By JAMES GARDINER and ANNE BESTON
New Zealand Herald, 24 November 2001
for more on GE trees: http://www.gaaget.org
One of four field trials approved for genetically modified pine trees and sheep has been abandoned by Carter Holt Harvey because the forestry giant does not want to be at the centre of a "political storm".
Proposed new rules for GM experiments are to go before the cabinet on Monday and may be introduced to Parliament as an amendment bill next week.
Maori opposition to GM will be dealt with next year in a second amendment.
The new rules should not have affected Carter Holt Harvey's pine tree field trial because it had an existing approval under conditions set years ago.
But it has pulled out anyway citing consumer resistance to the process.
The Royal Commission on GM, which reported this year, said it was essentialthat all material associated with field trials - any "heritable material" - be removable from a site.
The Weekend Herald has been told by several official and non-Government sources that those working on the amendment to the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 have left the reference to "heritable material" undefined.
GM proponent the Life Sciences Network said that would mean the issue had to be decided by the courts, which would be costly for any applicant whose approval was challenged.
Network spokesman Francis Wevers said yesterday the term should be defined officially either in the law or elsewhere.
"The Government had always hoped this piece of legislation would be simple and uncontroversial," Mr Wevers said. "The fact that it's taken several weeks of intense political negotiations following the completion of the work by the officials suggests it's not going to be."
Carter Holt Harvey environmental manager Murray Parrish said the trial the company had planned to take from the lab into the field had no commercial application, but would have helped test the success of scientific work done so far.
"We support the technology in principle and can see a range of opportunities, environmentally and commercially, but if consumers don't want it for whatever reason we would be pretty silly to produce it," he said.
Mr Parrish said CHH supported the Government's "proceed with caution" approach to GM and saw a need for appropriate controls on research.
But it did not want to compromise its commercial viability or community standing.
Meanwhile, a big question mark is emerging over whether field trials will able to proceed because of fierce scientific and political debate over the degree to which soil in which trees or other crops are planted becomes part of any experiment.
The other trials approved by the Environmental Risk Management Authority but yet to start are two more involving pine trees that the Forest ResearchInstitute wants to do at Rotorua and one involving sheep that AgResearch plans for the Waikato.
Both abided by the voluntary moratorium the Government called for while the commission sat.
It lifted the moratorium last month when it announced its response to the commission's recommendations.
At that time, Forest Research scientist Dr Chris Walter was confident of having GM trees in the ground by Christmas, but yesterday he said the issue of how to secure the seedlings from vandals or protesters was troubling. He described as "absurd" the suggestion that soil could be considered heritable material and therefore need removing after any trial. He interpreted heritable to mean the soil or organisms in it could produce a new tree.
Pat Clark, a consultant to GE Free Northland, disagreed.
"There is plenty of evidence to suggest that DNA, which of course is heritable material, can survive [as the root material decomposes] and can exert a transgenic effect itself even in the soil environment," he said.
The AgResearch trial may also not go ahead, but for a different reason.
Dr Paul Atkinson said the field trial to produce sheep with "bigger backsides" [!] and therefore more meat was not ready to progress beyond the laboratory and he did not know when it would be.