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TITLE:  It's green and clean - and now it's the battleground for the
        world's first GM election
        Move to lift ban on technology splits voters in New Zealand
SOURCE: The Guardian, UK, by Jonathan Watts
        http://www.guardian.co.uk/gmdebate/Story/0,2763,759655,00.html
DATE:   July 22, 2002

------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------


It's green and clean - and now it's the battleground for the world's first 
GM election
Move to lift ban on technology splits voters in New Zealand

The clean, green reputation of New Zealand - an image worth millions, 
according to the environment industry - is under threat along with its 
popular and progressive government in a row over genetically modified crops 
that is overwhelming this week's general election.

Nearly 4 million voters in one of the last countries in the world where the 
entire food production is GM-free go to the polls on Saturday, and the 
outcome of the furious debate is as likely to decide the balance of power 
as security, health or the economy.

The question dominating the world's first GM election - whether to lift a 
moratorium on the use of GM technology next year - has split the Labour-led 
ruling coalition of the prime minister, Helen Clark, after two and a half 
years of effective and environmentally friendly government. Labour supports 
lifting the moratorium while the Green party is fiercely against it.

The debate has pitched organic farmers against the agrochemical lobby, 
university students against business leaders, and husbands against wives. 
The Federated Farmers group is in favour of GM, while the Rural Women's 
Association is opposed.

New Zealand's green image has been fiercely protected by its government, 
which has adopted measures to safeguard its crops and livestock that 
include Day-glo "Biosecurity Alert" posters urging citizens to report 
pests, disease or illegally imported fruit, plants and pets. The discovery 
of one exotic moth recently led to the fumigation of a whole suburb of 
Wellington.

New Zealand has learned the hard way that meddling with its natural flora 
and fauna can wreak havoc for hundreds of years. As proof, many locals cite 
the possum, a cute little Australian mammal that was introduced by the 
early settlers to create a fur industry. What made good economic sense 200 
years ago has today proved a multimillion-dollar eco-disaster. With no 
predators in New Zealand, the possum population has exploded and they are 
now one of the country's biggest pests, gobbling up 60,000 tonnes of 
vegetation a day.

Fearing that engineered crops and livestock could have similarly disastrous 
long-term consequences, New Zealand has put in place a GM ban that is far 
more draconian than controls in Europe.

"New Zealand is one of the few countries left in the world where the entire 
production of food is GM-free," said Jim Kebbell, who runs the country's 
biggest organic retail outlet. "This is a golden opportunity because 
consumers don't want GM and, if we keep the moratorium, we'll be the only 
ones who will be able to satisfy them."

The debate reflects a deep and dogged interest in environmental issues 
stretching back to the outrage at the attempted sinking of Greenpeace's 
Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour in 1985 and the government's refusal to 
allow US warships carrying nuclear weapons into its ports.

National identity

But the issue also raises questions about the country's economic future and 
national identity. New Zealand has more at stake in the GM debate than any 
other developed nation because it relies on agriculture for 50% of its 
economic activity and exports - a figure five times higher than the OECD 
average.

Until now, the naturally green archipelago has kept its GM technology 
firmly locked up in the labs. Those in the farming and biotechnology 
community who want to unlock the doors have their uniquely local ideas for 
its use. Among them are a GM birth-control carrot for possums and GM cow's 
milk for the treatment of multiple sclerosis.

"On large animal research, we are ahead of the rest of the world, but 
unless we commercialise it, we will lose that advantage," said Francis 
Wevers, head of the Life Sciences Network lobby.

Such differences were supposed to have been settled by a royal commission, 
which reported last October after a year-long study. But its recommendation 
that New Zealand should move cautiously towards GM technology sparked the 
biggest street demonstration seen in the country since the anti-nuclear 
campaign in the 1980s.

More aggressive protests have been carried out by hardline groups such as 
Rage (Revolt Against Genetic Engineering) and the Wild Greens, including 
the destruction of a bio-research site in Christchurch in February. The 
Green party has also adopted an uncompromising stance. Having supported the 
Labour administration for two and a half years, they astonished Ms Clark 
two months ago by announcing that they would walk out of the coalition if 
she went ahead with plans to lift the moratorium in October next year.

The prime minister said their "fundamentalism" over GM risked gains made on 
other environmental issues such as opposition to whaling and support for 
the Kyoto pact on greenhouse gases.

"The behaviour of the Greens has tipped over into madness. They are 
threatening to pull down a progressive government that is among the most 
environmentally friendly in the world," Ms Clark told the Guardian. "In no 
other country is it seriously contended that organic farming and genetic 
engineering can't coexist. It is extraordinary that the idea has taken root 
here."

But the prime minister has struggled to get her message across, especially 
since the mid-campaign explosion of "Corngate" - a scandal that saw the 
government accused of covering-up reports that the US-based company 
Novartis may have unwittingly imported tens of thousands of GM corn seeds.

The scandal - detailed in the book Seeds of Doubt by an investigative 
journalist - suggested that Ms Clark had buckled to the demands of the agri-
business lobby. When confronted with these accusations during a televised 
interview, the usually unflappable prime minister threw a tantrum in which 
she accused the show's host of ambushing her, the Greens of a conspiracy 
and the book's author of shoddy journalism.

Though Ms Clark dismisses Corngate as a media concoction, the damage has 
been done. In a poll last week, voters said that the GM issue was a more 
important election issue than the economy. With Labour's ratings slipping 
from 56% to 46%, Ms Clark is drifting further from an outright majority.

The Greens, meanwhile, are on course to double their share of the vote to 
12%. Under New Zealand's system of proportional representation, this would 
probably make them the third biggest party in the 120-seat parliament.

The leader of the Greens, Jeanette Fitzsimmons, says she is confident that 
the prime minister will "roll over" on the GM issue if her party holds the 
balance of power. Ms Clark, however, is adamant that the Greens have ruled 
themselves out of a coalition with their ultimatum on the moratorium. A GM 
deadlock looms.

"Four years ago, few could have predicted that genetic engineering would be 
such a huge issue in an election campaign," said Tim Bale, a political 
scientist at Victoria University. "But that is because the economy is 
sorted. This is not an election about standard of living but about quality 
of life."


The fruits of New Zealand's GM research:

- Birth control carrots
Since British settlers introduced the possum into New Zealand to try to 
create a fur industry, the population has exploded to more than 60 million. 
Currently, pest control relies on poisoned carrots, which also kill cats, 
dogs and rabbits. GM scientists are developing a carrot that expresses a 
protein that disrupts the reproductive system of female possums.

- Multiple sclerosis treatment milk
Scientists working for AgriResearch in Hamilton have genetically modified 
half a dozen calves so that they will produce milk rich in myelin basic 
protein, which is thought to help sufferers of multiple sclerosis. The 
calves will come to lactation in five or six months.

- Sterilising pine trees
A species of tree imported from North America is spreading too quickly 
across a wide area. To prevent this, GM researchers at the Forestry 
Research Institute of Rotorua are trying to sterilise the pollen to 
interrupt the trees' reproductive cycle.

- Climate-change resistant grass
Wrightson's, a New Zealand agri-firm, has engineered forage grasses such as 
rye and clover to give a 60% increase in annual growth and milk yield. They 
plan to put it into crops to make them more resistant to drought and 
salinity, which will be necessary, say pro-GM advocates, if climate change 
results in more extreme weather conditions.



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