I recently sent in my submission on Scion’s proposal to test 4000 genetically engineered (GE) pine trees, currently being reviewed by ERMA. It’s been a good opportunity to reflect on this historically important issue for the Greens and see if our old arguments still hold water.
Personally, GE was one of the first issues I got active on as a young environmentalist, and I even got arrested protesting McDonald’s use of GE soy chicken feed. I was motivated by concern that a tiny number of powerful corporates from the chemical and agricultural industries wanted to release a new and potentially dangerous technology on Aotearoa for their own profit, disregarding the environmental and social risks, the threat to our clean green brand, and endangering our organic future.
Back then the argument for embracing GE technology was ‘to feed the world’ through increasing crop yields. However, as the Union of Concerned Scientists’ 2009 report Failure to Yield evidences – this promise has failed to eventuate. Now GE advocates have moved on to new arguments such as ‘it’ll help battle climate change’. Scion are claiming that their trees will play a significant role in capturing carbon but they don’t provide any evidence that their genetically modified pines would have any significant benefit over normal pines. And as highlighted by a press release from GE Free NZ, the perceived benefit of faster growing GE pines for building supplies raise serious questions about the strength and durability of the timber, as well needing to intensify tanalisation, increasing the use of toxic substances.
GE supporters often promoted the decrease in herbicide or pesticide use, but as shown in Dr Charles Benbrook’s 2003 research into pesticide use on GE crops in the US over a ten year period – the trend was a gradual then accelerated increase in supplementary chemical management of GE crops – largely due to increased herbicide resistance. But when the same company that provides the seeds also provides the herbicides – you can see that not everyone loses in that situation.
Another great concern about open field trials of GE is the risk of accidental escape or cross-pollination. Scion has been accused of spreading misinformation about the research behind pine pollen spread – which GE Free NZ refutes with several examples of recent research showing just how far and fast pine pollen can spread.
I also think it is fair to question whether ERMA is just a ‘rubber stamping’ body for approving GE trials, an issue Organic NZ highlighted earlier in the year. It is not only the environmental implications of an uncontrolled GE release (though, this should be enough), but it is also the potential economic damage. Currently around two thirds of our pine exports carry the Forest Stewardship Council certification standard, which only certifies products that are GE free. If Scion’s genetically modified pines are released (accidentally or otherwise) the FSC will no longer be able to say with certainty that our exports are free from contamination. This will affect our exports to major trading partners such as Europe, Canada and the USA.
In the case of our brand the economic benefits of maintaining a GE free New Zealand are huge with prices for organic and certified GM-free food at prices well above agricultural products that do not carry such labels. I note in Al Morrison’s latest speech he says that global sales of organic food and drink have increased three-fold since 1999, and sales of certified sustainable forest products quadrupled between 2005 and 2007.
So, I would say that the old arguments about keeping GE in the lab still hold fast and strong, and in fact many of our original concerns have (unfortunately) been proven correct. Will the people’s moratorium hold?