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Interview with Jeanette Fitzsimons
From Nuclear Free to Genetic Engineering Free
Member of the New Zealand Parliament
co-chair of the Green Party

Soil ecology: the most serious and the least understood
ecological risk from genetically engineered crops

Wellington, Aotearoa / New Zealand

Jeanette Fitzsimons
Jeanette Fitzsimons, MP. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke

Jeanette Fitzsimons is a member of the New Zealand parliament and co-chair of the Green Party.This interview is part of an extended series of articles and interviews gathered by In Motion Magazine in the context of the 2000-2001 hearings of New Zealand's Royal Commission on Genetic Modification. In Motion Magazine travelled around New Zealand with Missouri Rural Crisis Center and National Family Farm Coalition president Bill Chrisitison visiting farmers and community leaders and listening to their views about genetically modified organisms. Currently there are no commercial GE crops in New Zealand. After hearing the recommendations of the commission the New Zealand government will make a decision on whether or not GE crops will be allowed in New Zealand. The interview was conducted February 20, 2001 by Nic Paget-Clarke.

Uncontrollable process

In Motion Magazine: What do you think of genetic engineering?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: I think the gung ho attitude of commercializing it and profiting from it has vastly outrun the capability of the scientists to control what they are doing. How we use it is probably the most serious scientific question facing our generation. I think the understanding of genetics and genomic function and so forth is an avenue that should be pursued, that there’s a lot to be gained from understanding better how genetic processes work, but I think the engineering of new organisms by the totally crude, shotgun and uncontrollable processes that we have so far is a huge risk. No such engineered organisms should be allowed out of a well-contained laboratory.

So, I’m not opposed to the continuation of that work within a contained laboratory, with appropriate safeguards, for the production of proteins, such as insulin, medicines. They don’t replicate themselves.

I’m not opposed to the creation of transient genetically engineered microbes in a laboratory in order to do other things like diagnostic probes. But I’m totally opposed to any release of those organisms into the environment.

I’m opposed to the engineering of mammals as bio-reactors to produce large quantities of chemicals as commodities. I think the animal welfare issues just aren’t acceptable and most of those chemicals can be produced in the lab using micro-organisms or mammalian cell cultures.

Royal Commission of Inquiry

In Motion Magazine: How did the idea of the Royal Commission get started?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: Well, I think I was the one who first proposed that we should have a Royal Commission. There was increasing public concern on a large scale during 1998 and 1999 as people realized that they were already eating genetically engineered food that had undergone no safety testing. That they couldn’t even find out what they were eating. What was genetically engineered and what wasn’t. There was no labeling.

That was the start of public concern. As more people got interested in it, some people realized that the ecological risks of releasing living organisms were greater even than the risks from the kind of food that we were eating. This was a technology out of control and racing ahead at a phenomenal rate. It needed some control.

The Beehive.
Wellington, New Zealand. On the left, the Beehive houses parliament offices. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
There was a great deal of ignorance on both sides of the issues. People were for and against genetic engineering without actually understanding the processes or the risks. It seemed to me that there was a great need both for better public information and a forum for debate where, rather than just slinging slogans at each other, people could actually put the scientific evidence on the table and it could be subject to rigorous testing.

I was influenced by having participated, in the late ’70s, in New Zealand, in a Royal Commission of Inquiry into nuclear energy. That was a process that had very good scientific cross-examination and had reached a conclusion and developed an astounding level of consensus among the New Zealand population. As it turned out it achieved a consensus that we didn’t want or need nuclear power stations in New Zealand. That we didn’t want or need nuclear propelled or armed ships visiting our harbors. That became such a strongly held view in New Zealand that no government since has thought it was worthwhile trying to change it.

It seemed to me that if we were going to try and develop any sort of social consensus on the role of genetic technology in New Zealand, then the Royal Commission process was quite a good way to go. So, I advocated this in late 1998 and in March 1999.

I launched a petition asking for such a Royal Commission of Inquiry that collected just under 100,000 signatures in 9 months. It was presented to parliament. But before it even closed, because it was election year, the Labor party picked up on the pressure from the public and made an election promise of a Royal Commission.

After the election, we had the process of insuring that it actually happened and that it wasn’t watered down into some lesser kind of inquiry. I published my proposed draft terms of reference in January 2000, but the government chose not to adopt those. What they did adopt finally was not all that coherent and rather poorly expressed but covered the main bases. We made a few changes at the time but didn’t argue for re-writing it because ‘So what if it’s poorly written, it covers the main bases. People will be able to give what evidence they wish.’

Of course, when the commission required evidence to be very strictly organized under each of the phrases in the terms of reference it became a bit of a rod for our backs and a bit of a strait-jacket. It was actually quite difficult to fit in a lot of evidence. But most people have managed somehow or other .

Grassroots organizing

In Motion Magazine: Was there a lot of grassroots organizing to get the petition signed?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: There was a lot of grass roots organizing around the issue anyway. There was a group called RAGE, Revolt Against Genetic Engineering which had branches around the country and they held rallies. They had various other petitions too but they were concentrating mainly on food. Greenpeace got quite involved and had their own campaign. The Green Party was promoting the petition on stalls and in electorates around the country up until just a little before the election. There were various other organizations.

You don’t get a 100,000 signatures without quite a bit of grass roots organization.

Public discussion

In Motion Magazine: Is it unique, beyond the activity around the nuclear campaign, to have this kind of general public discussion in New Zealand?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: Royal Commissions of Inquiry operate under a 1906 Act. There have been quite a lot of them but they tend to be into particular occurrences. For example, we had a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Erebus disaster where a plane full of people crashed into Mt. Erebus in Antarctica and killed them all. The question was, was it the fault of the airline or was it the fault of the pilot.

There have been relatively few Royal Commissions which have inquired into a general matter of public policy. The nuclear power commission was one and in the ’80s there was a commission on social policy.

But, it is unusual. It’s not an every day occurrence.

Royal Commission into nuclear power

In Motion Magazine: Regardless of what happens, as far as the result, is it a good democratic act - or not?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: My view of the Royal Commission into nuclear power was that the valuable thing was the process not the outcome. Because, in fact, New Zealand as a society had made its decision long before the judge got around to issuing his recommendations. The government even had put nuclear power on hold before the commission got around to reporting because the evidence presented was so overwhelming. We had a 40 percent surplus of power generation capacity. If you took into account all the safety systems and other things you were going to have to have, nuclear was going to be more expensive than the options. And New Zealand did actually have quite a lot of other options. People were saying it’s not an issue - next please. By the time the judge finally reported it was no longer a hot issue.

But, I don’t think that will be true in this case. I think this issue is more complex and has more shades of gray in it. It will be much more of an ongoing issue than the nuclear one was for New Zealand.

I think the testing of evidence is always a good process.

There’s been a few things that we haven’t particularly liked about the process but on the whole the judge has tried to run it fairly.

Impacts of GE on trade and treaties

In Motion Magazine: What specific trade and environmental treaties would be impacted if New Zealand decides to be GE free?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: If we decide not to release any living genetically engineered organisms into our environment we don’t impact on any treaties or trade agreements. That is simply a continuation of the status quo. We have no general release of any GE crops or other organisms. The Biosafety Protocol signed in Montreal in January of last year already gives us the right to exclude living engineered organisms from entry into New Zealand, if we wish to.

Where it might start to impinge on trade is if we exclude products made from genetically engineered plants like maize, soya, oils and so forth. A lot of those food products are here now and they are not labeled.

If we tried to exclude them altogether - which a lot of people would like to do - this would be difficult in a practical sense because we don’t have the traceability in the overseas food chains to know where a product comes from. You’d have to start establishing that if we require labeling.

U.S. threats

In Motion Magazine: I understand that the U.S. actually threatened that if you went GE free there would be consequences.

Jeanette Fitzsimons: The previous U.S. ambassador to New Zealand, Josiah Beeman, threatened on two occasions that there would be trade retaliation if New Zealand demanded full labeling of GE food from the United States. The government didn’t make any such requirement but the U.S. imposed trade retaliation on us anyway.They cut our lamb trade drastically.

Sheep on the South Island.
Sheep on the South Island. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
We didn’t impose any labeling on U.S. products at that time but the U.S. imposed huge tariffs on New Zealand lamb and a quota system which was completely contrary to everything that the WTO stands for. It was totally illegal under the WTO. It was totally unfair in terms of the world trade regime and it wasn’t in retaliation to anything we’d done. That confirmed my resolve that the U.S. will do what the U.S. will do, regardless of what we might require. We should just go ahead and do what’s right for us.

Incidentally, they also threatened us with trade sanctions if we went nuclear free in the late ’70s. If we excluded their nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered warships from our harbors, then there would be trade sanctions. In 1987, the New Zealand government passed the New Zealand nuclear free zone legislation which did exclude those ships from our harbors. Trade with the U.S. actually increased in the following year. Partly, I think, because there’s quite an element of the U.S. population that liked what we had done and selectively bought New Zealand products because they had a nuclear free image attached to them. I don’t take those threats terribly seriously.

In Motion Magazine: They did retaliate in regard to U.S. / New Zealand military ties?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: Yes, they reduced the military links. We weren’t allowed to go and play war games with them to the extent that we had. And I thought, ‘Well, tough. That’s life. We’ll do something else instead.’

The moratorium on GMO’s

In Motion Magazine: What do you think of the fact that the moratorium is voluntary?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: The issue about the moratorium isn’t that it’s voluntary, it’s that there are big exemptions to it. Nobody is considering breaking the voluntary moratorium because to do so you’ve got to go through an extremely public process. The moment you break the moratorium , if you apply to have a field trial for one of the things that you are not supposed to have a field trial for under the moratorium -- that would be public and it would be such bad press that it doesn’t make any difference whether the moratorium is voluntary or mandatory.

What does matter is there is a whole set of exemptions to the moratorium which mean that you can wriggle out under one or other of those conditions if you really want to.

For example, pine trees that are to be felled before they flower and produce pollen, which is not for some years until after they are planted, would be allowed under the moratorium because there is no reproductive material that can drift off site. That doesn’t deal with other risks, such as the effects on the soil which would persist after the pine trees are gone.

Soil ecology

Soil ecology has emerged for me as possibly the most serious and the least understood ecological risk from genetically engineered crops. I don’t think anybody knows much about it. We have got one or two horrific warnings that have happened and have been stopped just in time but we simply can’t say what the effect will be of growing genetically modified pine trees and then chopping them out and continuing to use that land as though nothing had happened.

We’ve got the example that Bt Corn has effects on soil. The Bt toxin that the corn plants are producing all the time in their cells passes from the roots into the soil and remains for up to a year after the plant is removed. That is going to have an effect because that’s a toxin that is going to have an effect on soil micro-organisms.

There’s also DNA remains in the soil after a crop is removed. The DNA is viable and can reproduce itself for a very long time after the organism that it belonged to is dead. The horizontal gene transfer that Prof. Traavik has been talking about can go on mediated by microorganisms using DNA left in the soil from plants that have been there. These risks were not remotely considered by ERMA when they gave permission for those field trials.

The moratorium is only a partial moratorium.

Government criteria

In Motion Magazine: If the Commission’s conclusion are only a recommendation to the government, what will be the government’s criteria for making a decision?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: They are going to find it difficult to completely ignore whatever the Royal Commission says. The Royal Commission is to advise on strategic options so presumably they will define some options for New Zealand which have some kind of internal coherence. And presumably they will describe the likely consequences of taking those various options. Then they will make recommendations and I suppose that the commission will say, as we have been saying to the commission, this is about drawing a line somewhere between here and there.

Not many people think that the answer is either: close down all genetic technologies now including in the laboratory; or have no controls whatsoever. But, somewhere in there you are going to draw a line. We’re hoping that the commission will adopt the position that we have put to it strongly and a lot of other groups have put to it, and a lot of scientists have endorsed, which is draw the line at the laboratory door.

If the commission goes for that then the question is will the government follow that advice. I suspect that it will though it may put some sort of time frame on it. It may decide that until the technology is improved we will have no release and no field trials. Or it may try and draw some ultimately self-defeating rules about when is a field trial alright and when is a field trial not alright. Which is basically what it tried to do with the existing moratorium. It didn’t add up scientifically.

I’ve got reasonable hope that we will end up deciding that for some quite substantial period, at which stage we may need to review it, New Zealand should not release genetically engineered organisms into the environment.

Options for agriculture

In Motion Magazine: What options do you see for New Zealand farming in regards to genetic engineering?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: Genetic engineering is part of a different view of the future of farming from what organics is. Genetic engineering as it exists so far, and probably for the foreseeable future, is targeted at commodity crops, not niche crops. It is targeted at crops where the only two really important factors are quantity and price. You want to produce as much as possible and the market wants to pay as little as possible for it. You want to keep your inputs down and your outputs up. It’s a completely different marketing strategy and a completely different mind set from what I would like to see New Zealand move into which is high value, rather than high volume crops, for discerning markets who are prepared to pay for quality.

Also see:

Published in In Motion Magazine April 22, 2001.

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