Steffan Browning

Precautionary approach to GE in the Bay of Plenty?

by Steffan Browning

I had a visitor this week from the USA. Phillip Geertson called into New Zealand to describe to me in detail how genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa (lucerne) had effectively contaminated all conventional alfalfa growing areas in the United States, and why we should be concerned about any further imports of alfalfa seed here. Phillip’s company, Geertson Seeds, has been advised to leave the USA if it wants to persist in achieving GE free seed production.

Phillip’s visit was a timely reminder of why GE should be treated in a precautionary way. Today I am at an Environment Court hearing in Tauranga in support of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council (BOPRC) having included in its draft Regional Policy Statement (RPS) the need for precaution around GE. NZ Forest Research Institute Ltd (Scion) a crown research institute which is developing GE trees in laboratories and a field trial in Rotorua has appealed the need for precaution.

I had submitted to and appeared before the BOPRC in my previous role with the Soil & Health Association (Organic NZ magazine) supporting BOPRC  taking a precautionary approach.  Soil & Health along with GE Free NZ and others have joined the Scion appeal as S274 parties supporting the need for a precautionary approach to GE, and have collaborated for their legal advice.

It is good to see that councils such as BOPRC are persisting with listening to the community and are taking a precautionary approach to GE, despite Environment Minister Amy Adams intention to remove their ability to exceed the decision limits of the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) and the HSNO Act (Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act).

Phillip Geertson successfully challenged the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) against its allowing GE alfalfa into the environment, but the USDA continued regardless and deregulated GE alfalfa. It can be speculated that was because there was already contamination in all the main alfalfa growing areas by trialling GE alfalfa in those regions previously, and prohibiting GE alfalfa was going to be too difficult to achieve.

Last year I visited a farm in Victoria Australia and saw where GE canola had been spread onto multiple non GE farms through a flooding event. I later toured one of the affected farmers, Bob Mackley, through New Zealand meeting with farmers, policy makers, and consumers. Several weeks ago, I visited the property of Steve Marsh at Kojonup in Western Australia where the property had been contaminated with wind-borne GE canola from a neighbours property. Those farmers are in court in February following a damages claim due to the loss in value of Steve Marshes grain crops when most of his farm lost organic certification due to the GE contamination.

Today’s Environment Court hearing has just heard from scientist Peter Wills that the EPA, previously the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA), has a history of making decisions for GE field trials without appropriate regard for non-industry expert evidence. In all EPA/ERMA approved GE field trial experiments there have been breaches of approval conditions, some of which could have led to contamination of neighbouring properties.

This week the Court is hearing from witnesses from the honey, kiwifruit and dairy sectors, stating the potential risks of GE to their industries and profitability. Amy Adams would have local authorities such as BOPRC not be able to make provisions in their plans to protect the health, environment and livelihoods of its community from the risks associated with GE.

In the absence of a moratorium against any GE applications and removal of the two existing GE field trials, councils must be able to protect their communities and environment in a better way than the EPA and HSNO Act allows.

Published in Environment & Resource Management by Steffan Browning on Thu, November 28th, 2013   

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