You’ve got to hand it to Shane Jones. Even when he is not playing the fairy godfather role in the provinces he can make the headlines.
There he was on the front page of the NZ Herald last week with the message that NZ needs to review its genetic modification-free “gospel”.
Of course this raises alarm bells among the Green lobbies, because it is an article of faith among Green politicians that they “saved” NZ when a ban was applied to the application of GM in this country.
But Jones reckons if NZ is going to find a solution to meet the climate change transition, then it must apply weapons from the arsenal of science and technology. His intervention followed the concerns raised by the government’s Interim Climate Change Committee that laws surrounding GM could be a barrier to lowering farm emissions.
In response to the report, Cabinet is to look at the overall regulatory environment, including the genetic laws. Jones has been tasked with reporting back to his NZ First colleagues on the policy.
As he puts it in his inimitable way:
“Let’s push the waka out and find out whether what we are taking as gospel is still in the new climate change environment the gospel we want to believe in”.
In Jones-speak, the “gospel” on GM, an article of faith for the Green lobbies, is not necessarily the religion NZ should be practising because one of the challenges to the billion-trees strategy is the potential spread of wilding pine.
“My forest scientists tell me if they had more latitude there may be a way with gene editing to overcome that problem” .
Even more forthright in his advocacy of gene editing is Sir Peter Gluckman, former chief science adviser to the government, who now heads a multidisciplinary think-tank at Auckland University.
Sir Peter had another thrash on the issue when he spoke to Hort NZ’s annual conference, calling on New Zealanders to seriously debate evolving technology such as gene editing, and not leave it mired in rhetoric, and conflated with politics.
Radio NZ reported Sir Peter as saying there had been centuries of change in organisms’ genetic make-up, which was speeded up with gene transplants in the 1970s. From the start, there were strong objections to this: unwanted genes could be transferred from one species to another, genetically modified food would be unsafe to eat, playing with the genome was philosophically wrong and huge corporations would use technology to take over the food industry.
“In NZ, the debate quickly became conflated with politics, and still is.Activism and extreme rhetoric reduced the quality of informed debate.”
In 2001, a Royal Commission effectively put a moratorium on genetic development.Yet that development soon surpassed the commission’s own level of technological debate. Most notably, this involved gene editing, which altered aspects of a gene, and how it operated, without changing the gene itself. This differed from genetic modification as considered by the commission, and could have major benefits.
Sir Peter said:
“For example, in my last report as Chief Science Advisor, I suggested genetically modified grasses already developed by NZ scientists.They are not able to be field trialled here, but may be an effective way of sustaining productivity while lowering dairy cow numbers and the environmental burden of methane emissions.(They would also) avoid the need for chemical inhibitors yet to be developed or licensed, with their own issues that may well affect consumers’ attitudes.
“But without field trials in local conditions, we simply do not know how effective they might be.”
Sir Peter sees it as essential to debate these matters fully, without hyperbolic claims on either side of the argument.
“NZ should be much more confident about its ability to engage in debates on values, irrespective of outcome.Yes, such debates are hard, but avoiding them harms ourselves as a nation.”
He went on to say matters like this could be considered by a sort of Citizens’ Assembly. Such assemblies had been used to consider contentious matters in Ireland and involved 99 names randomly chosen from the electoral roll. They would address a particular set of problems, with a Supreme Court judge as chair and experts giving evidence.
Sir Peter reckons if NZ does not periodically consider how to use or not use evolving technologies, it runs 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.“
So is the government ready to move with the science? After all, it is listening, and acting, on the science of climate change.
Is it not willing to use every tool in the scientific arsenal to combat what extremists argue could lead to the extinction of mankind?
Environment Minister David Parker told Parliament NZ’s approach to genetic engineering had remained unchanged because it had benefited the economy.
“If there was a miracle cure for climate change brought about by a GM crop, I’m sure any government would consider it”.
A “miracle” cure is a high barrier. Perhaps the government should pay more attention to the climate commission’s report which pointed out the significance of genetically modified ryegrass developed by AgResearch which may potentially reduce both methane and nitrous oxide emissions from gracing animals. But the grass is having to be tested in the US and could not be used commercially in NZ under current laws.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw has indicated he accepts the government has a responsibility to consider the GM issue,
But here’s the irony: the Green Party has no plans to change its policy.
Shaw has warned anything that endangered the “100% pure” brand would not be worth it, even if scientifically safe.
For laughing out loud: which party has done more to damage the “100% pure” brand than the Green Party?
It has constantly preached the gospel that 70% of NZ’s waterways are polluted, and blamed it on farmers — even where many of the waterways near cities and towns are polluted by wastewater and stormwater discharges.