Food and genetic modification: better informed policy and legislation wanted

By Grant Jacobs 16/02/2015

Below is a lightly-edited copy of an op-ed related to the Food Matters Aotearoa event at Te Papa this weekend. As it’s not being used by the newspaper, I’ve put it here. I’ve added a few thoughts about Steffan Browning’s press release at the end.


Op-ed draft

Policy needs to be well informed by evidence where it is useful. Evidence is useful, for example, in policy with science content.

Policy aimed at consumers needs to suit all New Zealanders, not pander to the wishes of a few ideologues pushing unorthodox views at the expense of the nation.

This week saw events organised by members of GE Free NZ hosted under a ‘Food Matters Aotearoa’ banner, in particular a conference at Te Papa over the coming weekend. Keynote speakers usually set the tone and agenda of a conference. The organisers’ selected keynote speakers were from several groups but have in common opposition to genetic modification (GM) and views that sit on the fringe of the science of the subject.

Star speaker is Gilles-Éric Séralini, whose experiments on rats drew widespread and harsh criticism from scientists. This research paper was formally retracted. Arjó and colleagues, commented in the scientific journal Transgenic Research that “The study appeared to sweep aside all known benchmarks of scientific good practice and, more importantly, to ignore the minimal standards of scientific and ethical conduct in particular concerning the humane treatment of experimental animals.”

The other two key invited international speakers, former physicist turned environmental activist Vandana Shiva and Prof. Don Huber (retired since 2002) are similarly strongly opposed to GM, but with that opposition based on shaky scientific foundations.

Green Party GE spokesperson, Steffan Browning, of homeopathy-to-treat-Ebola infamy, hosted several of these people in an event in parliament on Thursday.

(It has to be noted that Claire Bleakley who heads GE Free NZ and is an organiser of the Food Matters Aotearoa meeting, has collaborated with Browning on GE issues. She also is a practicing homeopath, having been reported as treating cancer patients with what is essentially water with a nice story. Some might say two peas in an ill-formed pod.)

The views of these speakers are hardly a basis for sound policy, and are exceptionally unlikely to reflect the views or needs of the majority of New Zealanders.

An easy way out of controversial topics for some governments is to—gutlessly—accommodate the noisy few. It silences them. Common sense suggests this works most easily if the moderate middle ground are passive.

Our current GM legislation leans that way, effecting a ban irrespective of what the particular product might be.[1]

GM is important to all New Zealanders, whether they’ve taken time to understand it or not. It’s more than ‘just’ plants, too.

There is work developing bacteria (or yeast) that can produce biofuels. So-called ‘gene therapy’ has been successfully applied to treat a number of rare illnesses, such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia and beta-thalassemia. Important biological products can be mass produced: insulin for diabetics, for example, is made using genetically-engineered bacteria gown in large stainless steel fermentation vats. This list goes on.

For plants, GM creates small variants of existing plants; it is unable to do the wholesale genetic changes that some older breeding techniques can. Its changes are few and targeted. It can create drought-resistant crops important for coping with climate change. We could develop pines that don’t pollute our landscape and native forests with wilding trees, an accursed nuisance in this country. Crops supplementing dietary deficiencies have been developed and grown, as have crops resistant to disease.

All this is fairly old news to scientists. We’re not looking to the far future, but things already at hand or nearly so.

Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) have been grown for around 18 years now with no reports of major health issues. Biologists widely regard GMOs as a class as safe as other food crops: they are small variants of them.

Our legislation regulating GMOs badly needs revision, as last year’s odd blocking of a technique considered exempt showed,[2] but fringe speakers are not a sound guide for new policy. Bleakley and Browning’s cast do not reflect the science on the subject, but advocate opinions at odds with it.


Steffan Browning’s press release

Steffan Browning, a Green Party MP who hosted some of the keynote speakers in an event in parliament, has issued a press release. In his press release he describes the meeting thusly –

The Food Matters conference will be discussing the negative impacts of genetic engineering […]

I don’t agree with much of what Steffan Browning says,[3] but at least puts this the aims of the meeting reasonably plainly.

You’d wish the organisers had been as open about the aims. Their advertising makes out the meeting to be ‘neutral’, as if it covered all aspects and ‘sides’. Why not simply say things as they were?

This press release is on the Green Party website, so I take it that it is a sanctioned Green Party statement. The Green Party have made some fuss about wanting to take an evidence-based approach to policy. It’s a principle I’d support, but as always with politics you want to see it happen first!

Steffan Browning’s press release shows an approach that looks to ‘find’ evidence that shores up a previously-held stance. That’s really an ideologically-based approach to policy, not an evidence-based one.

Evidence-based approaches might start with a survey of a all of a topic (not a subset selected from on end of the spectrum), determine what of that is sound and hence can be ‘known’, and work from that.[4]

There’s a place for considering the controversial or unpopular, but it can’t really be done in isolation from the rest of the science on the subject.


Thanks to Alison Campbell for suggestions to improve the original draft.

1. See, for example, Peter Deardon’s article, Defining Genetic Modification.

2. Currently legislation (supposedly) explicitly exempts mutagensis techniques from being examined (i.e. they are to be considered acceptable, not to be examined), but in this ruling, a new mutagenesis technique was blocked. (ZFN-1 site-specific mutagenesis.)

3. For example, I don’t think the closing suggestion in his press release is sensible:

We should draw on the discussions at the Food Matters conference and develop a new approach for truly sustainable agriculture in New Zealand that benefits our environment, our economy and the health of our people and communities.

There’s value in looking at evidence of how we might do better in agriculture, but the Food Matters Aotearoa event keynote speakers present from one end of the spectrum, rather than exploring it widely. He says as much earlier in his press release.

If you’re so inclined, you could deconstruct his press release further. There’s this, for example –

The increasing importation and approval of genetically engineered foods mean that more and more pesticide residues are coming into the New Zealand food chain. Almost all GE crops are bred to rely on herbicides or insecticides.

Most pesticides and GE crops have been developed and patented by industrial agriculture for the benefit of its shareholders, and are not designed to benefit people or the planet.

(E.g. many GE crops are developed to aid nutritional deficiencies, or to reduce the reliance on insecticides.)

4. It seems to me that current political parties (all of them, sorry!), by their nature, will tend to place ideology over evidence. Perhaps better processes for presenting evidence to parliament and ensuring that it has it’s place in policy might help?

Further reading on this topic:

Defining Genetic Modfication (Peter Deardon at Southern Genes)

How to avoid DNA (Peter Deardon at Southern Genes; read through to latter portion)

Scholarly outliers (Eric Crampton at The Dismal Science)

food matter aotearoa – an opportunity for real debate? or muddying the waters? (Alison Campbell at bioBlog)

Better discussion of GMOs in NZ needed and the Food Matters Aotearoa lineup

Séralini GMO maize and Roundup study republished with no scientific peer review

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part one

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part two – is the law out of date?

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part three

GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural”

Haemophilia — towards a cure using genetic engineering

The public and new research: peer review, initial reports and responses to extraordinary claims

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