to be controversial. A year previously her then-Otago University colleague, Dr Bev Lawton, had faced widespread criticism for her study finding the likelihood of a baby dying was higher with a first-year midwife. (The ministry did commission a study to try and replicate this; Auckland University’s Dr Lynn Sadler concluded the difference did not exist if higher-risk pregnancies were accounted for.)

For this reason, Sarfati contacted the ministry well before the study had been accepted for publication in Plos medicine, a high-ranked, peer-reviewed medical journal. Sarfati and Wernham met with Tuohy and Pelvin and went through the results both in person and over email, describing their methods and how they had carefully adjusted for bias.

“In the end it didn’t seem to make much difference at all,” says Sarfati, now.

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“They had nearly a year to consider their response, and in the end their response was largely to discredit the research.”


NZ Hockey has apologised for the negative team culture created around the Women’s Black Sticks, reports One News. It follows a culture review into the environment around former coach Mark Hager’s team – he’s now coaching England and Great Britain. Well over half of the players spoken to during the review said they had concerns about the team environment. Hockey players in NZ recently had a significant amount of funding suspended, with ultra-wealthy backer Sir Owen Glenn holding back the payments he had been making, over dissatisfaction with how Hager lost his job.


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