health & science

Scientists a minority among GMO submissions in the north

In a trend described as “extreme” and "anti-science" the Northland Regional Council is the latest council to consider proposals to ban genetically modified organisms at a local level.

Stringent national rules are already in place to assess the safety of any genetically modified organism (GMO) before allowing its release. To date no genetically modified crops or animals have been approved for release from containment.

Additional local body rules are akin to adding braces when the belt is already tight.

Local rules prohibiting GMOs are already in place in Hawke’s Bay and Auckland.

Initially no rules regarding GMOs were in the Northland’s Proposed Regional Plan, however, the council received so many submissions it decided after receiving legal advice it needed to run two days of hearings.

Of the over 100 submissions received by Northland Regional Council to their Proposed Regional Plan most wanted the council to add additional controls. Only one scientist submitted evidence in favour of leaving decision making on the safety of GMOs at a national level. At least four scientists submitted evidence in favour of local control.

Outside of the microcosm of the council submissions, the spread of scientific opinion is quite different.

If the submissions represented scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified foods for example, 88 scientists would have said they are safe and 12 would have countered that view.

“These types of hearings are important for our democracy. They’re important for our decision-making and we do need to have expert voices adding their weight to the discussion.”

University of Auckland’s professor of physics and author of Silencing Science Shaun Hendy said he’s disappointed the scientific community did not engage in the submissions. When asked where the scientists were, he suggested three reasons for their absence.

Firstly, he said there can be a lack of organisational support for talking about subjects which are controversial.

“There are some science organisations that don’t want their scientists going there. They don’t want scientists out there talking about this. I think the idea is if we don’t add fuel to the fire then maybe over time things will just dissipate.”

Hendy thinks hoping it will go away is not the right approach and thinks scientists and organisations should “front-foot” issues with the public.

Secondly, time and resource could have also played a role. Hendy said individual scientists are not incentivised to spend time writing submissions in their day-to-day roles.

“You have to resource it yourself and almost do it in your spare time.”

Scientific organisations such as the New Zealand Association of Scientists may not have the funding to take part according to Hendy. Keeping up with what’s happening at a local council level takes time and resource.

Hendy thinks hearings should be something the Royal Society - which does receive some taxpayer funding - contributes to.

“These types of hearings are important for our democracy. They’re important for our decision making and we do need to have expert voices adding their weight to the discussion.”

The society told Newsroom its role is to help central and local government make evidence-informed decisions about matters such as GM. It’s recently released several papers on gene editing which it said can be cited by people submitting evidence, but it does not submit evidence itself.

" ... we turn around and someone has got your home address. It’s not nice."

Finally, Hendy also thinks fear could play a factor.

“Scientists are afraid of the public backlash. The debates we had 15 to 20 years ago left people quite bruised.”

University of Auckland plant biologist Professor Andrew Allan is the only scientist who submitted evidence to the council in favour of national, not local, regulation. He also suggested scientists might be too afraid to wade into the GMO debate.

“We’ve been really beaten up on this. In the public arena there is a lot of anti-science opinion. We’re starting to get shell-shocked.”

Allan submitted written evidence on behalf of the Federated Farmers. He did not present in person at the hearings: “We wouldn’t want to talk because we turn around and someone has got your home address. It’s not nice.

“Most scientists would say why would I even go up there or to Hawke’s Bay? They’re already behaving in an extreme way.”

In the past Allan has received what he describes as “horrible” emails. He thinks the people who send them aren’t “generally horrible to people, they’re just really worried”.

“If they would talk to me personally, I try to get across to them this is not an additional risk to their life.”

Allan’s submission states 10 percent of arable land worldwide is now planted with GMO crops without any measurable increase in detrimental effects. He also pointed out some of the background evidence supplied to council is outdated and omits evidence “which would otherwise contradict the conclusions it seeks to draw”.

He believes the current controls administered by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act are more than sufficient.

“Why do we have regional councils coming with another layer? The whole country is GE free. Why does one area decide to become more GE free than the country. It’s very extreme.”

“Those messages don’t seem to be getting out and the message that everything is dangerous, or frightening do come out and they seem to come from the same people.”

Professor Peter Dearden is the director of the University of Otago’s genomics department.

“Climate change denying scientists are rolled out all over the place when in fact they are a tiny fraction of the community and their voices are not consistent with current research.”

When it comes to GMOs he said it’s similar.

“I’m impressed by the number of times I hear genetic modification is dangerous with no evidence. In fact, genetically modified crops have been grown extensively and there is no evidence that they are dangerous.

“Those messages don’t seem to be getting out and the message that everything is dangerous, or frightening do come out and they seem to come from the same people.”

Northland Regional Council policy development manager Ben Lee told Newsroom although the hearings are adjourned, they are not closed.

He expected final plan recommendations will be completed in the first quarter of 2019. Once in place the plan is in place for a decade.

The legal right of councils to be able to set local rules has been upheld in court. Yet to be tested is the question whether councils should set local level rules.

Read more:

Is it time to change our minds on GMOs?

To GE or not to GE

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