New Zealand agrees to GM crop trials as two-year ban ends

By David Fickling

October 30, 2003 -- CropChoice news --The Guardian: A two-year ban on genetically modified crop trials in New Zealand was lifted last night, despite warnings that the technology posed a particular risk to the country's ecological balance. Two-thirds of residents wanted the moratorium, imposed in 2001 to allow Wellington to assess the impact of GM crops, to be extended.

Linda Newstrom of Landcare Research, a government-funded environmental research group, said the large proportion of imported species in the country increased the possibility of GM contamination.

"With any non-indigenous flora, New Zealand is going to be a lot more vulnerable than most countries," she said. "More than half of our plant cover is non-native, whereas somewhere like Britain it's less than 10%."

Until the arrival of Maori settlers 1,000 years ago, the islands had never seen a land mammal. Since then humans have introduced nearly 20,000 species, and foreign organisms now outnumber native ones.

The result is an ecosystem peculiarly at risk from invasive weeds and hybridization.

A Landcare Research report found that native plants were able to interbreed with introduced potato, carrot, tomato and celery crops, potentially destroying rare indigenous species.

Nine thousand people marched on the capital this month calling for the GM moratorium to be preserved. One group walked 930 miles around North Island and another set up camp opposite the parliament in Wellington.

Members of an organization called Mothers Against Genetic Engineering demonstrated naked outside parliament and unveiled a billboard of a four-breasted woman hooked up to a milking machine. Maori groups have also been vocal in opposing GM, as many regard traditional agriculture as central to their identity.

But much of the pressure for keeping the ban in place came from food groups, who said the change would damage New Zealand's reputation for high quality, green produce.

Michael Roche, professor of historical geography at Massey University, said the debate had been intensified because New Zealand was dependent on farm exports. "We're in a pretty exposed international environment, so there's an element of caution," he said. Two-thirds of export earnings come from agriculture, horticulture and forestry, which together account for 17% of GDP.

A government report in April concluded that licensing GM products could raise farm income by 5%, but the damage to the industry's image might cost more in the long run.

Officials expect it to take 18 months after an application to use GM technology for the first crops to be planted. The only product being considered at the moment is a modified onion crop.

Federated Farmers, an organization representing New Zealand's 18,000 farmers, said the end of the moratorium would have little effect on the industry. A spokesman, Hugh Ritchie, said: "You can't say suddenly that your lamb is contaminated just because there's a modified onion trial in Canterbury [on the South Island]."


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