Transcript: Environment Minister Nick Smith

  • 31/10/2015
Transcript: Environment Minister Nick Smith

Lisa Owen: So, talk of a coming showdown there, and Environment Minister Nick Smith is with me in the studio. Good morning.

Nick Smith: Good morning to you.

So, some councils, districts, they want to remain GM-free. Are you going to try and stop them?

Well, it's just unrealistic, unworkable. You see, if you, for instance, have the Environmental Protection Authority, like they did this week, make a decision to allow a genetically modified treatment for liver cancer, it's impractical to be saying, 'Well, if you live in Hastings, you're not going to be able to have that treatment.' And the if you look at—

Animals and crops is what they're talking about.

Well, if you're going to market yourself as GM-free, well, then actually you need to be upfront. These are organisms that are able to reproduce. Now, if you come to an issue, like crops or animals, and let's say... And I think people underestimate how long it takes for these sorts of new technologies to come to practical crops, and that's why I don't necessarily agree with the view that this is all coming to a head now. People said that 20 years ago. Look, 18 years of argument about this, and we only have a first GM—

But they're making policies—

Can I just finish the point about councils?

But they're making policy now.

I want to respond to your question about councils, and that it is impractical to have 86 different councils' rules around GM. We have no biosecurity limits. If you get in a car and you drive from Hastings to Gisborne or to Wairarapa, if you had trees that are GM, there is no biological barrier for those to spread, and so it is impractical and wrong for councils to try and regulate this separately. They are welcome to participate in any public process that the EPA must do if they're going to release any GM.

Even though you think it is impractical, they are still determined to do it. They're determined to fight you on it. So are you going to fight back and try and stop it?

Well, it's interesting on the programme this morning on The Nation. You've had a number of your mayors saying, 'We don't like government dumping new responsibilities on to us.' We need to have an intelligent discussion as a country, what are the things that are sensible to regulate nationally and to make decisions by central government, and what are the sensible things that should be controlled by the local council. And I think all the evidence shows that decisions around biotechnology need to be made on a New Zealand-wide basis. Now, we are pretty cautious. We've got a very cautious legislative environment. If something like the Arctic apple was to be introduced into New Zealand, there would be a full public process. Councils, like Hastings, would be perfectly proper to participate in that process and express a view, but you can't have apples in one part of New Zealand with a different biological standard to another part because they can be so easily moved.

OK, well, this week you welcomed the first approval for the release of a genetically modified organism, and this is a vaccine that is going to be used in a cancer trial. What's the risk that that organism could spread to other people or animals?

And that's where the government says these decisions need to be made not by politicians but by the very best scientific skills that we can get. We don't want to deny… There's 180 New Zealanders per year that die from liver cancer. We do not want to deny people access to life-saving treatments on the basis of knee-jerk political reactions, slogans like 'GM free'. We want those decisions made by best scientific advice, and the scientific advice on that liver cancer vaccine is that it is safe and that the chances of that organism surviving beyond a tumour-based liver would be very unlikely and that it is safe, and that is why I welcome its approval.

They say there is a risk involved but they're putting conditions on – asking patients to take meticulous steps to contain any prospect of spread. But you're relying on you know human beings to comply meticulously with some conditions. Are you happy with that?

Absolutely, because there is nothing in life that is absolutely risk free. Every time you get on an aircraft, every time you get in a car, there is some degree of risk. What we need to be doing as a country is managing those risks on good, strong scientific basis. There's a very blunt risk for those 180 New Zealanders a year that get liver cancer. We want to give those people the best chance of life in the even that these clinical trials can deliver a treatment. We are satisfied that the scientific advice is very strong, that there is no risk to public health of allowing that live organism for that treatment to be able to be clinically trialled in New Zealand.

Okay, we'll leave it there for the moment.

We're back with Environment and Housing Minister Nick Smith. Now, before the break, we were talking about GMOs, this historic release of a vaccine for a trial involving cancer in patients. This was an easy one to sell, wasn't it, because cancer is an emotive issue. But are there going to be more to come?

I think the pace at which the science is developing is a lot slower than what some people would think in terms of crops that are going to be viable and useful in New Zealand. I've been around this argument since the legislation was passed in 1996, which is nearly 20 years ago. Everybody says, 'Oh, just round the corner.' There's all of these applications flowing in. I think there will be it. I think we need to make those decisions on good science grounds. I've actually got a high level of confidence in the Environmental Protection Authority, and I think the process they went through with respect to the liver cancer treatment was robust and thorough.

But there are more changes coming, aren't there? Because you're wanting to exempt some GMOs from getting special approvals, and some critics say that that's okay as long as it only relates to GMOs created before 1998. So can you guarantee you're not going to try and slide it a bit more?

There's quite an international argument down in the nerdy science about what is a GMO and what's not. You see, human beings have been selectively breeding, using techniques to enhance mutations with radiation, with chemicals for decades. And we've actually got a whole lot of foods that we eat right now that come from those techniques. And so the arguments going on internationally is where's that line between what is a GMO and what is not.

But is it going to be a shifting line? Is it going to be a shifting line over time? Are you going to have another bite at it further down the track?

Well, I think the science is maturing. There's a debate going on in Europe. There's a debate going on in the other parts of the country. Our government is saying we need to be quite cautious around this, because New Zealand does have an important brain for natural products, we earn a lot of our living from food products, but also we are a country that has got a pretty proud heritage of leading in science, everything from Ernest Rutherford and the like.

So that sounds like you're leaving the door open.

Yes, I am. I'm saying that we're going to take a cautious approach in the meantime, but as the international consensus around what is GM and what is not GM is that we are prepared to keep New Zealand in the mainstream of scientific opinion. Now, a really core, simple definition for me is that when you're bringing in foreign DNA into an organism there's no question in my view that that's a genetically modified organism. Where it gets more tricky is when there are alterations to the genes of an organism within it. So, for instance, you know, when you use those older techniques of enhancements of the mutations that occur naturally within an organism, at what point, where is that line? Now, it is a wide range of opinions as to where that line is. We're saying we're being cautious but we are not ruling out making further changes beyond those of which we are consulting on currently relative to where the rest of the world is sitting. But we are saying New Zealand needs to be cautious.

All right, let's jump on to another topic now, which is housing. You heard the mayors that we had on the show. Len Brown thinks that prices in Auckland are coming off, that they've hit a peak. Do you agree with that?

I don't think the evidence is yet there where I could draw that conclusion. There's anecdotal evidence that properties are taking longer to sell at auction, that there are fewer people at auctions, but if I look at the hard data that's coming out of both the real estate industry and also from the valuation agency, the figures for the last year are at 24 percent rise in Auckland house prices. That is a pretty galloping pace. It's not sustainable, and that is why the government is keeping its options open around further intervention.

But doesn't that mean that all the things that you're doing aren't working or aren't working fast enough?

Well, I think if you look at the key solution to Auckland's housing woes is around a growing supply. When I became minister, we were building about 3500 houses a year in Auckland. We've got that up to about 8500 houses. And the point I do make is it's very easy to sit in an interview and say you're going to build another thousand houses a year. That is a power of work that's required to subdivide the land and to bring those houses on stream.

But doesn't it seem that they're all being built, or bought at least, by landlords? Because the Reserve Bank figures… I mean, because that's what you wanted to curb, though, didn't you? Housing investors. Well, the Reserve Bank this week said that landlords are at an all-time high – 2.2 billion in September of lending to landlords; 82 percent up on the year earlier.

Well, let's look, though, but both with the tax changes that the government made last month, the Reserve Bank changes that come into effect tomorrow, it is getting more tricky for landlords, and simultaneously remember, the government has introduced the very generous Home Start scheme -- $430 million of grants to first-home buyers to give them a leg-up. Now, in terms of the bigger picture, you know the really big challenge?

But landlords are buying more than ever. The figures show us that.

It's also showing that in respect of first-home buyers that our Home Start scheme is really getting momentum. Actually, we've seen between a doubling and a trebling of the number of New Zealanders that are picking up that support. And here's the other part. You know the biggest part and the biggest worry for me around the housing debate is actually what's occurring between the New Zealand and Australian economies. The real change that has occurred over the last two to three years is that we have 40,000 Kiwis a year going to Australia, they're not going, quite a few of them are coming home, and that's increasing demand.

And they need houses too.

And they need houses too.

We've run out of time. We'll have to leave it there.

Transcript provided by Able.