By Grant Jacobs 14/11/2019

Recently more than 150 post-graduate students and young scientists presented an open letter to the Green Party via The Spinoff, encouraging them to reconsider their position on genetic modification. Their target is tackling climate change issues.[1]

Can any party continue to be dismissive about genetic modification (GM) contributing to better agriculture?

We all want safe food, and the environment and climate change are important issues to tackle. New varieties can contribute, including those developed using GM.

All political parties have quietly let the GM legislation slide, not just the Green Party. It is unimpressive no party has moved the temporary legislation on. (Such outstanding timidity! Such an excellence of hand-sitting![2])

It’s an issue politicians avoid, I believe, because the core of opposition to GMOs is about some people’s beliefs, not science, and politicians are reluctant to deal with beliefs.

I’d suggest we’re better with an “Each to their own, and respect others” approach. There’s a room for both.

Among the conceptual points often missed or avoided are:

  • Treat things based on beliefs or ideals as secular issues are. (‘Each to their own’, not one or the other.)
  • Understand risk properly. (Seeking perfection is often about avoidance.[3])
  • Insist on proper use of the ‘precautionary principle’ (It’s too often misused: it’s a temporary hold while waiting for evidence.)
  • Agricultural issues are generally better mitigated through management plans.
  • Labels stigmatise. They’re an inherently bad thing to build legislation around.

GM is a big topic. This will only look at a few concepts, and leave examples and the legislation for another time. Some of the ground is familiar from four years ago – recommended reading! The footnotes contain some additional thoughts.

Greens tread water

In response to the ESCA’s letter, the Green Party science and technology spokesperson opted to tread water. The party offers that they (paraphrasing) “follow the science”, but in my experience—across many different issues—is they only seem to “follow” chosen subsets of science that fit an ideology appealing to their members. That’s not how following science works.

My impression is their leaders recognise the GMO issue is divisive amongst their supporters, and they try avoid it or take ‘immobile’ stances as much as possible.

Similarly, my impression is their leaders recognise opposing GM limits the party’s ability to grow. (Of course, if they want to be a fringe player, that’s fine.)

Ultimately the Greens’ position on this issue isn’t centred on science, or the proposed economic risks they also point at, but an ‘organic’ ideal a fraction of their members like.[4] It’s that they ask others to make accomodations for their ideal that’s an issue, not the ideal itself. We all have things like that, but usually we respects others’ wish to think differently.

That’s not about science, but secular governance. In my opinion it’s a core reason why leadership and governance on this issue is not working. The legislation, governance and leadership all conflate these two issues.

The ESCA’s letter is pitched in terms of tackling climate change, a policy the Green Party support. To be consistent with that they need to include the contributions that GM can make.

Those signing the letter have backgrounds in biology or environmental science. Emerging Scientists for Climate Action (ESCA) can be found on Twitter (@EmergingEsca).

Not just the Green Party

Let’s not forget that none of the current political parties have moved this on.

Let’s also not forget avoiding it is making this legislation “temporarily permanent”.[3]

When the NZ Environmental Protection Agency presented options to use during the last tweak to this legislation, the “softest” of them was selected, the one that involved the least effort by cabinet.

That option came with the advice that it was,

“a bare minimum and is not considered a long term solution.”

All the suggested actions were intended to be temporary.[5] It’s now four years later, and no party has moved this to a long(er)-term solution. So this isn’t just about the Green Party.

The recommended long-term suggestion at the time was, “Review the rules on new organisms in the HSNO Act”.

(My own thoughts[6] are that it’d be better to remove the GMO clauses from the Act, use sensible comparison of risks for new organisms, with a focus on management (and remove the ‘magic date’). Individual organisms can still be upheld if called for, but based on identified risks. Identified risks can then be tackled across all new crops (or animals), however they were first developed, and applied where actual need arises not across the board ultimately founded on ideals and branding.)

Political fear

Desires, fears, and ideologies are great tools for politicians to work with. (Or abuse.)

New technologies have for centuries spawned irrational worries and whataboutism. Our past worries look stupid when we look back on them.[7]

To a biologist, the worry-warting about GMOs is often badly misplaced. It’s forgivable and understandable that people worry about things they don’t understand and projects ideals on them, but that doesn’t make it right. In this opposition to GMOs is like opposition to vaccines, 1080, water fluoridation and more.

Today we have a large problem to solve: to keep our way of life on this planet. (The planet will live on, but how we live on it is another matter.) Pre-emptively throwing away useful options is a lousy idea.

Yet that is exactly what the Green Party’s science and technology spokesperson suggested in reply to ESCA’s letter, dismissing GM-based options as hypothetical and future-based,[8]

There are emissions reduction practices available right now without needing hypothetical, future GE-based technologies. We believe regenerative and organic agriculture is a better future for New Zealand and our environment.

All new things are hypothetical and future-based at their onset. If we were to dismiss what is “hypothetical” and “future-based”, we’d very stuck-in-the-mud! (Besides, genetic modification of crops has been around for over 25 years, with a longer backstory.)

Many applications are being held up through politics; these are not so much “future” as an on-going thing that is repeatedly being delayed.

Recently parliament passed the Zero Carbon bill.

A non-partisan part of this initiative is the Climate Change Commission, intended to, “provide expert advice and hold the Government to account”. This commission should be able to recommend efforts that contribute to climate change mitigation that use genetic engineering.

Talk about it

Many people discussing all sorts of issues—vaccines, water fluoridation, etc—act as if only if their issue is presented in terms of science, it’ll have credibility. In my opinion if their position is really founded on a belief, they’re better to just say that.

It’d be better to encourage people to say what really bugs them.

When I’ve had discussions with those opposed to GMOs, they often (usually) boil down to “I have no idea about this science stuff, eh, it just doesn’t feel right”. That’s fine – but that’s not a science issue. And it’s honest and fair and right to say that.

It’s better people had the space to say that from the get-go. If nothing else, it avoids have to “tear down” a facade of “science-y” claims.

It also shifts the focus to education. People hate that word, of course, but it’s what “I have no idea about this science stuff” comes down to. (If it makes you feel like a mug, consider that scientists spend their entire lives learning!)

One recommendation of the Report of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, now more than 18 years ago, was (my emphasis added),

it will be important that a single, independent institution undertakes the general auditing of biotechnological applications, and promotes public education about the new technologies

The Royal Society has a useful website for gene editing, one of the newer approaches to genetic engineering.[9] (I’m an independent voice in this, so feel free to ask questions in the comments.)

Ideals and secular governance

In a secular nation differing religious ideals are respected.

You can apply the same approach to anything that’s based on ideals. Individual players are allowed to act according to their ideals provided they don’t harm others or prevent other’s freedom to choose their own path.

Each to their own, and respect others.

Organic farming encourages the idea that natural things are inherently better.[4] Others beg to differ.

The important thing here is you should allow others to have their beliefs. Farmers should be able to pursue what they believe is best for their farm.

If growing crops organically is your thing, please just go ahead. But don’t impose your beliefs on others! It’s not the way to do things. Likewise for those with other ideals about farming. Even if you think organic farming is inefficient and that the produce isn’t really any different, let them be.

There’s no need to be combative about it. In practice there are scenarios for both, even growing GMOs using using organic methods.[10]

The Report of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification wrote,

The different production systems should not be seen as being in opposition to each other, but rather as contributing in their own ways to the overall benefit of New Zealand.

To not enable this fails secular governance principles. Asking that one way “must” rule over others is imposing an ideal on others.

We could be firmer about this, disallowing organic farming to rule over other approaches. For example, efforts to declare areas “GE Free” through local councils could be considered in breach of secular governance. They block others from living and working to their own choices.

All approaches should be allowed equally, and regulated equally too.

Don’t use that slogan

In 2015 I wrote,

In an interview, Nick Smith referred to references to GMOs as slogans. Indeed a key recommendation by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee to the British parliament was to stop talking about GM. […]

Essentially the slogans encourage people to not look at the real issues, but carry the emotion-laden arguments attached to the ‘GMO’ slogan.

I’d challenge politicians to avoid the term.

It makes you to talk about real issues, rather than emotional baggage, and to deal with actual risks rather than imaginary ones.

(Labels are a real evil that can brand things in unhealthy ways. It’s a key element of racism, for example. Talk about the things they do, not mark them out as a group arbitrarily in a sweeping way.)

In 2016 I wrote about Green Party GM policy, suggesting:

[…] focus on each application in turn, and the traits of that application. You’ll find this one suggestion covers many of the more detailed suggestions:

  • Remember that genetic engineering (GE) has applications far wider than just crops, and more than just herbicide-tolerant crops.
  • If your concern is food safety or environmental issues, talking about ‘GMOs’ is a distraction away from issues (if any). It is the traits of each crop or animal variety that determine if there might be risk, not how the crop or animal was first bred.
  • If your concern is over transgenic organisms, say ‘transgenic organisms’ not ‘GMOs’.
  • If your concern relates to business aspects, make sure those concerns are real, related to GMOs and avoid straw-man arguments.
  • If your concern relates to international trade, give examples of it being an issue (rather than ‘what if’-style claims).
  • Be aware of misapplied or inappropriate cultural memes, or conflation with separable things.
  • Aim for discussion, not ‘debate’ or argument.

Let it good things happen

Scientists would like to use newer techniques because they’re more accurate, and open up opportunities to create new and beneficial things. David Eccles described it succinctly,

“My understanding is that the existing legislation permits an untargeted form of genetic modification that has a good chance of failure and/or undesirable consequences (which researchers don’t want to use), while prohibiting targeted methods which produce better/faster results.”

In addition to this there appears to be a general lack of understanding of the wider uses of genetic modification (i.e. not just amongst the Green Party).

The relationship of applications to climate change efforts might not be immediately obvious. As just one example, the mustard plants in the feature image were developed to help Indian farmers to be less reliant on importing edible plant oils. Transporting the imported oils contributes to climate change emissions (ships are polluters). While originally developed for economic reasons, there is a climate change related contribution. It might be a modest contribution in the big scheme of things, but can we ignore these opportunities?

There are applications well outside of food. These also can relate to climate change, too. Here’s just two areas:

Climate change alters medical demands.[11] The current long slow process to develop medicines will struggle in the face a fast-changing demands, and the likely the rise of new illnesses.

Biosynthesis offers the hope we can make rather than take from the planet.

These may need to be grown at scale to be beneficial (or to yield sufficient return investors will back them). Our legislation disallows growth at scale, locking us out of these and other non-food markets.

Biosynthesis: make, not take

Before closing out let’s add a shout-out for biosynthesis.

I’m very surprised political parties, especially the Green Party, are not right behind this.

‘Make not take’ is a great target. (Surely it’s an easy sell?)

A core long-term problem with us humans is that we keep taking things from the planet that take geological time to form, and expect no consequences. We need to get to making (synthesising) things from to stuff that’s made on a shorter, renewable cycle than geological time scales (steel, oil, etc).

The broad idea is to make the things we need using what micro-organisms or plants need to grow. You can think of it as a mix of basic biology (how to grow stuff), genetics, chemistry and the power of enzymes. Enzymes catalyse chemical reactions that would be otherwise hard to achieve.

We have a scientific workforce suitable to tackling this. One thing in the way—aside from that ever-present issue of funding!—is “that” law. To biosynthetise we need to make modified organisms and grow them in a large enough scale to get useful yields. Who wants to invest if they know they can’t get to the production stage?

Biofuels, bioplastics and more

We had a NZ company focused on part of this market – LanzaTech. They left NZ a few years ago. They’re diplomatic about why they left—good on them—but you’ve got to guess in the mix of many things will be NZ’s GMO legislation. They’re getting to be a big company now. Their blurb on Twitter reads, “LanzaTech recycles carbon emissions to make fuels and chemicals, improving air quality and promoting a circular economy.” One of their products using bacteria to turn industrial emissions into fuel recently featured on CNN.

Beyond biofuels there are many other examples. One we’ll be needing are new vaccines as diseases shift with the climate. GM plants can grow antigens for vaccines; Australia is already on to this.

We can move on biosynthesis quicker than many might think. It’d need more progressive legislation, and substantial government funding for research labs, etc. (companies are generally wary of investing in the early stage explorative work, financially it’s risky for most of them).

Some bioplastics examples are discussed in Bioplastics—a major opportunity for New Zealand. Not all bioplastics use GM, but it’s an area GM can be applied. These include compostable coffee cups, vineyard nets clips that biodegrade where they fall, and polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) alternatives to fossil fuel-derived plastics.[12] As Elspeth MacRae wrote,

I think New Zealand has a real opportunity here. We could manufacture PHA here and be able to control the whole lifetime of the plastic. Given this plastic’s biodegradable credentials, I think it fits well with the country’s ‘clean, green’ export image. We just need investment and backing to make it happen.

These things fit our mission, too. We just have to get obstructions out of the way, get the financial support, and get onto them.

Be leaders

There’s a need to lead rather than just acquiesce.

As David Slack concluded in a recent opinion piece, “Telling people what they want to hear is one thing. Telling them what they need to hear is an altogether bigger job.”[12]

The Green Party’s science and technology spokesperson says they’re (paraphrasing) “listening to our members”, but you’re serving them badly if you leave them stuck in the mud.

This could be said of all political parties (and all leaders, in any job).

Imagine if they’d done the same for vaccines?

Smaller parties like the NZ Green Party may have a survival problem related to this.

I see frequent remarks like “I support the Green Party and environmental issues, but I don’t like their GMO policy, and I’m not sure if I should continue to support them”.

If smaller parties do not accomodate GM these people they’ll eventually find a party that better balances their interests in environmental issues, and their recognition of what good new crop varieties can bring.

While writing this piece, the Sustainable NZ Party was announced. They support environmental issues, including using “gene technologies”,

“The latest techniques can be likened to accelerated selective breeding. They show huge promise in the control of introduced predators and in reducing livestock emissions.”

He said gene technology was still in its infancy “yet these powerful tools are denied us based on an ideological position formed in the 1970s, before current technologies were developed.

(Genetic engineering as a whole has been around decades. Some gene editing techniques are new, but they’re seen as better than older approaches.)

Can any party continue to be dismissive about genetic modification?

Other articles in Code for life

If you’re looking for writing about something other than GMOs, try my previous post, my 1000th. It’s got lists with lots of things you could read!

Regulating GMOs: time to move forward An attempt at a condensed list of things you might think about GMOs.

Kumara are transgenic (Transgenes occur in nature too.)

Genetic modification now accepted by most New Zealanders (A survey indicates New Zealanders now accept GM food as safe.)

GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural” (An essay on food.)

Green Party GM policy and discussion about GE or GMOs (The Green Party should revise their stance on GM.)

In a demon-haunted world (Not about GM, but unfortunately relevant. A tribute to Sagan, sorely needed in these times.)

Is GM corn really different to non-GM corn? (Reporting other’s objections to one controversy.)

Séralini GMO maize and Roundup study republished with no scientific peer review (One of the ‘unorthodox’ researchers opposing GMOs re-publishes a retracted paper with no fresh peer-review.)

Christmas trees weedy and not (The proposed project that the court case shut down – despite EPA approval, and that it didn’t involve introducing new genes. Wilding pines are a curse in New Zealand.)

Carrots for my neighbour (A short story of sorts.)

New Zealand political spokesperson for GE and more endorses homeopathy for Ebola (What can we say. Some people are… interesting. He re-asserted this claim in his valedictory speech.)

Changing the GMO regulations – the ministry options (The options that set the current legislation.)

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part one (A short series; parts two and three are linked at the start.)

GMOs and legislation: useful suggestions for New Zealand in British report (A summary of a large UK report. Not a short read!)

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on GMO legislation (Lighter take on the previous article.)


1. There are many earlier calls for the regulations to be updated. The ISAAA reported in August that, New Zealand Scientific Body Pushes for GE Regulation Update; the Royal Society. In May, UC [University of Canterbury] Professor Emerita Emphasizes on Gene Editing to Achieve Sustainability Needs. And so on. I’ve written a few of my own (some are listed in the previous section, Other articles in Code for life).

2. This is plainly unfair (and I mean that sincerely). Many politicians work hard, for long hours. But we have to some fun, no? And there is certainly an element of truth: these regulations were advised to be temporary, and have not been moved on.

3. This also occurs in denial as mentioned in The thinking error at the root of science denial.

4. The idea or belief that “natural is better” is one that the ‘organic’ industry encourages. It dates back to an earlier time, at least to that of the so-called ‘Green revolution’. My reading suggests the ‘natural’ ideation leverages or is, in the end, a corruption of what I think of as ‘quasi-religious’ ideals from Western culture with roots in some religious morals about modifying life, revamped to something appealing to hippy-style thinking. In truth, nothing we grow to eat (or how we grow them) are “natural”. Everything we do changes life, including to us humans. (re Western culture: I increasingly believe Western lobbies or scientists ought not advise non-Western cultures how to act (advising the results of studies is different matter).)

There are arguments that GMOs grown using organic processes be regarded as organic plants (e.g. Time to Redefine Organic Agriculture: Can’t GM Crops Be Certified as Organics?) Beyond being philosophically interesting, these arguments perhaps show how arbitrary this all is. Just let farmers grow what they think is best for them, managed with sensible plans.

5. I’m not a lawyer but I’ve often wondered if this points at temporary rulings needing explicit “drop-dead” dates to ensure they aren’t “forgotten”, or dragged out at to suit political interests.

6. I have some ideas for legislation that might work for all parties; more on this one day, I hope. You have to accommodate different world views at some point, and offer ways of dealing with this. I think there are ways to tackle this, that even if a little slower than ideal, will at least let things move things forward.

7. I’d like to have pointed at examples from blood transfusions and breeding experiments in monasteries. They’re helpful to thinking how we might move forward, but Google hasn’t been kind to me. Maybe another time.

8. The reference to “future-based” looks similar to the “too-late-ism” that Michael Mann recently referred to (see penultimate paragraph).

9. I’d like to have been involved if I’d had opportunity, but the call-outs for these sorts of things seem to only travel in academic circles.

10. I’m not advocating this, just saying it could be done if that’s your thing. Also, as well as growing GMOs organically, there’s using both organic and GMO products by the same company, for example as Kellogg does.

11. This applies to the Pacific region, too, for example in this lecture.

12. Hat tip to Nicola Gaston for sharing the quote on Twitter. Ironically, in David’s piece, although the direct reference is to cycling campaigner Barb Cuthbert, the Green Party’s James Shaw is implied with leadership in this way too. On GMO issue it’s his party that is not leading on this issue, but pandering to “what they want to hear” in the guise of “listening to our members”. (Bear in mind we haven’t seen active movement from other parties.)

13. Other GM applications can be tailored to NZ’s circumstances and market. One of the opportunities of GM techniques is that it enables smaller players to develop products.

Featured image

“Mustards are several plant species in the genera Brassica and Sinapis whose small mustard seeds are used as a spice and, by grinding and mixing them with water, vinegar or other liquids, are turned into a condiment also known as mustard.”

Source: Wikimedia. Artist: Amit Kaushal. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.

0 Responses to “Political parties and GMOs: we all need to move on”

  • There are two parties that are proposing gene-editing in the lead up to the next election. No mention of them. Why’s that?

    • Possibly because the article is not a survey of political parties? ;-) 

      It’s about the conceptual issues involved in opposing GMOs and the current approach in legislation & governance. E.g. the last paragraph of the opening passage (emphasis added),

      “GM is a big topic. This will only look at a few concepts,”

      There’s also a shout-out for “make, not take” thrown in.

      I would have it’d be clear from a skim of the section headers.

      Just quickly breaking your comment down: “There are two” – happy to stand corrected, but I’m pretty sure it’s more than two, but that might depend on how much faith you have in what is offered! (And how you count parties.) “at gene-editing” – the piece looks at genetic modification, which is all of the approaches. Gene editing is one of several. “No mention” – The Sustainability Party is mentioned.

      Just as small gripe from me. I don’t get paid to write Sciblogs articles. Something like this is a huge amount of work. I’d be happy to take a commission to write a comparison of all the parties’ policies, but that’s a different piece and one that’s probably better placed in the business/politics/farming sections of a news outlet.

  • “should we use a particular technique for genetically modifying organisms” is a great political question, and as with organic farming the whole palaver about which methods are in and which out can’t be answered scientifically (except in the sense that counting noses is science… psephology). Science should *inform* the debate, but can’t be the whole of the debate or control the debate. “I don’t like this” is as useful a contribution as any small scientific point.

    > they only seem to “follow” chosen subsets of science that fit an ideology appealing to their members.
    > That’s not how following science works.

    In scientific circles, sometimes no, sometimes yes. But that is exactly how politics works all the time. Even “we will be strictly scientific about this” is a political decision, and which science to use is also a political decision.

    Science is one input to a complex process, the outcome of which is a social decision. Trying to do “scientific government” generally fails because it skips over or simplifies the complex parts, especially people. I’m not saying it will necessarily give us eugenics or neoliberalism, but when you have to treat people as spherical cows in a vacuum you’re not dealing with politics any more. You are likely to kill a whole lot of people though. Or in scientific terms “slightly diminish the population of one invasive pest species”.

  • “Make, not take”. I like that. I’ve seen some great examples of that. There’s a synthetic biologist at MIT who wants to make products like the anti-malaria drug in labs, instead of risking stripping all the plants out of their native ecosystem.

    Another great idea was replacing palm oil with synthetic biology. There was a company that tried this, but anti-GMO activists prevented it. So now we are still destroying orangutan habitat and burning land for palm plantations. Sigh.

    • Thanks Mary.

      I toyed with fulling out the biosynthesis sections as a separate post, but decided I didn’t want to spend time chasing up examples and fact-checking them as it’d delay it further. As you know you can do these things endlessly……!

      Might try this another time and check out your examples.

      You’ll know from my previous post that I’m in Borneo – lots of palm oil plantations there, miles of them.

      I worry about countries like Malaysia. It seems to me that they ought to invest heavily in biosynthetic equivalents of what they produce to balance the risk that someone else will. I get the impression that their two biggest sources (at least for Sarawak) of revenue are oil and palm oil. If those two go, they’ll struggle. I’d love to see them develop the replacements themselves partly to cover their risks.

  • Hey Grant, Great overview of situation. I particularly liked the biosynthesis section as it is one with great opportunities in NZ. We have this huge stainless steel based dairy industry but don’t seem to be able to leverage off that into other options and when we do like LanzaTech did barrier after barrier is placed in the way. I agree lets move on. As I often say in public forums we don’t regulate medicines on the basis of how they are made. We regulate on the basis of safety and efficacy. Although how they are made is context. Operating under and act (HSNO) that is technology based, and very old technology at that, is constraining innovation in NZ.

    • Thanks Barry.

      I hope I can cover the HSNO later sometime.

      One approach might be to get rid of the two categories——GMO and not——and instead compare new varieties, however they are developed, against the parent plants they were derived from, and against how we manage the parent plants – a differential risk analysis if you like. (Ditto for animals.) If things don’t introduce substantial new risks, you let them move on.

      Also, IIRC, HSNO wording uses hazard, not risk, which I find a bit odd/unexpected as I‘d have thought regulation is naturally built around risk.

      I need to go back over the Act again, though, as it’s been a while since I last looked at it. (It’s pretty tedious stuff too!)