NZ needs to rethink genetic engineering stance - experts

  • 02/07/2018

The Government's outgoing science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, says we're long overdue a serious chat about genetic engineering.

Fifteen years ago thousands of Kiwis protested the release of genetically modified organisms into the country. The nationwide march attracted 15,000 in Auckland alone, armed with confronting images and the slogan "Keep Your Hands Off Our Genes".

The protests were prompted by a political scandal known as Corngate over imports of GE-contaminated corn seed from the United States. In 2002 then-Prime Minister Helen Clark lost her cool over the hot-button issue on national television.

Since then, all genetic experiments have been confined to labs. However Sir Peter says we need a rethink on the issue, telling TVNZ there are "no significant ecological or health concerns associated with the use of advanced technologies".

In 2016 more than 100 Nobel laureates signed a letter urging Greenpeace to end its opposition to GMOs, claiming GE rice could help prevent blindness and death in children in the developing world.

The New Zealand Government isn't keen on changing its cautious approach, saying any changes would be years away.

Chief science adviser Juliet Gerrard says there's "no doubt" the current regulatory framework is out of date on the issue.

"We'll definitely need a fresh look at the evidence."

Professor Barry Scott, co-chair of the Royal Society expert panel on GE, says there's a lot of "scaremongery" about genetic modification and many haven't changed their opinions since the early 2000s. He told The Project GE has huge potential to cure illnesses such as bone marrow cancer, as well as conservation of the environment. GE could even be used to remove allergens from food, making it safer for people with intolerances.

Professor Scott doesn't think Kiwis should be concerned about the potential dangers of GE.

"There's millions of hectares of crops being grown around the world for 20-plus years now with no adverse effects."

He says while there are no live GE crops grown here, it's not true that New Zealand is GE-free, as we use GE medicines and food products derived from GE crops.

Guest host Wendyl Nissen took issue with Professor Scott's use of the term "scaremongery", saying many Kiwis have valid concerns over GE.

"They go, 'You don't know what you're talking about. We're the scientists, trust us; it's perfectly safe.' I hate that talk, it doesn't say, 'These are valid concerns and we're listening.'"

When asked if she trusts the opinions of experts on climate change, she reiterated she "doesn't trust scientists at all".

"History will tell you the number of times they've told us things are safe, then five generations down we find out they're not."