“Pressing On, but with Care”
By some accounts, trade disputes between the United States and Europe over genetically modified organisms have cost American farmers, packaged-food processors, and life science companies billions of dollars over the past five years. New Zealand’s early experiences with the genetic engineering of crops and animals were no less tumultuous. One of the country’s first responses to the prospect of genetically engineered crops and animals was the 1996 Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, which established a new regulatory agency called the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA).
A “public storm” had erupted as soon as the government began to accept applications for field trials of genetically modified organisms in the mid-1990s, according to Bas Walker, ERMA’s chief executive. But the new regulations’ mechanisms for public input doubled the volume of the criticisms. “Every proposal became a cause célèbre,” says Walker. By 2000, groups such as the Green Party and the Sustainability Council of New Zealand and Maori activists and politicians were calling for a moratorium on GMO research, development, and field releases until the government could be sure it was managing the technology properly.
The government and the biotech industry agreed to a voluntary moratorium and Parliament convened a royal commission to study GMOs. In late 2001, the commission came back with its answer: genetically modifying animals and plants would be fraught with risks, but could also be vital to New Zealand’s economic future, which, the commission noted, will depend heavily on agricultural innovation. The message was “Press on, but with care,” says one commission member who preferred not to be named because of the political sensitivity still surrounding the issue.
In October 2003, Parliament allowed a moratorium on GMO commercial releases to expire. But at the same time, it amended regulations to include an array of new checks and balances designed to ensure that GMO research was done safely but also openly, and with respect for Maori cultural traditions.
—For the biotechnology industry, one attractive aspect of the new regulations is their unique civil-liability provisions. In many countries, anti-biotech groups have stalled field tests of genetically engineered crops by filing lawsuits or winning injunctions based on claims of possible harm to the environment. In New Zealand, legal action doesn’t paralyze GMO research and development. But government protection must be earned: the public is invited to voice its concerns about a GMO research or development project before a company’s application is accepted, and the government must address these concerns before an application is granted. Government examiners make spot checks, and companies must file annual updates to ensure compliance. General descriptions of these projects and status reports are publicly available on the ERMA website. No other country ensures comparable levels of public input, government oversight, or transparency.