Life with ERMA
Several field trials of genetically modified trees, onions, and dairy cows have been approved, and the reaction from the country’s traditional GMO critics has been relative silence. One issue flaring up in other countries—the potential threat to communities located near waste disposal sites for genetically engineered animals and plants—has not become an issue in New Zealand. That’s partly because ERMA’s regulations call for agbio companies to observe local traditions. For example, near Mangakino, in the South Waikato region of New Zealand’s northern island, Whakamaru Farms destroyed 3,000 genetically engineered sheep left by PPL Therapeutics, which had sold its land and buildings to Whakamaru. (PPL had gone out of business, and destroying the sheep was the only way to avoid the risk of losing track of which animals were genetically engineered.) Whakamaru incinerated the sheep, as Maori tradition demanded, rather than burying them. “We live in a small community where everybody knows their neighbor,” says company director George Mitchell. “If you look at GMO protests around the world, you’ll see that most of them are very grass roots and community based. Nobody in the community is protesting our presence. That, and the fact that, long-term, we think this technology and protocol put us in a very nice competitive position, was what led us to buy this operation ourselves.”
In Mosgiel, the heart of New Zealand’s dairy region, Maoris follow a very different ritual around the death of animals. “We have to bury [cow carcasses] in keeping with local Maori custom,” says Jimmy Suttie, general manager of applied biotechnologies at AgResearch. “It’s these kind of things in our regulatory regime that are arduous for companies, but ultimately allow us to move forward without worry of lawsuits or other interruptions created by those who might want to stall our operations.”
Few New Zealanders consider the regulations perfect, and they will likely undergo more revisions. The official position of the Sustainability Council of New Zealand is that New Zealand should be GMO-free for at least the next few years. Now that the government has decided otherwise, however, Simon Terry, director of the council, says the regulations are an acceptable starting point for passing better laws in the future. The council’s assessments, he notes, take into account a full range of potential effects—health, environmental, economic, and social. “In the end, [regulators] can only approve an application if there is considered to be a net benefit to the nation.”
One weakness of ERMA, say some in the biotech industry, is the lack of a standardized procedure for applications and compliance reviews. The law gives ERMA great flexibility to seek outside advice in complex cases. But that confounds companies trying to create predictable and efficient regulatory and compliance systems. “We’ve been doing field trials on radiata pine, which is a very important plant to this country’s future,” says Christian Walter of Forest Research, an agbio company in Rotorua. “It hasn’t been easy. Neither our funding agents nor our anti-GMO opponents realize just what we have to do now before we can even think about research outside of the lab.” Walter has excellent environmentalist credentials: he was a cofounder of Greenpeace in Germany. But old notions, he says, die hard. “I don’t know when we’ll get to a point where we decide to apply for a [full open-space] release application. There’s still a lot of public ambivalence to this because nobody has ever created a plantation of [GM trees] in a New Zealand forest before.
“The only way the world will ever learn the real risks and rewards [of GM trees] is to put them out into a real-world setting, with precautions and oversight. We’ve got a lot of new safety mechanisms and a history of forestry innovation in New Zealand. The world is going to be looking at us to deliver a lot of [GM forest] insights soon. If we don’t deliver, we’ve got nobody to blame but ourselves.”
The Kiwi Gold Standard
It’s too soon to know whether New Zealand’s new regulations will pay long-term dividends. In the short run, at least, the feared international backlash against exports from New Zealand—now that the country has cleared the way for GM dairy, meats, and forest products—has not materialized. New Zealand expects continuing growth in global demand for its leading exports, forest and dairy products.
Consultants to government regulators in Europe, Canada, Australia, and Brazil say New Zealand’s GMO protocol will likely be imitated to buttress the evolving regulations in these countries in the near future. “New Zealand’s [GMO] approach is clearly the gold standard now,” says one government consultant who wished to remain anonymous.
That could eventually bring business and jobs to New Zealand and, which after years in the shadows of Australia and Singapore, is starting to gain a reputation as a regional biotechnology haven. “It was only a couple of years ago that we were all ready to write off New Zealand,” says to the San Francisco agbio investor who requested anonymity. But leading New Zealand agbio firms like Forest Research, AgResearch, and Whakamaru Farms are pushing forward with long bottled-up plans for R&D projects. And European and American investors say they have noticed a distinct increase in business proposals from New Zealand.
At the same time, many foreign companies developing GMOs will establish branch operations in New Zealand, predicts Jeffrey Turner, CEO of Canadian biotech company Nexia. “There could be a huge advantage for some companies to develop their technologies in New Zealand now, because the country’s regulatory protocol is seen as extremely robust and politically legitimate.”
That suits the population of New Zealand just fine. Pete Hodgson, a member of the country’s parliament from Dunedin North, feels the mere existence of ERMA and the new GMO regulations should prove to the world that industrial biotech and concern for the environment, society, and indigenous cultures need not be fundamentally incompatible. New Zealand’s recent effort, says Hodgson, “is proof that there is no such thing as irreconcilable differences.”